On Liberty, Morality, and John Stuart Mill
Great Books Index - John Stuart Mill - Writings of John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill, British philosopher-economist, the son of James Mill, had a great impact on
19th-century British thought, not only in philosophy and economics but also in the areas of political science,
logic, and ethics. Mill was early introduced to the Benthamites,
who actively pursued various social and political reforms along the utilitarian lines laid down by Jeremy Bentham.
James Mill personally undertook the education of his precocious son, beginning with Greek at age three, with the
aim of preparing him intellectually for eventual leadership of the group. At the age of 17 he had completed advanced
and thorough courses
of study in Greek literature and philosophy, chemistry, botany, psychology, and law. In 1822 he began to work as a
clerk for his father in the examiner's office of the India House, and six years later he was promoted to the post of
assistant examiner. Until 1856 he had charge of the company's relations with the princely states of India. In the
latter year, Mill became chief of the examiner's office, a position he held until the dissolution of the company in
1858, when he retired. Mill lived in Saint Véran, near Avignon in France, until 1865, when he entered Parliament
as a member from Westminster. Failing to secure reelection in the general election of 1868, he returned to France,
where he studied and wrote until his death at Avignon on May 8, 1873.
In his early twenties Mill experienced a "mental crisis," in which he was overcome by intense depression and plagued by doubts concerning the causes to which he had previously been devoted, including the Benthamite philosophy of which he had become a leading spokesman. He believed that his education had been unduly narrow, and also feared that his ability to experience emotional excitement was inadequate. Although this period passed, it left a permanent imprint on Mill. Although he remained a Benthamite, he revised his earlier beliefs in important respects.
In 1830, Mill was introduced to Harriet Taylor, a woman who was married and the mother of several children. They developed a deep, unconventional, and probably platonic friendship that resulted in marriage 21 years later, following the death of her husband. Mill attributed to his wife, who died in 1858, a decisive influence on all his later work.
Mill stands as a bridge between the 18th-century concern for liberty, reason, and science and the 19th-century trend toward empiricism and collectivism. Mill's earliest important philosophical work, the System of Logic (1843), contains a valuable discussion of the epistemological principles underlying empiricism. Five years later came the Principles of Political Economy (1848). Mill is mainly remembered today, however, for his contributions to ethical and social theory.
Mill enthusiastically accepted the ethical system of Bentham, admiring Bentham rejection of intuitive modes of reasoning in morals for scientific methods. He also believed with Bentham that all our conduct is determined, and that all our deliberate acts are motivated by the belief that a certain line of conduct will lead to our own greatest good. Our decisions rest upon our characters and beliefs. He did, however, hold that we can to a degree correct our beliefs and improve our characters if we want to do so, which he thought was really inspiriting in the (incorrect, he believed) doctrine of free will. The fundamental principles of his ethics are that 1) pleasure alone is good or desirable in itself, and 2) actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of all concerned, wrong as they tend to promote unhappiness. He tries to connect pleasure or happiness with being the object of a desire and being good in itself. Mill makes many distinctions and conveys his own preferences regarding what is desirable and good; some desires are primitive, others the result of experience and self-discipline. He points to the qualitative differences between kinds of pleasure and says that we ought to give preference to the higher pleasures, which include the social and generous pleasures and those of the cultivated feelings and intellect. Regarding actions he states that some will bring happiness in the long run and others will not, and we ought to choose the action which looks most likely to produce the most happiness for all concerned in the action. One should be guided by the general rules which have been formulated as a result of the long experience of men in society. These rules can be tested by the philosopher, and rules are only valid if they pass the utilitarian test.
His political views come through in On Liberty (1859), in which he argues that freedom is being endangered by the power of public opinion. Society has a right to make laws for that part of one's conduct which may damage the interests of others, but in the private sphere the question of whether to regulate is an inproper one. He argues that censorship could not be expedient in any civilized society. He believed in and later worked toward a government based on the working classes, whom he believed could be educated in time, and constitutional safeguards for the rights of women and minorities.
In his essays on natural theology Mill defends the possibility of a mind existing without a body, hence the possibility of immortality. He also examines the question whether the world we know it is the work of a divine intelligence. The argument from design carries some weight for him. At this point Mill switches the question from the region of belief to the region of simple hope. Without actual belief, a man may contemplate the notion of divine perfection. This has a practical value. These reflections are found in his letters and connect with his early serious Wordsworthian concern for the cultivation of the best that is to be found in human feeling and imagination. His Essays on Religion, which appeared after his death, surprised his more downright agnostic and atheistic friends.
1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.
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The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, J. O. Urmson and Jonathan Rée, editors. London: Unman Hyman, 1991.