John Stuart Mill

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Western Philosophy
19th-century philosophy
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill
Birth 20 May 1806 ( Pentonville, London)
Death 8 May 1873 ( Avignon, France)
School/tradition Empiricism, Utilitarianism, Liberalism
Main interests Political philosophy, Ethics, Economics, Inductive Logic
Notable ideas public/private sphere, hierarchy of pleasures in Utilitarianism, liberalism, early liberal feminism, first system of inductive logic
Influenced by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Smith, Ricardo, Tocqueville, Coleridge, James Mill, Francis Place, Saint-Simon ( Utopian Socialists)
Influenced Many philosophers after him, including William James, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Ronald Dworkin, H.L.A. Hart, Peter Singer

John Stuart Mill ( 20 May 1806 8 May 1873), British philosopher, political economist, civil servant and Member of Parliament, was an influential liberal thinker of the 19th century. He was a teacher of utilitarianism, an ethical theory developed by his godfather, Jeremy Bentham, although his conception of it was very different from Bentham's.


John Stuart Mill was born in the Pentonville area of London, the eldest son of the Scottish philosopher and historian James Mill. John Stuart was educated by his father, with the advice and assistance of Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place. He was given an extremely rigorous upbringing, and was deliberately shielded from association with children his own age other than his siblings. His father, a follower of Bentham and an adherent of associationism, had as his explicit aim to create a genius intellect that would carry on the cause of utilitarianism and its implementation after he and Bentham were dead.

Mill was a notably precocious child; at the age of three he was taught the Greek alphabet and long lists of Greek words with their English equivalents. By the age of eight he had read Aesop's Fables, Xenophon's Anabasis, and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic.

At the age of eight he began learning Latin, Euclid, and algebra, and was appointed schoolmaster to the younger children of the family. His main reading was still history, but he went through all the Latin and Greek authors commonly read in the schools and universities at the time, like Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Tacitus, Homer, Dionysus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Thucydides. He was not taught to compose either in Latin or in Greek, and he was never an exact scholar; it was for the subject matter that he was required to read, and by the age of ten he could read Plato and Demosthenes with ease. His father also thought that it was important for Mill to study and compose poetry. One of Mill's earliest poetry compositions was a continuation of the Iliad. In his spare time, he also enjoyed reading about natural sciences and popular novels, such as Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe.

His father's History of India was published in 1818; immediately thereafter, about the age of twelve, Mill began a thorough study of the scholastic logic, at the same time reading Aristotle's logical treatises in the original language. In the following year he was introduced to political economy and studied Adam Smith and David Ricardo with his father - ultimately completing their classical economic view of factors of production. Mill's compte rendus of his daily economy lessons helped his father in writing Elements of Political Economy, which became the leading textbook exposition of doctrinaire Ricardian economics. Ricardo, who was a close friend of his father, used to invite the young Mill to his house for a walk in order to talk about political economy.

In his Autobiography, Mill described his father's teaching methods:

Such a mode of instruction was excellently calculated to form a thinker; but it required to be worked by a thinker, as close and vigorous as my father. The path was a thorny one, even to him, and I am sure it was so to me, notwithstanding the strong interest I took in the subject. He was often, and much beyond reason, provoked by my failures in cases where success could not have been expected; but in the main his method was right, and it succeeded. I do not believe that any scientific teaching ever was more thorough, or better fitted for training the faculties, than the mode in which logic and political economy were taught to me by my father. Striving, even in an exaggerated degree, to call forth the activity of my faculties, by making me find out everything for myself, he gave his explanations not before, but after, I had felt the full force of the difficulties; and not only gave me an accurate knowledge of these two great subjects, as far as they were then understood, but made me a thinker on both. I thought for myself almost from the first, and occasionally thought differently from him, though for a long time only on minor points, and making his opinion the ultimate standard. At a later period I even occasionally convinced him, and altered his opinion on some points of detail: which I state to his honour, not my own. It at once exemplifies his perfect candour, and the real worth of his method of teaching.

At the age of fourteen, Mill stayed for one year in France, with the family of Sir Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy Bentham. The mountain scenery he saw in France made the deepest impression on him, which led to a lifelong taste for mountain landscapes. The lively and friendly way of life of the French also left a deep impression on him. In Montpellier, he attended the winter courses on chemistry, zoology, logic of the Faculté des Sciences, as well as taking a course of the higher mathematics with a private professor. While coming and going from France, he stayed in Paris for a few days in the house of the known economist Jean-Baptiste Say, who was a friend of Mill's father. There he met many leaders of the Liberal party, as well as other notable Parisiens, including Henri Saint-Simon.

A contemporary record of Mill's studies from eight to thirteen is published in Bain's sketch of his life. It suggests that his autobiography rather understates the amount of work done.

This intensive study however had injurious effects on Mill's mental health, and state of mind. At the age of 22 he suffered a nervous breakdown. As explained in chapter V of his Autobiography, this was caused by the great physical and mental arduousness of his studies which had suppressed any feelings he might have developed normally in childhood. Nevertheless, this depression eventually began to dissipate, as he began to find solace in the Mémoires of Jean-François Marmontel and the poetry of William Wordsworth - his capacity for emotion resurfaced - Mill remarking that the "cloud gradually drew off".

Mill refused to study at Oxford University or Cambridge University, because he refused to take England">Anglican orders from the "white devil". Instead he followed his father to work for the British East India Company until 1858. Between the years 1865-1868 he served as Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews, where he gave an inaugural speech on the value of culture.

Harriet Taylor
Harriet Taylor

During the same period, 1865-8, he was a Liberal Member of Parliament, representing the City and Westminster constituency from 1865 to 1868. During his time as an MP, Mill advocated easing the burdens on Ireland, and became the first person in Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote. Mill became a strong advocate of women's rights and such political and social reforms as proportional representation, labor unions, and farm cooperatives. In 1869, he argued for the right of women to vote. In Considerations on Representative Government, Mill called for various reforms of Parliament and voting, especially proportional representation, the Single Transferable Vote, and the extension of suffrage. He was godfather to Bertrand Russell.

In 1851, Mill married Harriet Taylor after 21 years of an intimate friendship. Taylor was married when they met, and their relationship was close but chaste during the years before her first husband died. Brilliant in her own right, Taylor was a significant influence on Mill's work and ideas during both friendship and marriage. His relationship with Harriet Taylor reinforced Mill's advocacy of women's rights. He cites her influence in his final revision of On Liberty, which was published shortly after her death, and she appears to be obliquely referenced in The Subjection of Women. Taylor died in 1858 after developing severe lung congestion, only seven years into her marriage to Mill.

He died in Avignon, France in 1873, and is buried alongside his wife.


Theory of liberty

Mill's On Liberty is one of the founding texts of classical liberalism and one of the most important treatises ever written on the concept of liberty. The book explores the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. One argument that Mill develops further than any previous philosopher is the harm principle. The harm principle holds that each individual has the right to act as he wants, so long as these actions do not harm others. If the action is self-regarding, that is, if it only directly affects the person undertaking the action, then society has no right to intervene, even if it feels the actor is harming himself. Mill excuses those who are "incapable of self-government" from this principle, such as young children or those living in "backward states of society". It is important to emphasize that Mill did not consider giving offense to constitute "harm"; an action could not be restricted because it violated the conventions or morals of a given society.

On Liberty involves an impassioned defense of free speech. Mill argues that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress. We can never be sure, he contends, that a silenced opinion does not contain some element of the truth. He also argues that allowing people to air false opinions is productive for two reasons. First, individuals are more likely to abandon erroneous beliefs if they are engaged in an open exchange of ideas. Second, by forcing other individuals to re-examine and re-affirm their beliefs in the process of debate, these beliefs are kept from declining into mere dogma. It is not enough for Mill that one simply has an unexamined belief that happens to be true; one must understand why the belief in question is the true one.

Mill's states the harm principle in Chapter 1 of On Liberty:

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Though this principle seems clear, there are a number of complications. For example, Mill explicitly states that "harms" may include acts of omission as well as acts of commission. Thus, failing to rescue a drowning child counts as a harmful act, as does failing to pay taxes, or failing to appear as a witness in court. All such harmful omissions may be regulated, according to Mill. By contrast, it does not count as harming someone if — without force or fraud — the affected individual consents to assume the risk: thus one may permissibly offer unsafe employment to others, provided there is no deception involved. (Mill does, however, recognize one limit to consent: society should not permit people to sell themselves into slavery). In these and other cases, it is important to keep in mind that the arguments in On Liberty are grounded on the principle of Utility, and not on appeals to natural rights. The question of what counts as a self-regarding action and what actions, whether of omission or commission, constitute harmful actions subject to regulation, continues to exercise interpreters of Mill.

Additionally, Mill demonstrated a deep appreciation for the military, noting in his essay "The Contest In America":

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

This particular version of the quotation is often used as a condensed version by military doctrines in order to express the message simply. The original, wordier full quotation is:

“But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.”

Human rights and slavery

In 1850, Mill sent an anonymous letter (which came to be known under the title "The Negro Question") -- in rebuttal to Thomas Carlyle's anonymous letter -- to Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country. Carlyle had defended slavery on grounds of genetic inferiority and claimed that the West Indies development was due to British ingenuity alone and dismissed any notion that there was a debtedness to imported slaves for building the economy there. Mill's rebuttal and references to the ongoing debate in the U.S. at the time regarding slavery were emphatic and eloquent. The full text -- in public domain -- (as well as a link to the Carlyle letter which prompted it) can be found at: An excerpt -- one lengthy paragraph -- which turns metaphorical (highlighted in boldface) regarding the pivotal role of nurture over nature (defying race-based genetic disparagements) -- and in which "professed moral reformer" and "your contributor" both refer to Carlyle -- illustrates Mill's passionate defense of human rights and abhorrence of slavery:

But the great ethical doctrine of the discourse, than which a doctrine more damnable, I should think, never was propounded by a professed moral reformer, is, that one kind of human beings are born servants to another kind. “You will have to be servants,” he tells the negroes, “to those that are born wiser than you, that are born lords of you — servants to the whites, if they are (as what mortal can doubt that they are?) born wiser than you.” I do not hold him to the absurd letter of his dictum; it belongs to the mannerism in which he is enthralled like a child in swaddling clothes. By “born wiser,” I will suppose him to mean, born more capable of wisdom: a proposition which, he says, no mortal can doubt, but which, I will make bold to say, that a full moiety of all thinking persons, who have attended to the subject, either doubt or positively deny. Among the things for which your contributor professes entire disrespect, is the analytical examination of [p.468] human nature. It is by analytical examination that we have learned whatever we know of the laws of external nature; and if he had not disdained to apply the same mode of investigation to the laws of the formation of character, he would have escaped the vulgar error of imputing every difference which he finds among human beings to an original difference of nature. As well might it be said, that of two trees, sprung from the same stock one cannot be taller than another but from greater vigor in the original seedling. Is nothing to be attributed to soil, nothing to climate, nothing to difference of exposure — has no storm swept over the one and not the other, no lightning scathed it, no beast browsed on it, no insects preyed on it, no passing stranger stript [sic] off its leaves or its bark? If the trees grew near together, may not the one which, by whatever accident, grew up first, have retarded the other’s development by its shade? Human beings are subject to an infinitely greater variety of accidents and external influences than trees, and have infinitely more operation in impairing the growth of one another; since those who begin by being strongest, have almost always hitherto used their strength to keep the others weak. What the original differences are among human beings, I know no more than your contributor, and no less; it is one of the questions not yet satisfactorily answered in the natural history of the species. This, however, is well known — that spontaneous improvement, beyond a very low grade — improvement by internal development, without aid from other individuals or peoples — is one of the rarest phenomena in history; and whenever known to have occurred, was the result of an extraordinary combination of advantages; in addition doubtless to many accidents of which all trace is now lost. No argument against the capacity of negroes for improvement, could be drawn from their not being one of these rare exceptions. It is curious, withal, that the earliest known civilization was, we have the strongest reason to believe, a negro civilization. The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a negro race: it was from negroes, therefore, that the Greeks learnt their first lessons in civilization; and to the records and traditions of these negroes did the Greek philosophers to the very end of their career resort (I do not say with much fruit) as a treasury of mysterious wisdom. But I again renounce all advantage from facts: were the whites born ever so superior in intelligence to the blacks, and competent by nature to instruct and advise them, it would not be the less monstrous to assert that they had therefore a right either to subdue them by force, or circumvent them by superior skill; to throw upon them the toils and hardships of life, reserving for themselves, under the misapplied name of work, its agreeable excitements.

Mill is also famous for being one of the earliest and strongest supporters of women's liberation. His book The Subjection of Women is one of the earliest written on this subject by a male author. He felt that the oppression of women was one of the few remaining relics from ancient times, a set of prejudices that severely impeded the progress of humanity.


The canonical statement of Mill's Utilitarianism can be found in Utilitarianism. This philosophy has a long tradition, although Mill's account is primarily influenced by Jeremy Bentham, and Mill's father James Mill. However his conception of utilitarianism was so different from Bentham's that some modern thinkers have argued that he demonstrated libertarian ideals, and that he was not as much a consequentialist as was Bentham, though he did not reject consequentialism as did Kant.

Bentham's famous formulation of Utilitarianism is known as the "greatest happiness principle." It holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. One of Mill's major contributions to Utilitarianism is his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures. Bentham treats all forms of happiness as equal, whereas Mill argues that intellectual and moral pleasures are superior to more physical forms of pleasure. Mill distinguishes between "happiness" and "contentment," claiming that the former is of higher value than the latter, a belief wittily encapsulated in his statement that "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question."

Mill defines the difference between higher and lower forms of happiness on the principle that those who have experienced both tend to prefer one over the other. This is, perhaps, in direct opposition to Bentham's statement that "Pushpin is as good as an Opera," that if a simple child's game like hopscotch causes more pleasure to more people than a night at the opera house, it is more imperative upon a society to devote more resources to propagating hopscotch than running opera houses. Mill's argument is that the 'simple pleasures' tend to be preferred by people who have no experience with high art, and are therefore not in a proper position to judge. For this reason, in his life Mill supported legislation that would have granted extra voting power to university graduates, on the grounds that they were in a better position to judge what would be best for society. It should be noted that in this Mill in no way devalued the uneducated as people, and he certainly would have advocated sending the poor but talented to universities; it is the education, and not the intrinsic nature of the educated, that Mill believed qualified them to have more influence in government.

Mill furthermore dealt with one of the prime problems associated with utilitarianism, that of schadenfreude. Detractors of utilitarianism argued, among other objections, that if enough people hated another person sufficiently that simply reducing the happiness of the object of their hatred would cause them pleasure, it would be incumbent upon a utilitarian society to aid them in harming the individual. Mill argued that, in order to have such an attitude of malice, a citizen would have to value his own pleasure over that of another, and so society is in no way obligated to indulge him, and, to the contrary, is fully permitted to suppress his actions.

The qualitative account of happiness Mill advocates thus sheds light on his account presented in On Liberty. As Mill suggests in that text, utility is to be conceived in relation to mankind "as a progressive being," which includes the development and exercise of our rational capacities as we strive to achieve a “higher mode of existence". Thus the rejection of censorship and paternalism is intended to provide the necessary social conditions for the achievement of knowledge and the greatest ability for the greatest number to develop and exercise their deliberative and rational capacities.

Economic philosophy

Mill's early economic philosophy was one of free markets. However, he accepted interventions in the economy, such as a tax on alcohol, if there were sufficient utilitarian grounds. He also accepted the principle of legislative intervention for the purpose of animal welfare. Mill believed that "equality of taxation" meant "equality of sacrifice" and that progressive taxation penalized those who worked harder and saved more and was therefore "a mild form of robbery".

Mill's Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1848, was one of the most widely read of all books on economics in the period. As Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations had during an earlier period, Mill's Principles dominated economics teaching. (In the case of Oxford University it was the standard text until 1919. The text that replaced it was written by Cambridge's Alfred Marshall).

Later in life, Mill moved to favour more socialist-oriented politics. According to his Autobiography:

In short, I was a democrat, but not the least of a Socialist. We were now much less democrats than I had been, because so long as education continues to be so wretchedly imperfect, we dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass: but our ideal of ultimate improvement went far beyond Democracy, and would class us decidedly under the general designation of Socialists. While we repudiated with the greatest energy that tyranny of society over the individual which most Socialistic systems are supposed to involve, we yet looked forward to a time when society will no longer be divided into the idle and the industrious;


Mill's A System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive went through several revisions and editions. William Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) was a chief influence. The reputation of this work is largely due to his analysis of inductive proof, in contrast to Aristotle's syllogisms, which are deductive. Mill describes the five basic principles of induction which have come to be known as Mill's Methods - the method of agreement, the method of difference, the joint or double method of agreement and difference, the method of residues, and that of concomitant variations. The common feature of these methods, the one real method of scientific inquiry, is that of elimination. All the other methods are thus subordinate to the method of difference. It was also Mill's attempt to postulate a theory of knowledge, in the same vein as John Locke.

Major publications of John Stuart Mill

  • "Two Letters on the Measure of Value", 1822, The Traveller
  • "Questions of Population", 1823, Black Dwarf
  • "War Expenditure", 1824, Westminster Review
  • "Quarterly Review -- Political Economy", 1825, Westminster Review
  • "Review of Miss Martineau's Tales", 1830, Examiner
  • "The Spirit of the Age", 1831, Examiner
  • "Essay on Bentham" 1838
  • A System of Logic, 1843
  • Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy, 1844
  • "Claims of Labour", 1845, Edinburgh Review
  • The Principles of Political Economy: with some of their applications to social philosophy, 1848
  • "The Negro Question", 1850, Fraser's Magazine
  • Dissertations and Discussions, 1859.
  • A Few Words on Non-intervention, 1859
  • On Liberty, 1859
  • Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, 1859.
  • Considerations on Representative Government, 1861
  • "Centralisation", 1862, Edinburgh Review
  • "The Contest in America", 1862, Harper's Magazine
  • Utilitarianism, 1863
  • An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy, 1865.
  • Auguste Comte and Positivism, 1865.
  • Inaugural Address at St. Andrews - Rectorial Inaugural Address at the University of St. Andrews, concerning the value of culture, 1867.
  • "Speech In Favour of Capital Punishment", 1868
  • England and Ireland, 1868.
  • "Thornton on Labor and its Claims", 1869, Fortnightly Review
  • The Subjection of Women, 1869
  • Chapters and Speeches on the Irish Land Question, 1870
  • On Nature, 1874
  • Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, 1873
  • Three Essays on Religion, 1874
  • "Notes on N.W. Senior's Political Economy", 1945, Economica

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