John Stuart Mill

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Western Philosophy
Nineteenth-century philosophy
Name: John Stuart Mill
Birth: May 20, 1806 (Pentonville, London, England)
Death: May 8, 1873 (Avignon, France)
School/tradition: Empiricism, Utilitarianism
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
Influences Influenced
Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Smith, Ricardo, Tocqueville, James Mill, Saint-Simon (Utopian Socialists)[1] Many philosophers after him, including John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Ronald Dworkin, H.L.A. Hart, Peter Singer

John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806 - May 8, 1873), an English philosopher and political economist, was an influential liberal thinker of the nineteenth century. John Stuart Mill refined and developed utilitarianism, which was originally formulated by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), his godfather and a close friend of his father James Mill. John Stewart Mill worked for most of his life in the examiner’s office of the British East India Company, while producing a number of books and essays, many of which were published in Westminster Review, The Examiner, Tait’s Magazine, The London Review, The Jurist, and The Monthly Repository. He remains of lasting interest as an ethicist, a social political thinker, and a logician.

Mill formulated the “greatest happiness principle,” which held that one must always act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and distinguished among the quality of different types of happiness. As a logician, in A System of Logic, Mill describes the five basic principles of induction which have come to be known as "Mill's Methods." Among his most well-known and significant works are A System of Logic, Principles of Political Economy, On Liberty, Utilitarianism, The Subjection of Women, Three Essays on Religion, and his Autobiography. Mill's On Liberty emphasized that freedom was not determined by majority rule alone. A free society had the responsibility to protect and guarantee the right of the minority to hold and propagate its views and thus possibly eventually become the majority view within society.


John Stuart Mill was born May 20, 1806 in Pentonville, London, the oldest son of the Scottish philosopher and historian James Mill. John Stuart Mill was given an extremely rigorous upbringing, and was deliberately shielded from association with children his own age other than his siblings. He was educated exclusively by his father, a strict disciplinarian, with the advice of Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place. His father, a follower of Bentham and an adherent of associationism, wanted to create a genius intellect that would carry on the cause of utilitarianism and its implementation after he and Bentham were dead. John Stuart's feats as a child were exceptional; 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 (see his Autobiography). He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic.

A contemporary record of Mill's studies from ages eight to thirteen, published in Bain's sketch of his life, suggests that his autobiography understated the amount of work he did as a child. 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. He was not taught to compose either in Latin or in Greek, and he was never an exact scholar; he was required to read for the subject matter, and by the age of ten he could read Plato and Demosthenes with ease. His father's History of India was published in 1818; immediately afterwards, at about the age of 12, John began a thorough study of 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 childhood was not unhappy, but he suffered from the lack of natural, unforced development and his mental health and state of mind were affected.

In France

Mill spent the period from May 1820 until July 1821 in France with the family of Sir Samuel Bentham, the brother of the English Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Extracts from his diary at that time show that he studied chemistry, botany, and advanced mathematics; methodically read and wrote; and made notes on the scenery and the customs of the French people, while becoming fluent in French. On his return to England in 1821, Mill refused to study at Oxford University or Cambridge University, because he refused to take Anglican orders, a requirement at that time.[2] Instead he studied psychology and began to read Roman law with John Austin; his father was preparing him for a career in law. In 1823, however, at the age of eighteen, he entered the examiner’s office of the India House. In 1828 he was promoted to assistant examiner, and after his father’s death in 1836, he was put in charge of the British East India Company’s relations with the Indian states. He carried this responsibility for 20 years, and in 1856 became chief of the examiner’s office.

Mill was an outspoken critic of the flaws which he perceived in Parliament and in the British legal system. He became a contributor to the Westminster Review, founded in April, 1824, as the organ of the philosophical radicals. In 1825 he began work on Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Evidence (1827). He enjoyed discussions with the intellectuals who visited his father’s house, and participated in a reading society which began meeting at the home of the English historian George Grote in 1825. The same year he joined the London Debating Society, where he began to question the values with which he had been brought up. His father had had little use for poetry, friendship and private emotions; John Stuart Mill began to change his views and to have a more moderate and practical approach to political ideals and the meaning of human happiness. He came to believe that the purpose of a political philosophy was not to define ideal political institutions and or the ideal structure of society, but to define ideal political principles which could be used to construct institutions appropriate to the many different circumstances of the real world.

At the age of 21 Mill suffered a nervous breakdown; as he 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. This depression eventually began to dissipate, and he began to find solace in the poetry of William Wordsworth. His capacity for emotion resurfaced, Mill remarking that the "cloud gradually drew off." Letters published by Mill in The Examiner during the autumn of 1830, just after he met some young political liberals in Paris, indicated that he had regained some optimism. In 1831 The Examiner published a series of articles by Mill on The Spirit of the Age, and during 1832 and 1833 he contributed essays to Tait’s Magazine, The Jurist, and The Monthly Repository. In 1835 he was made editor of The London Review when it was founded by Sir William Molesworth, and he continued as editor when it was combined with The Westminster into The London and Westminster Review, until 1840. After 1840, he published several articles in the Edinburgh Review.

In 1843, John Stuart Mill published the first edition of A System of Logic, an attempt to formulate the methods of scientific investigation and to amalgate old and new forms of logic. Mill himself distinguished three stages in his development as a political economist. In Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy, five essays proposing solutions to problems of economics published in 1844, he appeared to follow David Ricardo, striving for precision and exploring future consequences. His Principles of Political Economy, published in two volumes in 1848, 1849, and 1852, showed more originality and independent thought, proposing the creation of peasant proprietorships as a solution for the poverty and social disorder in Ireland.

Social concern

In his third stage, he became increasingly interested in social problems rather than political problems, no longer regarding property ownership as sacred and recognizing that the changing structure of society required new methods of economic organization in order to ensure a tolerable life for the working classes. He claimed that he was influenced in this direction by his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, whom he married in 1851 after a friendship of 21 years. Brilliant in her own right, Taylor was a significant influence on Mill's work and ideas during both their friendship and marriage. She reinforced Mill's advocacy of women's rights. He cited her influence in his final revision of On Liberty, which was published shortly after her death, and she appeared to be obliquely referenced in The Subjection of Women.

Harriet Taylor

During the seven years of his marriage, Mill was fully occupied with his work in the British East India Company. He became head of the examiner’s office in 1856 and served until the British East India Company was dissolved and its powers transferred to the government of Britain. Mill opposed this move, and as head of the office it was his responsibility to write the defense of the British East India Company’s government of India. He was offered a position on the new governing council, but took retirement instead. Shortly afterwards, Harriet Taylor Mill died in Avignon in 1858 after developing severe lung congestion. Mill spent the rest of his life mostly at a villa in Saint-Véran, near Avignon, returning to England only for a short period in each year. He published a series of books and essays on politics and ethics, including On Liberty (1859), Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859), Considerations on Representative Government (1861), and Utilitarianism (in 'Fraser's Magazine', 1861; separate publication, 1863). In 1865 he published two philosophical works, Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy and Auguste Comte and Positivism, and in 1869 he republished his father's Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind with additional illustrations and explanatory notes.

Mill remained engaged in politics. He supported the North in the United States Civil War, making it clear that the real issue behind the war was abolition of slavery. In 1865 he ran for election as the parliamentary candidate for Westminster. [3] According to his principles, he did no campaigning, but was elected. He was instrumental in shaping the 1867 Reform Bill to prevent certain corrupt practices, and argued for the reform of land tenure in Ireland (see his England and Ireland, 1868, and his Chapters and Speeches on the Irish Land Question, 1870), women’s suffrage, the reduction of the national debt, the reform of London government, and the abrogation of the Declaration of Paris (1856), concerning the carriage of property at sea during the Crimean War. He also advocated England's duty to intervene in foreign politics in support of freedom. 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. His advocacy of reform made him unpopular with “moderate Liberals” and he lost the general parliamentary election in 1868. Between the years 1865-1868 he served as Lord Rector of the University of Saint Andrews, where he gave an inaugural speech on the value of culture.

Mill retired to Avignon, but continued his writing, publishing essays on endowments, on land, on labor, and on metaphysical and psychological questions in the Fortnightly Review (compiled in the fourth volume of his Dissertations, 1875). In 1867 he had helped to found the first women's suffrage society, later the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, and in 1869 he published The Subjection of Women (written 1861), the classical theoretical statement of the case for woman suffrage. His last public activity was involvement with the starting of the Land Tenure Reform Association, for which he wrote in The Examiner and made a public speech a few months before his death. Mill was also an enthusiastic botanist and frequently contributed papers and short articles to the Phytologist. He was godfather to Bertrand Russell.

John Stuart Mill died at Avignon, France, on May 8, 1873 and was buried alongside his wife. His Autobiography and Three Essays on Religion (1874) were published posthumously.

A bronze statue of Mill stands on the Thames embankment in London, and G.F. Watts's copy of his original portrait of Mill hangs in the National Gallery there.

Theory of Liberty

Mill's On Liberty, a founding text of liberalism and one of the most important treatises ever written on the concept of liberty, explored the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. Mill developed further than any previous philosopher the concept of the “harm principle,” which holds that each individual has the right to act as he wants, so long as these actions do not harm others. If an 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 excused 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 that giving offence to someone constituted “harm;” an action could not be restricted because it violated the conventions or morals of a given society.

On Liberty included an impassioned defense of free speech. Mill argued that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress. We can never be sure, he contended, if a silenced opinion does not contain some element of the truth. He also argued that allowing people to air false opinions is productive for two reasons. Individuals are more likely to abandon erroneous beliefs if they are engaged in an open exchange of ideas. 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 was 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 statement of the "harm principle" in Chapter 1 of On Liberty, "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant," entails a number of complications. For example, Mill explicitly stated 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; 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, is still under debate.

Mill was an early and strong supporter of women's rights. 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, written to defend his ethical system. The concept of the greatest good for the greatest number goes back to Aristotle; Mill's account is primarily influenced by Jeremy Bentham, and Mill's father James Mill. Mill’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 was his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures. Bentham treated all forms of happiness as equal, whereas Mill argued 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 Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Mill included in his definition of “utility” the pleasures of the imagination and the gratification of the higher emotions.

In On Liberty, Mill suggests that utility is to be conceived in relation to man as "a progressive being," whose rational capacities are constantly being developed and exercised as he strives to achieve a “higher mode of existence." His rejection of censorship and paternalism is intended to create the necessary social conditions for the achievement of knowledge, and the possibility for the greatest number of people to develop and exercise their deliberative and rational capacities.

Economic Philosophy

In his early years as an economic philosopher, Mill advocated a free market economy. 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. [4] 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." [5]

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.[6] As Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations had during an earlier period, Mill's Principles dominated the teaching of economics. At Oxford University it was the standard text until 1919, probably because the text that replaced it had been written by Cambridge's Alfred Marshall). Mill was the last great political economist who championed the market system. The great economic thinkers who followed him eschewed value judgments in favor of developing theory while allowing others to formulate policy. Later in life, Mill favored more socialist-oriented politics which assured a certain level of well-being for all members of a society. [7]


Mill's magnum opus was his A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, which 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. Mill also attempted to postulate a theory of knowledge, in the same vein as John Locke.

Mill was the first to use the term “dystopia” (as opposed to "utopia") in one of his parliamentary speeches. [8][9][10]

List of works

Major works are in bold type.

  • (1843) A System of Logic
  • (1844) Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy
  • (1848) Principles of Political Economy
  • (1859) On Liberty
  • (1861) Considerations on Representative Government
  • (1863) Utilitarianism
  • (1865) Examinations of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy
  • (1865) Auguste Comte and Positivism
  • (1867) Inaugural Address at St. Andrews - Rectorial Inaugural Address at the University of St. Andrews, concerning the value of culture.
  • (1869) The Subjection of Women
  • (1873) Autobiography
  • (1874) Three Essays on Religion

See also


  1. Friedrich Hayek (1941). The Counter-Revolution of Science. Economica 8 (31): 281-320.
  2. Nicholas Capaldi. John Stuart Mill: A Biography. (Cambridge, 2004, ISBN 0521620244), 33.
  3. Capaldi, 321-322
  4. "The Morality of Hunting with Dogs" [1] International Fund for Animal Welfare. Retrieved April 20, 2008.
  5. Daniel Pellerin. "Taxation and Justice." [2] Retrieved April 20, 2008.
  6. Robert B. Ekelund, Jr. and Robert F. Hébert. A history of economic theory and method, 4th ed.([Long Grove, Illinois]: Waveland Press, 1997. ISBN 1577663810), 172
  7. "John Stuart Mills, Political Economy"[3]Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved September 10, 2008.
  8. John Stuart Mill uses the term dystopia in a parliamentary speech, possibly the first recorded use of the term.
  9. "Exploring dystopia: a timeline." Exploring DystopiaRetrieved April 20, 2008.
  10. JORN RUSEN, MICHAEL FEHR AND THOMAS W. RIEGER, (eds.) Thinking Utopia: Steps into Other Worlds (Making Sense of History). (London: Berghahn Books, 2006. ISBN 1845453042)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brink, David O., "Mill's Deliberative Utilitarianism," in Philosophy and Public Affairs 21 (1992): 67-103.
  • Capaldi, Nicholas. John Stuart Mill: A Biography. Cambridge University Press, 2004, ISBN 0521620244
  • Ekelund, Robert B. Jr. and Robert F. Hébert. A history of economic theory and method, 4th ed. [Long Grove, Illinois]: Waveland Press, 1997. ISBN 1577663810
  • Harwood, Sterling. "Eleven Objections to Utilitarianism," in Moral Philosophy: A Reader (Louis P. Pojman, ed.,), Indianapolis, IN, Hackett Publishing Co., 1998, and in Harwood, Sterling, ed., Business as Ethical and Business as Usual. Wadsworth Publishing, 1996, Chapter 7. ISBN 978-0534542511 and online [4]
  • Hollander, Samuel. The Economics of John Stuart Mill. University of Toronto Press, 1985. ISBN 978-0802056719
  • Mill, John Stuart. A System of Logic. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2002. ISBN 1410202526
  • Robinson, Dave, and Judy Groves. Introducing Political Philosophy. London: Icon Books, 2003. ISBN 184046450X.
  • West, Henry R., ed., The Blackwell Guide to Mill's Utilitarianism. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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