John Stuart Mill
G. F. Scarre
The Literary Encyclopedia, October 4, 2003
Journalist, Logician, Member of Parliament, Moralist, Political Philosopher, Political Economist, Political Writer, Autobiographer
Active 1822-1873 in England, Britain, Europe
John Stuart Mill was born in London in 1806 and died in that city in 1873. He is generally considered to have been the most important British philosopher of the nineteenth century. His powerful defences of empiricist, liberal and utilitarian positions were hugely influential during his lifetime, and set the terms for most subsequent debate. Mill’s advocacy of radical causes (including, most notably, the extension of the parliamentary franchise to women) made him, by his death, a household name even amongst people who had never read his books. Although Mill’s reputation suffered a temporary eclipse around the turn of the twentieth century, he currently stands high in the ranks of the British empiricists for his writings on logic, science and epistemology, while the deep humanity of his ethical and social thought continues to resonate.
Son of the philosopher and historian James Mill, John Stuart was raised within the radical intellectual circle of his father’s friend and mentor, the utilitarian social reformer Jeremy Bentham. Groomed by James Mill and Bentham to be the standard-bearer of utilitarian values to the next generation, John Stuart received an extraordinary private education (he began Greek at three and Latin at six) and had published his first articles (on freedom of discussion) before his seventeenth birthday. It has been remarked of him that he was a boy who “never was a boy”. But before Mill was out of his teens, he became deeply disillusioned by what he saw as the soul-destroying narrowness of his elders’ views on the good life, which he thought paid too much attention to the rational and calculative aspects of human nature and insufficient to the feelings. In 1826, following years of unrelieved hard work as an editorial assistant to Bentham, he suffered a nervous breakdown that marked a major caesura in his career; as he explained in his posthumous Autobiography – one of the most important autobiographies of the century – he emerged from this “mental crisis” thanks in large part to the reading of the Romantic poets. From that point his thought manifested the strong influence of the Greeks and Romanticism as he attempted to graft on to the basic stock of Benthamite welfarism a more adequate conception of human possibilities: where Bentham tended to treat people as mechanisms, reading Coleridge and Wordsworth confirmed for Mill the need to recognise and develop the "internal culture of the individual".
Mill wrote prolifically on a wide range of subjects and his works range from substantial treatises down to short newspaper articles and reviews. His works of most lasting significance are A System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1861), An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1865), The Subjection of Women (1869), and Three Essays on Religion (1873). In these works Mill elaborates his philosophy of individualism and freedom, which logically implies legal equality for women, and a version of Adam Smith's laissez-faire which whilst respecting individual freedom recognises the need for the State to protect the interests of those who, lacking capital, will under Smith's view of the “invisible hand” have less freedom than is their right. His writings thus set out many of the basic assumptions of modern liberal or social democracies.
Mill was persuaded, with some difficulty, to stand for parliament in 1865 and sat for three years as the Liberal MP for Westminster. In 1868, after his unsuccessful attempt to incorporate women’s suffrage into the 1867 Reform Bill, he lost his seat to the Conservative bookseller, W.H. Smith. Mill’s only known romantic attachment was to Mrs Harriet Taylor, whom he first met in 1830 and to whom he generously attributed (though with how much truth is disputed) a major influence on his subsequent thought. Their relationship probably remained a Platonic one until their marriage, following the death of her first husband, in 1851. In Harriet, Mill admired “a complete absence of superstition” and “strength of noble and elevated feeling”, together with “a highly reverential nature”. Her death in 1858 at the age of fifty was a blow from which he never wholly recovered; he later wrote that her memory was a religion to him and “her approbation the standard by which, summing up as it does all worthiness, I endeavour to regulate my life”.
Like Bentham and other utilitarians, Mill believed that morally-right action was that which tended to increase happiness and diminish misery. The short treatise Utilitarianism opens with a straightforward statement of the Benthamite axiom that happiness consists in the acquisition of pleasures and the avoidance of pains. However, Mill was careful to stress that pleasures are not all of equal worth, and that the happiest lives involve the deeper satisfactions of “spiritual perfection” and personal dignity, and the pursuit of beauty, order and truth. For utilitarianism to escape the charge that its hedonistic theory of value showed it to be a “doctrine worthy only of swine”, it was crucial to emphasise that the quality of one’s pleasures was of more importance than their quantity. In fact Mill sounds almost Aristotelian when he enjoins his readers to satisfy their “elevated” faculties in preference to their “animal appetites”, and to strive to develop excellence of mind and character. His subtle analysis of the nature of happiness served to raise the utilitarian theory of value permanently above the level of a simplistic hedonism. Mill argued that happiness is best sought by energetically pursuing worthwhile ends, and that those who look only to gratify their sensual appetites miss out on more valuable satisfactions. Pleasures of “mere sensation” are far less able to fulfil us than those of “the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments”. Nevertheless, when helping others to live well, we should beware of imposing our own concepts of happiness, however fine, on them. Well-meaning but heavy-handed paternalistic interventions in others’ lives are not always beneficial, and may seriously restrict their objects’ scope for self-development. Duly respecting other people’s individuality requires knowing when to stand back, as well as when to intervene.
Mill believed that the “principle of utility” could be proved by the empirical observation that people seek happiness. Yet the fact that everyone desires happiness does not really establish that happiness is desirable (even if, on other grounds, we think it is). Nor is it possible to justify an impartial concern for the happiness of all on the basis of the partial concern of each individual for her own happiness; so there is a sleight of hand in Mill’s argument that since “each person’s happiness is a good to that person, … the general happiness [is], therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons”. Despite this logical lacuna, Mill’s version of utilitarianism is attractive for its grounding in a demystified and naturalistic account of human flourishing, which in eschewing appeals to any dubious faculty of moral intuition is of a piece with his general philosophy.
The significant place that Mill accorded to self-development and autonomy in the good life is apparent too in the famous thesis of the essay On Liberty that “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”. The best way, he explained, by which states can maximise happiness is by providing the social, cultural and economic conditions under which citizens can live their lives according to their own ideas of the good. Wise governments would treat everyone as equal under the law, and subordinate no one’s interests to anyone else’s. They would also guarantee freedom of expression (so that good ideas were given the chance to drive out bad ones) and promote educational opportunities. Social engineering programmes, on the other hand, designed to mould the population according to some particular concept of excellence, were to be avoided. Government agencies and individuals should encourage and exhort, but not attempt to force, people to make wise rather than foolish choices.
It is striking that Mill’s respect for individual liberty did not translate into unqualified support for a universal voting franchise in national or local government elections. Allowing the vote to the very poor or ill-educated, he thought, offered too many hostages to fortune, since men and women in these classes were likely to be politically naive and dangerously liable to be swayed by bribery or by lying propaganda. Before universal male and female suffrage could be introduced, people had to be made fit to vote by the elimination of such disadvantages. Although Mill occasionally toyed with the more radical idea of training people to exercise political responsibility by thrusting that responsibility on them, his native caution and fear of political corruption placed limits on his enthusiasm for democracy.
In metaphysics and epistemology, Mill was a lifelong adherent of the “school of Experience and Association” which denied the existence of a prior knowledge and held all knowledge to consist in “the facts which present themselves to our senses”, plus whatever can be legitimately inferred from these. In A System of Logic he attempted to construct an inductive logic sufficiently powerful to make redundant the postulation of an a priori basis for any branch of human knowledge. Remarkably, Mill tried to show that even the laws of deductive logic and mathematics can be known by inductive inference from a sensory basis. Although this demonstration is rarely nowadays allowed to be cogent, Mill’s Logic is still read for its painstaking analysis of the inductive process and its subtle discussion of the conditions of reliable and revealing inductive arguments.
Mill’s conception of natural science is of an exclusively inductivist enterprise concerned above all with the identification of causal relationships among phenomena. In this programme the famous “eliminative methods of induction” play a major role, being designed to locate a condition preceding or accompanying a phenomenon “with which it is really connected by an invariable law”. Further objectives of the scientist include arranging causal principles into hierarchically-structured systems of higher- and lower-level laws, explaining the more recherché features of nature in terms of more familiar ones, and attaining theoretical closure in areas of research where careful application of inductive methods (or so Mill hoped) left nothing further to explain. A weakness of Mill’s account of science is his distrust of the hypothetical method (brilliantly defended by his arch-rival William Whewell), which he thought smacked too much of a priorism. Whilst in reality many of the most exciting scientific theories start life as hypotheses, Mill was reluctant to countenance the admission to scientific reasoning of any proposition that could not be rigorously confirmed by observation or the inductive methods. The result is a philosophy of science that has been justly criticised for its theoretical timidity and its limiting reduction of scientific method to a small number of rules for the determination of causes.
The campaign against the school of intuition was taken up again in An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy, in which the universal “relativity of knowledge” to sensory experience was held to prove the unknowability of any propositions not cashable in phenomenal terms. Reflection on the relativity principle led Mill to propose (with candid acknowledgement to Berkeley) that physical objects are nothing but “permanent possibilities of sensation”. (More tentatively, he suggested that minds might be similarly explained as permanent possibilities of having sensations.) Curiously enough, he seems not to have noticed that the sensationalistic reductionism of the Examination is scarcely consistent with the much more realist tone of the Logic, which draws a clear distinction between the order of things and the order of thought and unabashedly posits the existence of a mind-independent world.
Mill wrote in a plain, unembellished and jargon-free style that is sometimes ponderous but is, at its best, both pithy and eloquent. (The American philosopher Brand Blanshard commented that Mill, unlike many thinkers of the last two hundred years, wrote “clearly enough to be found out”.) The care and lucidity that Mill brought to the writing of philosophy –– in conscious opposition to the obscurity of Kant and his British followers –– is another, and far from negligible, part of his abiding legacy to the Anglophone philosophical tradition.