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JOHN STUART MILL (I 8O6-1 873)



  • Birth and Education

  • John Stuart Mill is today undoubtedly the most widely known nineteenth-century British political writer. And this is correct, for he was the most prolific author of influential political tracts. J. S. Mill, the eldest son of James Mill, was born in London on May 20, 1806. No child of James Mill underwent a more 'unusual and remarkable' boyhood than young John Stuart Mill. This fact has been admitted by J. S. Mill himself in his Autobiography (1873).1 Two years after John's birth, his father came into contact with Jeremy Bentham and was so much influenced by him (Bentham) that during the remainder of his life he devoted his energy and talents to promoting the cause of utilitarian reform. Bentham's faithful disci­ple selected his son, John Stuart, "to be the legitimate heir of the Benthamite tradition."2 James Mill, conforming to the dictates of his theory of the tabula rasa, set about to manufacture, by a process of managed instruction, the perfect Utilitarian Mind.


    1. J. S. Mill wrote his autobiography during the last five years of his life ; most of the manuscript dates from 1870. Shortly after Mill's death the manuscript was edited and prepared for publication by his step-daughter Helen Taylor, who deleted a few passages where Mill referred to his father or his wife. Otherwise, it was printed as Mill left it still un­finished.

    2. John Stuart Mill—On Liberty, ed. by Currin V. Shields, Introduction, p. vii. (Liberal Arts Press, N. Y., 1956).

    The younger Mill's entire formal education was under the direct tutelage of his determined parent. James Mill was an "exacting teacher of momentous subjects," and a stern and severe taskmaster as well. John Stuart's education started at an early age of three with the study of Greek. At eight he began the study of Latin, history and the classics. In Stuart's fourteenth year there was an interlude for travel abroad. But while he spent the year living in France with the family of General Sir Samuel Bentham (Jeremy's brother), John's 'mental cultivation' continued without interruption. After his return to London, he read law, at the age of fifteen, with the Bentha­mite legalist, John Austin. At the same time, his education also included earnest conversations with many distinguished members of the Benthamite circle who frequented the Mill's residence. In the

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    1. course of the daily drills and recitations and lectures and conversa­tions, James Mill shaped as best he could his son's mind to suit the Benthamite image.

    2. His Professional Career and Literary Achievements

    3. John Stuart's formal education ended as his professional career began in 1823, when he was appointed as assistant to his father, the Examiner of Correspondence for the East India Company. He spent his entire professional life, a period of thirty-five years, in the emp­loyment of the East India Company. In 1856, he was promoted to the office of Chief Examiner, the post second in command in the home service to the Secretary. This office he held until the Company was dissolved by an Act of Parliament in 1858. Mill then declined an offer of a Government post, preferring instead to retire from the administrative service. In 1865. he was elected a member of the House of Commons for Westminister, he served three years, until his defeat for re election. The last years of his life Mill devoted to his writings. Much of the time he lived in France with his step-daughter as a companion. Mill died on May 8. 1873 at Avignon, where he now lies buried in a tomb with his wife.

    4. Mill's first great literary achievements were in the Westminister Review, where by his pen he brought himself into a prominence that left little doubt of a brilliant literary future, and made him a real in­fluence in philosophy and politics. The systematic expression of his political theory is to be found in his famous work On Liberty and in Representative Government, which we shall shortly consider in some detail. When these were published in 1859 and 1861 respectively, Mill had achieved great distinction as a philosopher and was, through his famous Political Economy (1844), one of the most influential thin­kers of the time.

    5. Also in 1861 Mill wrote a series of articles for Fraser's Magazine (October-December, 1861) which were printed as a short treatise, Utilitarianism, published in 1863—the subject which absorbed Mill's attention throughout his entire lifetime—social ethics. It is in this work that Mill draws his famous distinction between the quantity and quality of pleasure. By the time Mill concluded bis exposition of utilitarianism, he had virtually abandoned every distinctive tenet of the Benthamite faith.

    6. In 1865, two of Mill's lesser works were published: An Exami­nation of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy, and Auguste Comte and Positivism ; the latter originally appeared in the form of articles in the Westminster Review, Fo ir years after, he published The Sub­jection of Women (1869). It was a fitting climax for his career as a writer, of political essays. But after his death, several treatises of engrossing interest and high import saw the light. The first was the Autobiography, published in 1873. A sensation not less intense was aroused by the posthumous treatise. Three Essays on Religion, pub-



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    2. GREAT POLITICAL THINKERS

    1. lished in 1874. In fact, these two posthumous works increased his already great reputation and marked a fitting close to a great career of scholarship and service. Green expressed his respect for him by echoing Gladstone's remark that Mill was a saintly man. He con­sidered Mill to have been an 'extraordinary good man.' These com­ments are Mill's truest epitaph. In the whole history of political philosophy there are few more appealing characters than his.

    2. His Empirical Method

    3. Mill's political philosophy is based on his principles of logic, for­mulated in his great work, System of Logic : Ratiocinative and Indue-five, which be published in 1843. in the sixth book of his System of Logic, entitled On the Logic of the Moral Sciences, there are several lucid chapters on the logic of politics. In these chapters he had showed the need and urgency of the application of logical procedure to the phenomena of society and of government. The principles on which Mill proceeds in this book are those that he had expounded in the previous parts of his great treatise, especially in connection with Induction, which involves the deductive application of laws inducti­vely obtained. The inductive process, according to him, consists in generalizing from experience, in discovering the causes of phenomena and ascertaining their laws, according to various experimental me­thods specifically formulated (agreement, difference, joint method of agreement and difference, residues and concomitant variations) and copiously exemplified, and in making application to new cases of the generalizations thus inductively reached and bringing them back to the facts of experience in order to having them verified and establish­ed. Mill rejected the method of arriving at truth purely on the basis of abstract thinking. He also did not approve the method of those who try to formulate general principles either in the field of politics, or of economics, or of any social science, trusting to specific experiences. His approach was highly empirical. The distinctive name by which he called his method is "The Physical or Concrete Deductive Me­thod." It, according to him, proceeds deductively indeed, but by deduction from many, not from one or a very few, original premises, considering each effect as an aggregate result of many causes, operat­ing sometimes through the same, sometimes through different agen­cies, or laws of human nature.

    4. As age succeeds age, experience grows, and one generation of men differs from another. At any particular time, the circumstances of society determine its character ;; but the circumstances are in turn reacted on by the society and in no small degree are moulded by it. This throws the student of social science upon the study of history so that he may discover, if possible, the law of human progress. But the generalizations made from the facts and events of history arc not in themselves sufficient to guide us ; they are simply empirical laws of society, and need to be verified.



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    1. Mill applied the same empirical method in explaining the vali­dity of moral institutions. Although he did not deny the existence of moral institutions, he raised the question of their value ; and, in working out an answer, he demonstrated that many notions and prin­ciples in morals that passed for infinitive were falsely so regarded, being merely common opinion and belief, or, it might be, mere senti­ment or prejudice, untested by reason. On the other hand, he strongly maintained that what is valuable in morality is founded in experience and may be corroborated by it. Instead of basing moral ideas on intuition and holding them beyond the reach of human experience, he brought them into direct relation with experience and insisted on testing their validity thereby. On his detailed analysis, he found, as Bentham and James Mill had done, that they ultimately derived their character from the pleasure-value of their consequences. Thus Mill gives hedonistic colour to his thinking which runs through his later political writings.

    2. Nevertheless, although pleasure is the ultimate test of moral value, he thought it essential to strengthen the utilitarian position by drawing a distinction between the different kinds of pleasure. Mill desired to safeguard utilitarianism from the reproaches, which were levelled against it due to its hedonistic basis, by overthrowing the whole utilitarian position. Hence he sought to estabish the non-utilitarian proposition that some pleasures are of a higher quality than others. For Bentham and James Mill, pleasures differ only in quality and one pleasure is as good in itself as another, as Bentham put it: "Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pic is as good as poetry." But, on the contrary, J. S. Mill regarded it a?, quite com­patible with the principle of utility to introduce into the conceptio. the distinction between quantity and quality of pleasure, and to lay emphasis on quality. Pleasures are, thus, conceived as in themselves intrinsically different: there are higher and lower among them. The proof of this is appeal to intelligent people who have had ex­perience of both : they are judges, and their testimony is decisive. "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied ; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a Tool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig is of a different opinion, .t is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."

    3. His Alterations in Benthamism

    4. Thus Mill's assertion that pleasures differ not only in quantity but quality as well, is undoubtedly a truer reflection of human ex­perience than Bentham's insistence to the contrary, in spite of the fact that it appears mostly non-utilitarian, as Sidgwick, who was so ruthless and logical a thinker, remarked that "if we are to be hedo­nists we must say that pleasures vary only in quantity, never in



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    1. quality. Utilitarianism, because it is hedonism, must recognize no distinction between pleasures except a quantitative one.

    2. However, Mill, in order to meet a challenge of the strong anti-hedonist movement of his day, personified by Carlyle, made use of the non-utilitarian argument that pleasures cannot, in any case, be objectively measured. The felicific calculus is, he said, absurd, and men have always relied upon trie testimony of "those most competent to judge." "There is no other tribunal to be referred to even on the question of quantity. What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both?"3 Mill was, to quote Wayper, "of course right in maintain­ing the absurdity of the felicific calculus," but if it is once admitted that pleasures can no longer be measured objectively, a vita! breach has been made in the well-known thesis of Utilitarianism.


      1. 3 Wayper, C. L. : Political Thought (The English Universities Press Ltd., London, 1958), p. 111.

      Mill maintained the further non-utilitarian position by holding the view that not the principle of utility but the dignity of man is the final end of life. He approved of Humboldt's doctrine of 'self-realization.' "It really is of importance," he said, "not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it." "What more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs," he asked, "than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be ?" It was, more or less, the total rejection of the view of Bentham and James Mill that not self-realization but the achievement of pleasure and the avoidance of pain is the end of human life. Mill, on the contrary, held that one pleasure is better tban another if it promotes the sense of dignity in man. Thus, our criterion of goodness is no longer the principle of utility. The trans­formation of egoism into altruism is effected, he further explained, by the s' le process that turns a money-seeker into a miser. A man may begin by desiring money for the pleasure that it can procure him, but by and by he transfers his affections from the end to the means, and goes on amassing money for its own sake. So although pleasure to self is the ultimate explanation of human disinterestedness, self is forgotten gradually by the ethical man in his earnest and de­voted service to others, and his highest pleasure comes when he does not directly seek it. As such, his (man's) own happiness is found in doing good to his fellows or to other sentient creatures. Mill laid great stress on what, since his day, has come to be known as the paradox of pleasure—the Hedonistic paradox. Directly aiming at pleasure may fail to secure it. As Bain puts it, "happiness is not gained by a point-blank aim ; we must take a boomerang flight in some other line, and come back upon the target by an oblique or reflected movement." Thus happiness, according to Mill, is to be



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    1. found only indirectly "aiming at something else." This is to place moral ends above happiness, which becomes not indeed a state of pleasures but a state of mind which ensues when one pursues some moral end. Viewed from this viewpoint, the state becomes a moral institution with a moral end. Not utility but the promotion of virtue in the individual is what it must aim at.

    2. Mill continues his non-utilitarian interest and gives emphasis to the idea of moral obli.5j.1ion : Bentham had conceived of this as the sheer product of flie selfish desires and anticipation of men. Mill considered Bentham's view far too simple and naive. Fear, memory, self-esteem, he admitted, play their part in its composition, but so do love, sympathy, religious emotion and occasionally even self-abasement. Mill not only accepted the emotional basis of the state, but went far to admit Green's contention that "public duties, and responsibilities cannot logically be derived from private rights and interests." He held that there is in mind or self or ego- something more than what there is in matter. It is the characteristic of human mind that it presents itself not only in the form of a series of states, but it is also conscious of them. In other words, the ego or self is that which binds the states together, just as the thread holds the beads together in a necklace. It is thjs self-conscious state of human mind which, according to Mill, promotes the sense of dignity in man. Thus he was against Bentham's idea of moral obligation being inter­preted merely in terms of the principle of utility.

    3. His Utilitarian Views on Government

    4. However, John Mill remained true to his utilitarian training in spite of all his alterations in Bentham'sm. He viewed the govern­ment as an association of men, made by them for their social well-being. Human will and purpose always are operative in the life of political institutions. Though there are other factors which enter into the problem, yet a government functions at any particular time only so far as the people whom it controls arc willing to accept it, and are able, as well as willing, to do what is necessary to keep it going and fulfilling its end. 'Social well-being', the end of government, Mill thought of as meaning the possession of desirable qualities by a number of concrete human beings, not the perfect adjustment of the abstract relationships which make these men a society. Hence the fostering of such qualities as virtue and intelligence is the first crite­rion of good government. Also, the *bstering of such qualities is necessary for the mora! development ci ths individuals when we con­sider the state a moral institution with a moral end as Mill did while introducing into utilitarianism a moral criterion. Only second in im­portance is the character of the machinery itself—the degree in which it is adapted to make the best use of such qualities as the individuals possess.4

    5. 4 Representative Government, Chap. II,



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    2. GREAT POLITICAL THINKERS

    1. Although Mill flatly rejected Comte's famous criteria of the happy society, 'order and progress', and objected to the terms on various acutely distinguished metaphysical grounds, he accepted the influence of the latter's spirit and very often ascribed to a community attribute that cannot be readily predicted of a mere sum of human beings. These qualities must, as stated above, be the Srst considera­tion in any estimate of the social well-being. What must be the fundamental condition in the relation between the government and the individuals over whom it exercises authority, is set forth by Mill in his celebrated essay On Liberty.

    2. Mill on Liberty

    3. In the opening passages of the essay, Mill poses a question : What are (i.e., should be) the limits of the collective authority of society over the individual ? And he set, as his task in the essay, to explain 'a very simple principle' tor determining the proper limits for individual and collective action. The principle applies to govern­mental authority, but his main purpose, Mill declared, is to show the limits of interference 'by the collective opinion of society' in private affairs. In ierference is justified, he contended, only by the need for 'self-protection' : to prevent harm to others. The thesis of his essay is: ". . . .that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, interfering with the freedom of action of any of their member, 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 a 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 opinions of others, to do so would be wise or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, of entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he does otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else."5


      1. 5 On Liberty, Chap. I (Introductory).

      It means that while much collective interference in individual affairs is not justified, some certainly is. Collective authority can be used to interfere, but it should not be used to interfere 'wrongly'. What are the rightful limits, then, to individuality ? An individual, said Mill, has duties as well as rights. He has duties to himself and to others. He has a duty to bear a fair share of society's burdens, and a duty not to injure others by his conduct. Over individual conduct, which affects the interests of others, society has jurisdiction. When definite damage or risk of damage to others results from



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    1. individual action, the case is taken out of the province of liberty and placed in that of law, because society has a right to protect its members from 'moral vices'.

    2. Freedom of the Individual

    3. Mill's development of thij doctrine,. on the basis of utility, embodies a complete and systematic philosophy of individualism and laissez-faire. He stood forth as the advocate-general of individuality —of the supreme importance of developing the individual in all the completeness of his being, so that his active and his intellectual nature might have their utmost scope and reach their highest efficiency. Without this, he thought, general progress was impossible. Mill took up the cause and pleaded that he (individual) should have the utmost freedom for development—freedom of thought, of speech and expres­sion, and of action. Freedom of thought and expression, he (Mill) defended with Miltonian fervour and more than Milton's acumen.8 Individuality as an element of well-being he sustained with the reasoning that William Von Humboldt had developed from different premises,.and proclaimed forcefully that the repression of originality in thought and conduct, whether by law or by public opinion, is the essence of despotism and is fatal to the progress of the race.


      1. Political Theories from Luther to Montesquieu, p. 244.

      2. On Liberty, Chap. II.
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