Key thinker: John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)

John Stuart Mill was born in London. His mother is often described as ‘passive and mostly invisible’, while his father, James (1773–1836) was a close friend of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. James Mill, who was born in Scotland, depended for much of his life on the financial support of people like Bentham. After the publication of his History of the British in India (1818)—the product of more than a decade of research—James Mill finally achieved economic security thanks to a job with the East India Company.

From the time of his birth, John Mill was regarded as the prospective heir to Bentham's place in the utilitarian school (for details see Bentham took a keen interest in his education, which included a very early introduction to Greek and Latin texts. When John was still a teenager, Bentham and his fellow-radicals founded the Westminster Review to expound their beliefs, and John became closely involved in this production. He also followed his father into the service of the East India Company, which he joined in 1823. Three years later he experienced a breakdown, provoked at least in part by a realization that the success of utilitarian philosophy would not make him happy. He began to dabble in activities like reading poetry, which people like Bentham regarded as a frivolous distraction from the task of making the world a more efficient place.

John Mill was rescued from his emotional crisis by Harriet Taylor, a married woman whom he met in 1830 but only married 21 years later, after the death of her husband. Arguably an even greater liberation was the death of his domineering father in 1836. This allowed him to give public utterance to the heretical views which had been stirring within him for a decade. Thus, for example, in 1840 he acknowledged his debt to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had offended against the utilitarian spirit by being both a poet and a conservative.

In 1858, after the Indian Mutiny, the East India Company was wound up. Mill retired to Avignon in France, where Harriet died shortly afterwards. In 1865 his life took a dramatic turn when he was elected as the Liberal MP for Westminster, despite his refusal to canvass the voters. Mill saw this as an opportunity to publicize his favoured causes, rather than a chance to build a new career in politics. In particular, he hoped to promote the idea that women should be given the vote, and intriduced an amendment to what became the 1867 Reform Act. He lost the vote, but provoked much discussion on the subject. He also publicized such unpopular causes as land reform in Ireland, and birth control. Such 'advanced' political positions were far too strong for polite opinion at the time, and he lost his seat in 1868. However, given the circumstances it would be quite wrong to regard him as a parliamentary failure, and he must be ranked highly among the individuals who have attended the House of Commons. He continued to work until his death in France, where he was buried beside his wife.

Mill was a prolific author on a variety of subjects, including logic and political economy (a subject on which, despite his liberalism, he showed some sympathy with socialist aspirations). However, in the present context his major works are a series of extended essays: Utilitarianism (1861), Considerations on Representative Government (1861), On Liberty (1859), and On the Subjection of Women (1869). The last of these is a classic statement of liberal feminism, heavily influenced by his late wife (see Chapter 7 for a discussion of liberal feminism). The first is ostensibly a restatement of utilitarianism, but can be regarded as a powerful critique of the views expressed by Bentham and James Mill, in that it contested their view that the proper role of government was to promote 'happiness', regardless of intellectual and spiritual development. Mill thought that it was 'better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied', which implied that utilitarian governments should aim at producing well-rounded citizens rather than people who were mindlessly happy. In Representative Government, Mill made another big breach in rudimentary utilitarian thought, which had argued for a democratic system in which the vote of every individual should have equal weight. In contrast, Mill thought that educated people should have disproportionate influence over electoral outcomes.

On Liberty, though, remains Mill's best-known and most influential work (for analysis, see Chapter 5). It was an argument against an over-mighty state, based on the view that governments should only interfere in the lives of its citizens when their activities would cause harm to other people. On the face of it, this seemed a straight-forward principle, which would protect the right to free speech, etc. However, there was room for interminable debate over the concept of 'harm'. What about malicious gossip, for example? Mill tended to think that individuals should be robust enough to shrug off slanderous stories, but this view was clearly based on an 'ideal' model of human nature, which not everyone could emulate. On more topical issues, even if it were proven that second-hand cigarette smoke could harm people, it was a matter of judgement whether this knowledge should produce an outright ban on smoking in public, or separate accommodation for those who wished to smoke. The general tendency of Mill's work is to give the benefit of the doubt to liberty against state-enforced restrictions, whenever the case is finely balanced. Almost certainly, then, he would have been against the smoking ban in the form it has taken in the UK and other countries; but the ultimate failure of On Liberty to settle such disputes is indicated by the fact that Mill's arguments have been advanced by both sides.

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