BRIA 24 4 John Stuart Mill and Individual Liberty

Bill of Rights in Action
SPRING 2009 (Volume 24, No. 4)

Reform and Change

The Teapot Dome Scandal  |  Woodrow Wilson’s Quest to Change the World | John Stuart Mill and Individual Liberty 

John Stuart Mill and Individual Liberty

British philosopher John Stuart Mill’s radical childhood education prepared him to write major works on philosophy and social reform. Writing in the mid-1800s, Mill’s views on freedom of expression and equal rights for women were far ahead of his time.

John Stuart Mill’s father, James, trained to be a Presbyterian minister but became disillusioned and soon rejected all organized religion. James went to work as a journalist in London, and he joined philosopher Jeremy Bentham to lead a group of social reformers known as the Philosophic Radicals. They followed Bentham’s philosophy called Utilitarianism.

Bentham attempted to devise a standard for human conduct and for deciding what public policies and laws society should adopt. He concluded that actions were right if they promoted the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. He argued that it was human nature to seek happiness, defined as pleasure, and to avoid unhappiness, defined as pain.

The Philosophic Radicals used Bentham’s principle of happiness to mount a social reform movement in Britain. They sought to address social problems brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The radicals attacked the conservative landowning aristocracy that still dominated British society and resisted social change. They also called for such reforms as the right to vote for all adult men, a public education system, and population control to prevent too many workers, which depressed wages.

James Mill married Harriet Burrow in 1805. The first of their nine children, John Stuart Mill, was born in London on May 20, 1806. With the encouragement and help of Jeremy Bentham, James designed a radical education program to home school his son. James set out to make John Stuart Mill a philosopher who would carry on the work of the Philosophic Radicals.

John learned Greek at age 3 and started studying Latin at 8. By 10, he had read the Greek and Roman classic writers such as Plato and Cicero, English and Roman history, works on algebra and geometry, and Shakespeare.

John read Newton’s Principia Mathematica at 11 and Aristotle’s work on logic at 12. As a young teenager, he studied philosophy and political economy (now called economics), including the works of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Jeremy Bentham.

Every day, John took walks with his father, giving an account of what he had read and learned. His father was demanding, impatient, and a severe teacher, who constantly criticized John’s shortcomings.

Later in life, John wrote in his Autobiography that he was “in awe” of his father who provided him with “an education for precise thinking” that made him “find out everything for myself.” He also remarked, “I was not at all aware that my attainments [accomplishments] were anything unusual at my age.” 

By age 15, John had read hundreds of works in Greek, Latin, and English equal to a classic university education. But he never attended any school or college. Nor did he have any friends his age because his father believed they would interfere with his education. Nor was he allowed any holidays or vacations from his studies. When the other Mill children came along, John’s father assigned him to teach them. In reality, John Stuart Mill never had a childhood.

Mental Crisis and Renewal

After 1819, James Mill worked as an administrator at India House, the London headquarters for the East India Company. This old trading firm had acquired the authority to govern Britain’s India colony. In 1823, he secured a job at India House for his 17-year-old son.

John Stuart Mill’s duties at India House were light, which gave him time to write for literary journals. He also participated in debates, defending the Utilitarian views of his father and the other Philosophic Radicals.  

In 1826, however, at age 20, Mill suffered a mental crisis that apparently arose from a conflict between loyalty to his father and growing disagreement with some of his Utilitarian ideas. Mill also began to question the adequacy of his unique education. He later wrote, “The whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.”

Mill began to see himself as a “mere reasoning machine.” He sensed “all feeling was dead within me.” He realized that his education had lacked such things as music, appreciation of natural beauty, and especially poetry. Utilitarians like his father thought these things distracted people from the reasoning necessary to arrive at universal truths in life.

Mill began to read and meet Romantic writers and poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Goethe. They all emphasized the importance of human feelings as a source for truth. Mill also explored history as another source of getting at the truth about how people should live and organize their societies.

Mill began to doubt Bentham’s basic assumption of human nature: that people always seek pleasure and avoid pain to achieve happiness. Mill decided that “free will,” an individual’s freedom to choose his own form of happiness, could override the Utilitarian pleasure-pain principle.

All this caused Mill to re-evaluate Utilitarianism. What was happiness? Mill thought that it was more than simply pleasure, as Bentham and his father had stated. Mill asserted that happiness was becoming whatever the individual wanted to be. This required individuals to develop their own minds, feelings, and imagination to become independent, thinking persons. Mill called this “individuality.”

By individuality, Mill did not mean selfish individualism. He argued that to achieve true happiness, individuals should strive not only to develop themselves but also to help others do the same.

Mill concluded that the role of society, the economy, and government was to enable individuals to achieve their individuality. Mill believed that individuality could not prosper without a “liberal culture,” consisting of individual liberties, equality of women, toleration of different lifestyles, a free-market economy, and limited government.

Mill and Harriet Taylor

Harriet Taylor, a wife of a pharmacist and mother of three, strongly supported equal rights for women and other social reforms. These issues, however, did not interest her husband, who provided little intellectual stimulation for her.

In 1830, Harriet first met John Stuart Mill at a dinner party in her home. Both in their mid-20s, they quickly recognized their mutual interests and “affection” for each other. From this point on, she worked constantly with Mill, helping him write and edit his articles and books.

Harriet’s husband demanded that she end her close relationship with Mill, but she refused. Instead, she devised an odd compromise to share herself with both men. She divided her time between living with her family at home and staying with Mill at a country cottage. This arrangement went on for more than 20 years.

After he met Harriet, Mill began to make an impact on Britain’s intellectual world. In 1831, he wrote “The Spirit of the Age,” an essay that used history to show how Britain was going through a transition from feudalism to a new age. He hoped to foster an alliance of the middle and working classes to get rid of Britain’s old feudal aristocracy.

When his father died in 1836, Mill experienced a personal liberation from the man who had dominated his life. Now 30, he took over his father’s job at India House.

With Harriet’s steady support, Mill published books on logic and economics that made him a more important philosopher than his father. In his economics book, Mill criticized the selfish pursuit of money. Mill argued that wealth should only be a means to achieve the higher goal of individual self-development, what he called individuality.

Mill wanted as many as possible to participate as business owners in a free-market economy. This was possible, he wrote, if workers pooled their money to buy out private businesses and operate them as cooperative enterprises. Workers would elect their managers and collect their wages from the profits of the enterprise, which would have to compete with other privately owned businesses.

Mill opposed government central planning, which most European socialists advocated. His vision was every man and woman a business owner. He saw this as a way to help them achieve their self-development and happiness. Today, historians often classify Mill as a Utopian Socialist.

Mill finally married Harriet Taylor in 1851 after the death of her husband. Both of them, however, soon suffered from tuberculosis. Believing he would die before long, Mill spent more time writing his Autobiography. But Harriet’s case was more severe, and she died in 1858 while they were on a trip in France. Mill buried her there and erected a monument with a long inscription, praising her.

‘On Liberty’

Mill and Harriet spent much time writing and rewriting “On Liberty.” They were almost ready to publish it when she died. He published this pamphlet-length work without further revision the following year, dedicating it to her.

At the beginning of “On Liberty,” Mill stated that democracies like the United States were going to replace the absolute monarchies and tyrannies of the past. With the people in control of their governments, however, a new problem arose.

Based on his careful reading of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Mill feared that the “will of the people” would more often be the “will of the majority.” This could threaten liberty and individual self-development if the majority acted to oppress minority viewpoints and lifestyles. A democracy, Mill argued, could easily become a “tyranny of the majority.”

To overcome this threat, Mill proposed what philosophers today call his “harm principle.” Mill wrote 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.” Mills’ “harm principle” would block democratic majorities from interfering with the liberty of any adult unless that person threatened harm to others. Mill then identified the specific liberties he had in mind:

•  “liberty of conscience”

•  “liberty of thought and feeling”

•  “absolute freedom of opinion”

•  “liberty of expressing and publishing opinions” (freedom of speech and press)

•  “freedom to unite, for any purpose” (freedom of assembly)

•  “liberty . . . of forming the plan of our life to suit our own character, of doing what we like” even if this appeared to be “foolish, perverse, or wrong”

Any society without these liberties, Mill declared, was not free. “The only freedom which deserves the name,” he wrote, “is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede [obstruct] their efforts to obtain it.”

Mill further argued that truth is found through the “collision of adverse opinions.” He wrote, “He who knows only his side of the case, knows little of that.” When people listen only to one viewpoint, he explained, “errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth, by being exaggerated into falsehood.”

Mill recognized that individual liberty needed limits or else harm to others may result. He gave the example of an “excited mob” outside the house of a grain dealer, shouting that he was starving the poor. In such circumstances, Mill agreed, the police were justified in arresting those whose angry words might easily inflame violence. He also said that the government had no business censoring those same words published in a newspaper article.

Mill argued that “an atmosphere of freedom” was necessary to assure all people the opportunity to develop their individuality. He condemned British society of his day for its suffocating conformity. He applauded original thinkers, oddballs, geniuses, and nonconformists who experimented with different lifestyles, thus preventing human life from becoming a “stagnant pool.”

Mill stated that government should be limited to providing the conditions necessary for people to achieve their individuality. He cited examples of when government was wrong in trying to stamp out certain human behavior and lifestyles. One example was prohibiting gambling. Another was persecuting the Mormon religion.

On the other hand, he argued that government was right to prohibit people from getting married if they could not support their children. To have a child, he wrote, “without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society.”

Mill’s “On Liberty” drew criticism. Some accused him of encouraging anarchy, immorality, and godlessness. Other critics doubted that he had adequately defined “harm” and questioned his assumption that people actually wanted to pursue self-development. Mill himself remarked that “On Liberty” was “likely to survive longer than anything else that I have written.” He was right. It is his most famous work and has never gone out of print.

‘The Subjection of Women’

After publishing “On Liberty” in 1859, Mill turned to political reform. He advocated expanding the right to vote to all adults, including women. He devised, however, a controversial voting system, which gave more voting power to those with an education (rather than owners of property).

Mill supported government subsidies to parents who could not afford schooling for their children. But he opposed a public school system because he believed it would enforce social conformity.

An opponent of slavery (which Britain had abolished in 1833), Mill supported the North during the American Civil War. He wrote that if the South won this “would be a victory of the powers of evil, which would give courage to the enemies of progress.”

In 1865, Mill won a Liberal Party seat in Parliament. He ran on the condition that he would only vote his conscience, even if this went against the wishes of the voters he represented.

Mill saw his seat in Parliament as a platform to voice his views on political and social reforms, especially the right of women to vote. In 1867, he helped organize Britain’s first women’s suffrage (right to vote) society. His speeches and votes in Parliament were often far ahead of his time. Consequently, he was defeated for re-election in 1868 after serving only one term.

The year after he left Parliament, Mill published “The Subjection of Women.” This pamphlet summarized his longstanding arguments for the equality of women in Britain’s male-dominated society. He stressed that women should have the same rights as men to develop their individuality. This included the right to own property, earn a college education, choose any occupation, and participate fully in politics.

Mill disagreed sharply with his father on women’s suffrage. James Mill always held that a husband represented his wife when he voted, so she had no reason to exercise this right. John, however, argued that a wife’s interests were often different from those of her husband, and thus she should have an equal right to vote for them. Despite Mill’s efforts, British women did not secure even a limited right to vote until 1918, long after he died.

* * * * *

In his last years, Mill finally wrote on religion, a topic that he had avoided all his life. His critics often called him an atheist. He wrote, however, that he accepted the existence of God as probable and Jesus as a great prophet. Even so, he believed that organized religions opposed social change and restricted individual self-development.

Mill died in France in 1873, a few days short of his 67th birthday and was buried next to Harriet. Helen Taylor, Harriet’s daughter who cared for Mill after she died, published his now-famous Autobiography soon after his death.

Today, most consider John Stuart Mill Britain’s greatest philosopher of the 19th century. He was also one of the last major world thinkers to write on nearly every philosophical topic, ranging from logic to religion. His farsighted views on democracy, individual liberty, and equality for women make him as relevant today as in his own day.

For Discussion and Writing

1.  Mill redefined the Utilitarian concept of happiness as achieving “individuality.” What did he mean by this? Do you agree with him? Explain.

2.  What did Mill mean by the “tyranny of the majority”? Do you think this is a problem for democracy? Why?

3.  Do you think Mill would object to laws stopping individuals from doing harm to themselves such as taking addictive drugs? Why?

For Further Reading

Capaldi, Nicholas. John Stuart Mill: A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Mill, John Stuart. The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill. New York: The Modern Library, 2002.


The Harm Principle

In “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill defined harm to others in this way:

Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law.

Form six small groups to each discuss one of the situations listed below. In each case, group members should decide if it meets Mills’ definition of harm. According to Mill, if something is harmful, then government is justified in passing a law to prevent the harm.

1.  A business person opens a pornographic bookstore.

2.  Two people of the same sex get married to each other.

3.  A private college newspaper prints articles that promote hatred of certain races.

4.  An individual neglects and cruelly abuses his dogs.

5.  Protesters burn an American flag.

6.  An atheist organization pays for a highway billboard that says, “God Does Not Exist. Enjoy Life Now.”

Each group should report its decision and explain why harm to others does or does not exist.



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