John Stuart Mill

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John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), was the leading British philosopher of the nineteenth century. An exponent and developer of the empiricism of John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume, and of the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, he made major contributions to economics and political philosophy and is generally considered to be the founder of British Liberalism.


(based upon his autbiography[1])
John Stuart Mill was the eldest son of James Mill, a writer, philosopher and follower of Jeremy Bentham. He was intensively educated by his father, receiving childhood instruction in Greek, Latin, and political economy. From an early age he was an avid reader of history, and as a teenager he acquired a profound understanding of logic and became familiar with the teachings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. At the age of 14 he began a year's stay with a friend of his father's in France, where he made the acquaintance of the economist Jean-Baptiste Say; and on his return he turned his attention to the works of John Locke and Jeremy Bentham and became a convinced utilitarian. At the age of 17 he started work as a minor civil servant: a job that was sufficiently undemanding that he could do it and simultaneusly pursue his own thoughts. For a time he took the achievement of political reform to be his sole objective, but at the age of twenty he suffered a bout of depression, triggered by doubts about the merit of that objective. In 1830, at the age of 25, he formed "the most valuable friendship of my life" - with Mrs Harriet Taylor. Twenty years later, on the death of her husband, they were married - a marriage which ended with her death in 1858. In the meantime his outstanding intellectual reputation had been established by the publication in 1844 of his System of Logic that ran to eight editions. The succession of major works that followed (links to which are available on the works subpage) is recorded on the timelines subpage. In 1865 he started a three-year stint as a Member of Parliament, and he died in 1873 at the age of 66.

Mill's views

In matters of evidence, as in all other human things, we neither require, nor can attain, the absolute. We must hold even our strongest convictions with an opening left in our minds for the reception of facts which contradict them; and only when we have taken this precaution, have we earned the right to act upon our convictions with complete confidence when no such contradiction appears. Whatever has been found true in innumerable instances, and never found to be false after due examination in any, we are safe in acting on as universal provisionally, until an undoubted exception could scarcely have escaped notion.
A System of Logic[1] page 405.


John Stuart Mill was a proponent of induction at a time when the generally accepted method of reasoning was deduction from axioms that were taken to be self-evidently true (as practised by the classical philosophers). He expounded and expanded upon the work on induction by Francis Bacon, and Mill's "five canons of induction" [2][3] were accepted for teaching purposes by the major English universities. He maintained that induction from observations by the five senses was the only acceptable method of scientific enquiry, but he regarded it, not as a path to certainty but as a way of reaching a provisional conclusion with an acceptable degree of confidence (see box).

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the "Greatest Happiness Principle", holds that actins are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they promote the reverse of happiness

The utilitarian morality does recognise in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others. It only refuses to recognise that the sacrifice is itself a good. A sacrifice that does not ... tend to increase the sum total of happiness, it considers wasted.

Utilitarianism[2] Chapter II.


John Stuart Mill was a devoted exponent and defender of Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism. He sought develop the concept and to correct the misunderstandings that he attributed to its critics. In contrast to the deontist tradition of morality as conformance to given rules of conduct, he insisted that what is good contact depends solely upon its consequences for the welfare of those that it affects. In contrast to the paternalist tradition, he took it to mean that what matters is people's individual happiness (meaning their own assessment of their welfare) and not what is deemed to be good for them (see Liberty). He advocated the use of utilitarianism as the principal of justice, with implications that he carried over to his writings on government.

The ideally best form of government is that in which sovereignty ... is vested in the entire aggregate of the community; every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that ultimate sovereignty, but being, at least occasionally, called on to take an actual part in the government. Its superiority ... rests upon two principles... The first is, that the rights and interests of every or any person are only secure ... when the person interested is himself able .. to stand up for them. The second is, that the general prosperity attains a greater height, and is more widely diffused, in proportion to the amount and variety of the personal energies enlisted in promoting it.
Representative Government[3] Chapter 3

Representative government

The details of Mill's exposition of what he considered to be the ideal form of government, were clearly intended for an English readership, but its central thesis had a wider impact. It went beyond the principle of the sovereignty of the people, to advocate that people should also be called upon to participate in government (see box). He did not, however, suggest that elected representatives should engage directly in the conduct of government. He proposed instead to give the representative assembly the duties of ensuring that the administration of government is in competent hands, and of holding it to account for satisfactory performance. He also advocated a large but qualified extension of the franchise (at a time when only about a quarter of English adult males (and no females) were entitled to vote at parliamentary elections), and many other less significant changes to the British constitution.

As soon as ...a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it .... But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects no persons besides himself...
On Liberty[4] Chapter 4


John Stuart Mill's political creed is succinctly stated as "the only freedom that deserves the name 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 their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether, bodily or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest"[4]


Mill's Principles Of Political Economy[5] was a restatement and extension of the theoretical work of David Ricardo. It embodied the classical economics assumptions that prices are determined by the cost of production, and that wages are determined in the short term by the size of a savings-determined wage fund, and the acceptance of Malthus's population theory that the long-term supply of labour is determined by the level of subsistence.


Mill argued that, although the community's perceptions of right and wrong had, in the past, been based upon supernatural religious belief, that basis of belief was no longer socially necessary. He looked forward to a time when people would be motivated by a deep concern for the general good. This would be "a religion of humanity" (a concept that had been advanced by the philosopher Auguste Comte)[6][7] .

Sexual equality

Mill argued at length that "the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other" [8].

Mill's impact

John Stuart Mill has been best known for his advocacy of Utilitarianism, and in that connection his impact has been considerable. According to the philospher, Mary Warnock, Utilitarian principles had a major influence on the overhauling of the machinery of British government in the 19th century, by leading people to question whether its institutions provided an effective mechanism for the delivery of tangible benefits to the community[9]. In the 20th century its distributional implications have been criticised by, among others, John Rawls[10] on the grounds that it would sanction suffering by a minority if sufficiently offset by benefits to the majority. It has also been pointed out by Ronald Dworkin that it would, in principle, mean preferential treatment for people with expensive tastes[11]. The most durable of Mill's works may turn out to be "On Liberty", which has been continuously in print for over 150 years. It has almost certainly contributed to the trend away from paternalist legislation that has occurred in western countries during that period. Similarly, it may reasonably be presumed that his "The Subjection of Women" played a part in the major extension of female suffrage that has happened since its pubication. His "Principles of Political Economy" were well-received at the time, but were overtaken in the late-19th century by the marginal analysis of the economists of the neoclassical school.