The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Mill, John Stuart (1806-1873)

John Stuart Mill was educated by his father James Mill and received training in a variety of disciplines, including classics, philosophy, history, economics, mathematics, and logic. His father was a close associate of Jeremy Bentham, who was one of the earliest exponents of utilitarian ethics. As a result, the younger Mill was exposed to these ideas at an early age. However, his learning ranged over many areas. He was able to read Greek at age 3 and Latin at age 8. For 35 years, he worked for the East India Company, but managed to write on a variety of topics. Among his most important books are A System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy(1848), On Liberty (1859), Considerations on Representative Government (1861), Utilitarianism (1863), Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865), The Subjection of Women (1869), and his Autobiography (1873). In 1851, he married Harriet Taylor, with whom he had had a close intellectual and possibly romantic relationship for some 20 years.

Mill is remembered primarily for his contributions to moral and political philosophy and logic. In later years, Mill developed strong sympathies for certain sorts of government intervention, both in the economy and socially, but for a good portion of his life he can reasonably be described as a libertarian. Utilitarianism and libertarianism are typically not allies, but Mill’s conception of both was unique, and his attempt to synthesize the two yielded interesting insights into both. Although Mill was influenced by the moral theories of his father and Bentham, Mill’s utilitarianism departs from Benthamism in at least two clearly identifiable ways. First of all, when Bentham argues that our actions should bring about the greatest good for the greatest number, he identifies good as pleasure, pain being the corresponding evil. Pleasures and pains differ only in quantitative measures such as intensity, duration, likelihood of recurring, and so on. But “[q]uantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry.” Mill, in contrast, argued that pleasures could differ in qualitative as well as quantitative ways. Pleasures associated with the exercise and development of the higher faculties were, he maintained, intrinsically more valuable. In a much-quoted passage, Mill says: “[I]t is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” In other words, men are capable of appreciating the sorts of things that might bring a pig pleasure (food, sleep, sex), but the pig is incapable of comprehending distinctly human pleasures such as love, drama, or intellectual growth. Pushpin, a relatively mindless children’s game, is not as good as poetry, even if one plays for hours, because it neither exercises nor develops the higher faculties.

Aristotle made precisely this point about the human good being categorically different from the good for other creatures. Thus, when Mill endorses the slogan “greatest good for the greatest number,” he does so with a particular understanding of “good”—namely, a distinctly human good, one connected to the development of man, the “permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”

The second major departure from Benthamism reflects the distinction that contemporary moral philosophers make between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Bentham argued that actions were good only insofar as they brought about the “greatest good for the greatest number.” A critical objection to this formulation is that it is difficult to know all the future consequences of an action. It may be impossible to know in a given situation whether something will bring about the greatest overall good, inasmuch as one cannot predict all future consequences. Mill suggested that, rather than evaluate each individual action on the basis of utility, we should try to derive rules or policies that, taken as a whole, bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. For example, one might decide on an ad hoc basis to ban a certain demonstration, say a group of Nazis marching in a largely Jewish community, because it is likely to have a net painful effect. Mill’s analysis is somewhat more subtle. For Mill, whether one decides to ban such demonstrations rests on the question of which social policy is likely to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number, a policy of freedom of expression or a policy whereby majorities can silence dissident minorities? Given Mill’s understanding of the good as tied to the exercise and development of the higher faculties, it is clear that permitting the march is the more moral, utilitarian, decision.

Mill’s defense of liberty as a political principle follows from his understanding of utilitarian morals. A necessary condition of social well-being, Mill argues, is individual liberty. This notion is made clear in another frequently quoted passage. In On Liberty, he writes that

the object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle … 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. 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.

The antipaternalist position asserted here is an integral part of libertarian thought. The general principle that conduct that does not harm others should not be legally proscribed virtually defines libertarianism, although other theorists and activists have defended or expanded on it in many different ways.

Mill argued for a specific set of liberties being especially crucial to the development of the good: liberty of conscience, including freedom of thought and expression, and of the press; liberty of tastes and pursuits, including lifestyle and career choice (provided of course that one’s choice does not infringe on the liberty of others); and liberty to associate with and unite with others for any purpose that does not violate the rights of others. These liberties are necessary for the discovery of truth and for the development of culture. To deny these liberties not only inhibits our humanity, but is most likely to lead to erroneous doctrines in morals, religion, and science, doctrines that once established are almost impossible to correct. Even if the views we seek to prohibit are clearly false, they constitute effective criticisms against which we can test and strengthen our true beliefs.

In his writings on political economy, Mill embraced free markets, with some notable exceptions. He recognized that the bureaucracy of a centralized economy would not be productive and that competitive markets were more likely to produce greater wealth. However, he did not extend this view to all aspect of economic life. He assumed that roads and basic utilities should be owned and administered by the government. He supported worker-owned firms on the grounds that this form of association was most likely to minimize class hostility and enhance productivity. Mill also was an early proponent of equal political rights for women.

By grounding his defense of liberty in terms of his understanding of utilitarianism, Mill differed significantly from proponents of natural-rights liberalism such as Locke and is an ancestor to a variety of consequentialist approaches to libertarianism. However, by conceiving of utility in terms of specifically human values, and with reference to man’s full potentialities, Mill’s views also foreshadow the neo-Aristotelian defenses of liberty that gained prominence in the 1990s.


Further Readings

Anschutz, R. P. The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Britton, Karl. John Stuart Mill. London: Penguin Books, 1953.

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

Hart, H. L. A. Law, Liberty, and Morality. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill. New York: Knopf, 1974.

Lyons, David. Rights, Welfare, and Mill’s Moral Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975 [1859].

———. Principles of Political Economy. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Pelican, 1970 [1848].

———. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1979 [1863].

Ryan, Alan. The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. London: Macmillan, 1970.

Originally published .