A Search for Truth: A Biography of John Stuart Mill
Raised from a young age to continue the philosophical tradition of Benthamite utilitarianism, Mill contributed to philosophy of science and ethics.
John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty (1859) is the most famous work about toleration in the English language. It is clear, concise, logical and passionate. It defends toleration — of thought, speech and individuality ‑- as a practical means to promote happiness for the greatest number of people. The book inspired a couple generations of classical liberal thinkers, and today it is probably the only historic work about toleration that most people ever read.
Yet from the standpoint of liberty generally, the philosophy behind On Liberty ‑- Utilitarianism — was a terrible failure. Mill and other Utilitarian’s relentlessly hammered the doctrine of natural rights, a moral basis for liberty which had provided the only known intellectual barrier to tyranny. Natural rights, as explained by thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, defined what governments could not rightfully do. Neither Mill nor any other Utilitarian offered fixed principles to replace natural rights. As far as Mill was concerned, Utilitarianism became a moral plea for socialism. He didn’t anticipate how socialist government power could unleash horrifying intolerance during the 20th century.
Mill’s opinion had to be reckoned with, because he was the most influential English philosopher of the 19th century, the author of respected books on economics, logic and political philosophy, a prolific journalist, the editor of a widely‑followed journal of opinion, a friend of leading intellectuals in Europe and the United States. People listened when Mill spoke.
Mill owed his influence perhaps as much to his appealing personality as to his intellectual firepower. He was a rational, positive, generous man who sincerely loved liberty. There is moral fervor in On Liberty, even if he couldn’t bring himself to justify liberty for moral reasons. He was ahead of his time in insisting that women are entitled to equal rights — he endured more hostile criticism for his book The Subjection of Women (1869) than for anything else he wrote.
Recalled libertarian author John Morley who first met Mill several years after On Liberty was published: “In bodily presence, though not commanding, at sixty he was attractive, spare in build, his voice low but harmonious, his eye sympathetic and responsive. His perfect simplicity and candor, friendly gravity with no accent of the don, his readiness of interest and curiosity, the evident love of truth and justice and improvement as the standing habit of mind — all this diffused a high, enlightening ethos that, aided by the magic halo of accepted fame, made him extraordinarily impressive.”
Mill had humble beginnings. Not much is known about his mother, Harriet Barrow. His father James Mill went to the University of Edinburgh on a scholarship. He moved to London following the death of his mother and the bankruptcy of his father’s meager shoemaking business. He was resourceful and got himself a succession of jobs editing small publications. His firstborn, John Stuart Mill, arrived on May 20, 1806.
Two years later, when James Mill was 35, he met the 60‐year‐old philosopher and legal reformer Jeremy Bentham. This eccentric bachelor was quite a sight in an austere quaker‐cut coat, knee breeches and white woolen stockings. Bentham had developed the doctrine of Utilitarianism — government policy should aim to help achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Bentham promoted the expansion of the voting franchise, and he attacked the irrational, conflicting features of British law. Bentham’s zeal inspired James Mill to become a passionate political reformer.
Mill decided to groom his eldest son as a rationalist philosopher who could guide the next generation of political reformers. This involved an ambitious experiment in accelerated education at home. The curriculum consisted mainly of great books. John Stuart Mill started learning Greek when he was three. He learned Latin, arithmetic, algebra, geometry and political economy by the time he was a teenager.
In May 1823, when John Stuart Mill was 17, he gained security for life—a six‐hour‐a‐day administrative job at the East India Company, arranged by his father who had been working there four years. John Stuart Mill’s starting pay was only L30 a year, but he got promotions and had plenty of time for intellectual pursuits. He was to work at the East India Company for 35 years.
Mill’s first freelance effort to improve the world landed him in jail for a couple days on an obscenity charge: concerned about over‐population, he had distributed birth control information in a London park. Mill was defiant, but his family and friends were scandalized.
He launched his scholarly career, writing articles for the Westminister Review, the Utilitarian journal which started publication in 1824 and was financed by Bentham. They debated issues with the Whig Edinburgh Review as well as the Tory Quarterly Review.
Mill seemed to be fulfilling his dream. But after all the years of absorbing facts, concentrating on his logical powers and without a close personal relationship, he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1826. He was 20. Mill was severely depressed for about six months. He began to read poetry. He flirted with the ideas of French socialists Comte de St. Simon and Auguste Comte.
In the summer of 1830, when Mill was 24, he had dinner at the home of London merchant John Taylor and met his 22‐year‐old wife Harriet Taylor who, it turned out, shared these passions. According to one acquaintance, she “was possessed of a beauty and grace quite unique of their kind. Tall and slight, with a slightly drooping figure, the movements of undulating grace. A small head, a swan‐like thoat, and a complexion like a pearl. Large dark eyes, not soft or sleepy, but with a look of quiet command in them. A low sweet voice with very distinct utterance emphasized the effect of her engrossing personality.”
Mill was enchanted. They became an item, with a resigned John Taylor’s consent. They spent time together in London and travelled through Europe together, scandalizing their friends. For about two years, Mill was her mentor, sharing his panoramic view of Western thought. Gradually, though, she gained influence over Mill. She suggested changes in his manuscripts, and he reflected her passion for women’s rights and social reform.
His Principles of Political Economy (1848) was a collaborative effort, and it became the most influential economics book of the 19th century. It was sophisticated enough to satisfy the most rigorous thinkers, yet it was written in plain language, understandable by almost everyone. Mill prepared the draft, she critiqued it, and he dutifully made changes which were significant in later editions (there were four editions before she died, eight altogether). He eliminated his most serious objections to socialism.
John Taylor died in July 1849. Two years later, Mill and Harriet Taylor decided to get married, and he gave her a written agreement foreswearing any special legal privileges as husband. Alas, her health was frail. In November 1858, she succumbed to tuberculosis.
Mill had started writing On Liberty in 1855. They collaborated on it, and after her death he worked to complete it. The book was published in February 1859, dedicated to her. Like most intellectuals, Mill was mainly interested in freedom of thought and was much less concerned about freedom of action, which required secure private contracts as well as private property. The book is an eloquent plea for toleration rather than a general defense of liberty, as commonly supposed. Nonetheless, the vigor of Mill’s language makes clear that he did value liberty for its own sake and not just as one among many possible ways to achieve a Utilitarian’s conception of happiness.
“The object of this Essay,” he wrote, “is to assert one very simple principle…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others…Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Mill’s “one very simple principle” became quite controversial. Adversaries claimed everything an individual might do affected others and therefore was potentially subject to government intervention.
As expected, Mill based his case on “utility,” rejecting natural rights and offering practical reasons for tolerating unorthodox opinions: “First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
“Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
“Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct…”
Then Mill insisted that individuality ought to be tolerated even when eccentricities bother other people. First, he observed that cultivation of individuality is essential for well‑developed human beings. Second, he reminded readers that you never know which individuals will contribute valuable innovations.
Mill recognized that liberty cannot survive government takeover of the economy: “If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint‑stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if, in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration; if the employees of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise of life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name.”
Yet, inexplicably, Mill didn’t see that government control is every bit as dangerous as outright government ownership. For example, while he opposed government schools, he heartily urged that government compel all children to attend schools, set educational standards, conduct regular examinations to verify that standards are being met, and if necessary the government might have to provide education. Equally amazing, this fabled Utilitarian, as devoted as ever to reason, failed to make a reasoned case for government control. While he disparaged natural rights philosophers for basing their views on “self‑evident” truths, he claimed that government control of education was “almost a self‑evident axiom.” Moreover, Mill took the puzzling position that free trade could not be justified by his principles of liberty.
Mill didn’t come up with anything to take the place of natural rights which clearly define human liberty and set specific, enforceable limits to government power. His cherished principle of utility turned out to be a slippery slope.
Without the anchor of natural rights, Mill found himself advocating steep inheritance taxes, nationalization of land, local government takeover of gas companies and — most astounding — universal military conscription. Utilitarian James Fitzjames Stephen went much farther, advocating an authoritarian government to forcibly improve human behavior by applying Bentham’s pleasure‑pain principle on a grand scale. During the 20th century, intellectuals and mobs alike swept aside practical considerations as they plunged into socialism.
In later writings, Mill made clear that he didn’t think socialism or communism would work. For example, in Chapters on Socialism, a partial draft of a book he started in 1869, published posthumously by his step‐daughter in 1879, he recognized that socialism doesn’t give people any incentive to improve their performance. Mill dismissed talk about central planning.
While Mill presented a compelling practical case for liberty, he avoided a moral defense of liberty. Indeed, he made it clear that he believed socialists occupied the moral high ground. Mill died on May 5, 1873, still trying to reconcile the seeming desirability of socialism with its evident dangers.
Despite critical limitations, Mill’s essay did much to stimulate continuing debate about liberty. He expressed his practical case more passionately than anyone else, especially his declaration that there is a significant sphere of individual action which should never be restricted by government. Mill’s work survived his death and penetrated mainstream opinion like few writings about liberty before or since. For that, he achieved immortality.