Home » Subject » Political Science » Notes » Western Political Thought

Western Political Thought: John S.Mill

In the arena of political theoretical development, John Stuart Mill has high standing. He was considered as most persuasive political philosopher of the nineteenth century. In his political theory, liberalism made a changeover from laissez-faire to an active role for the state, from a negative to a positive formation of liberty and from an atomistic to a more social conception of individuality. While Mill was a liberal, he was also regarded as a democrat, a pluralist, supportive socialist and a feminist.

His philosophical origins were in the British Empiricism of John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. But he is popular for his further development of the Utilitarian theory of his teacher, Jeremy Bentham, which he promoted as a movement and of which he became the best known exponent and ally.

In his political thoughts, Mill was significantly influenced by the discussions and dialectics of Plato and the cross questions of Socrates. His studies of Roman Law by John Austin, Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith and Principles of Ricardo had, in large measure, affected his reasoning. He had subdued Bentham's principles from his father and Bentham himself and found the principles of utility the basis of his dogmas. J.S Mill was also greatly influenced by his own wife Mrs. Taylor whom he used to call a perfect personification of wisdom, intellect and character. She impact the Mill's nature emotionally and provided the sympathy he wanted.

It is reflected in his writing that J.S. Mill was a productive writer and he wrote on different subdivisions of knowledge with equal mastery. When he was just 20 years, Mill started to write for newspapers and periodicals. His System of Logic (1843) tried to explain a comprehensible philosophy of politics. The logic shared the British empiricist tradition of Locke and Hume of associational psychology with a conception of social science based on the model of Newtonian physics. His "System of Logic" was a determined attempt to give an account not only of Logic but of the methods of science and their applicability to social as well as purely natural phenomena. Mill's idea of Logic comprised not only formal logic but also a "logic of proof". This led him to an analysis of causation and eventually to an account of inductive reasoning that remains the starting point of most modern discussions on Logic. The "System of Logic" also attacked the Intuitionist philosophy (the belief that explanations rested on intuitively compelling principles rather than on general causal laws) of William Whewell (1794 - 1866) and Sir William Hamilton (1788 - 1856), which he visualized as "bad philosophy".

His "Principles of Political Economy" of 1848 represented that economics was not the "dismal science" that Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881) and its radical and literary critics had thought, and it became one of the most extensively read of all books on economics in the period, and dominated economics teaching for decades. His early economic philosophy was generally one of free markets with minimal interventions in the economy, and the "Principles" is largely a highly proficient re-statement of Smith and Ricardo's theory of classical capitalist economics. He helped to develop the ideas of economies of scale, opportunity cost and comparative advantage in trade.

But in the "Principles", Mill had the radical arguments that we should sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment, and should limit population as much to give ourselves breathing space as in order to fend off the risk of malnourishment for the overburdened poor, and encouraged his own ideal of an economy of worker-owned cooperatives.

His "Utilitarianism" of 1861 was the magnificent work on the defence of the Utilitarian view that we should aim at maximizing the welfare (or happiness) of all sentient creatures. His famous work Utilitarianism (1863) endorsed the Benthamite belief of the greater happiness yet made a significant departure from the Benthamite assumptions. It was written an exposition and defence of the pleasure pain philosophy applied to ethics, but he made drastic changes that there is little left of the original dogma. He visualized that human nature is not totally moved by self-interest, as Bentham and his father had taught, but is adept of self-sacrifice.

Nevertheless, he was ardent to develop Utilitarianism into a more humanitarian principle. Mill described "utilitarianism" as the doctrine that considers a particular "theory of life" as the "foundation of morals". His view of theory of life was monistic: There is one thing, and one thing only, that is fundamentally desirable such as pleasure. In contrast to a form of hedonism that perceives pleasure as a homogeneous matter, Mill was persuaded that some types of pleasure are more valuable than others in virtue of their inherent qualities. For this reason, his position is often called "qualitative hedonism". Many theorists hold that qualitative hedonism is no consistent position. Hedonism proclaims that pleasure is the only intrinsic value. Under this assumption, the critics contend, there can be no measurement for the distinction between higher and lower pleasures. British idealists such as F. H. Bradley and T. H. Green raised this common objection.

One of Mill's major contributions to Utilitarianism was his disagreement for the qualitative separation of pleasures, his persistence that happiness should be assessed not merely by quantity but by quality and, more precisely, that intellectual and moral pleasures are superior to more physical forms of pleasure. He also turned away from Bentham's external standard of goodness to something more subjective, arguing that unselfishness was as important as self-interest in deciding what ought to be done.

In the early stage of developing theoretical dogmas of Utilitarianism, Mill hypothesized that moral judgments presume rules. Contrary to Kant, who formulated his ethical theory on self-imposed rules, so-called maxims, Mill contemplated that morality builds on social rules. Others questioned what makes social rules moral rules? Mill's answer is based on a thesis about how competent speakers use the phrase "morally right" or "morally wrong". He upholds that we name a type of action morally wrong if we think that it should be sanctioned either through formal punishment, public disapproval (external sanctions) or through a bad conscience (internal sanctions). This is the critical difference between "morality and simple expediency". Wrong or inexpedient actions are those that we cannot recommend to a person, like harming oneself. But in contrast to immoral actions, inexpedient actions are not worthy of being sanctioned.

Mill discriminates various spheres of action. In his famous writing, System of Logic, he names morality, prudence and aesthetics as the three departments of the "Art of Life. The principle of utility governs not only morality, but also prudence and taste. It is not a moral principle but a meta-principle of practical reason (Skorupski 1989). His Essay On Liberty (1859) and the Subjection of Women (1869) were classic amplifications of liberal thought on critical issues like law, rights and liberty.

Mill critiqued and amended Bentham's utilitarianism by taking into account factors such as moral motives, sociability, and feeling of universal altruism, sympathy and a new concept of justice with the major idea of impartiality. He proclaimed that the major deficiency of Benthamite ethics was the negligence of individual character, and hence stressed on the cultivation of feelings and imagination as part of good life poetry, drama, music, paintings were essential constituents both for human happiness and formation of character.

They were instruments of human culture. He made happiness and the dignity of man, and not the principle of pleasure, the chief end of life. He described happiness to mean excellence of human nature, refinement of moral virtues and lofty aspirations, total control over one's appetites and desires, and recognition of individual and collective interests. Mill retained the basic principles of utilitarianism, but distinguished between higher and lower pleasures, and that greater human pleasure meant an increase not merely in the quantity but also in the quality of goods enjoyed. He asserted that human beings were adept of intellectual and moral pleasures, which were superior to the physical ones that they shared with the animal. He gave concise explanation of the differences as follows. "It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig is of a different opinion it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party is in comparison knows both the sides."

Mill indicated that every human action had three aspects:

  1. The moral aspect of right or wrong
  2. The aesthetic aspect (or its beauty)
  3. The sympathetic aspect of its loveableness.

The first principle instructed one to approve or disapprove, the second taught one to admire or despise, and the third enabled one to love, pity or dislike. He viewed individual self-development and diversity as the ultimate ends, important components of human happiness and the principal elements of individual and social advancement.

Mill used the principle of utility which he considered as the 'ultimate appeal on all ethical questions to support his principle of liberty, but then it was utilitarianism based on the permanent interests of the individual as a reformist being. He made a difference between toleration and suppression of offensive practices. In case of offences against public decency, majority sentiment would conquer. Beyond these, the minorities must be granted the freedom of thought and expression, and the right to live as they pleased.

In different perspective, J.S. Mill certainly makes an improvement over the utilitarian theory of Bentham. Bentham had not spoken about the social nature of morality that society itself has a moral end the moral good of its members. From the contention that every individual desires his own happiness, Mill believed that the individual should desire and promote the general happiness. It is understandable that Mill stood not for an individual's happiness but for the happiness of all. He considered utility as an honourable sentiment associated with Christian religion. Additionally, Mill also tried to resolve the interests of the individual and society. He spoke of nobility of character a trait that was closely related with unselfishness. Mill visualized that social feelings and consciences as part of the psychological qualities of a person. He considered society as being natural and habitual for the individual was a social person. Mill also specified that pleasures and pains could not be measured empirically. The felicific calculus was illogical; one had to rely upon the judgement of the competent and wise. He defined the state as an instrument that would bring about transformation of the human being. According to Prof. Sabine, "Mill's ethics was important for liberalism because in effect it abandoned egoism, presumed that social welfare is a matter of concern to all men of good will, and regarded freedom, integrity, self-respect and personal distinction as intrinsic goods apart from their contribution to happiness".

Liberty: Mill's dissertation "On Liberty" of 1859 gripped under the greatest controversy and the most intense expressions of approval and disapproval. It concentrated on the nature and limits of the power that can be lawfully exercised by society over the individual, and he laid down his "one very simple principle" governing the use of coercion in society (whether it be by legal penalties or by the operation of public opinion), debating that we may only coerce others in self-defence: either to defend ourselves, or to defend others from harm (the so-called "harm principle"). Thus, if an action is self-regarding, then society has no right to interfere, even if it feels the actor is harming himself. Man is free to do anything unless he harms others, he contended, and individuals are rational enough to make decisions about what is good and also to choose any religion they want.

In his influential writing piece, "On Liberty" Mill made an impassioned defence of free speech and squabbled that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress, and that we can never be sure that a silenced opinion does not contain some element of the truth. It presents the concepts of "social liberty" (limits on a ruler's power to prevent him from harming society, requiring that people should have the right to a say in a government's decisions), and also the concept of the "tyranny of the majority" (where the majority tyrannizes the minority by decisions which could be harmful and wrong sometimes, and against which precautions are needed).

Mill's philosophies on liberty had a direct relationship with his theory of utility or happiness. Mill considered liberty as a way for the development of individuality which was to become the ultimate source of happiness. There was only one way for him to take and that was the road of the higher utility. In his popular work, On Liberty, Mill systematically scrutinises the problem of the relationship between the individual on the one side and the society and state on the other. J.S. Mill specified that liberty means absence of restraints. Mill believes that an individual has two aspects to his life; an individual aspect and social aspects. The actions of the individual may be divided into two categories: (1) Self-regarding activities and (2) Other regarding activities. With regard to activities in which he alone is concerned, his liberty of action is complete and should not be regulated by the state. Nonetheless, in action of the individual which effects the society, his action can be defensibly regulated by the state or society. In his On Liberty, J.S. Mill composed that the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or mutually in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their members is self-preservation. That is the only purpose for which power can be lawfully exercised over any members of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to other.

Mill garrisoned the right of the individual to freedom. In its negative sense, freedom meant that the society had no right to coerce an unwilling individual except for self-defence. It meant the grant of the largest and the greatest amount of freedom for the chase of the individual's creative impulses and energies and for self-development. If there was a clash between the opinion of the individual and that of the community, it was the individual who was an ultimate judge, unless the community could convince him without resorting to threat and compulsion. Mill has made the grounds for justifying interference. An activity that related to the individual alone represented the space over which no coercive interference either from the government or from other people was permissible. The realm which pertained to the society or the public was the space in which coercion could be used to make the individual conform to some standard of conduct. Mill in his On Liberty explained that "the only part of the conduct of any one, for which is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind the individual is sovereign."

Mill also defended the right of individuality, which meant the right of choice of the individuals. As for as self-regarding actions are concerned, he elucidated why coercion or state action would be damaging to the self-development of the individual.

First, the evils of coercion overshadowed the good achieved.

Second, individuals were so diverse in their needs and capacities for happiness that compulsion would be unsuccessful. Since the person was the best judge of his own interests, therefore he had the information and the incentives to achieve them.

Third, some diversity was in itself good, it should be encouraged.

Lastly, freedom was the most important prerequisite in the life of a rational person. Mill contended that positive liberty was naturally desirable and it was possible if individuals were permissible to develop their own talents and invent their own life styles. Henceforth, he made strong case for negative liberty and liberal state and society were essential requirements.

Mill proclaimed that society could limit individual liberty to avert harm to other people. He considered liberty of conscience, liberty to express and publish one's opinions, liberty to live as one pleased and freedom of association as essential for a meaningful life and for the pursuit of one's own good. His justification of freedom of thought and expression was one of the most powerful and expressive exposition in the western intellectual tradition. The early liberals shielded liberty for the sake of efficient government while for Mill liberty was good in itself for it helped in the development of a compassionate, civilized, moral person. Prof. Sabine stated that liberty was "beneficial both to society that allows them and to the individual that enjoys them". According to Mill, individuality means power or capacity for critical enquiry and responsible thought. It means self-development and the expression free will. He stressed total liberty of conscience, belief and expression as they were crucial to human development.

Mill presented some advices for liberty of expression in the service of truth:

  1. The dissenting opinion could be true and its expression would promote humanity of useful knowledge.
  2. Even if the opinion was false, it would reinforce the correct view by challenging it.

Mill shielded freedom of association on some grounds.

First "When the thing to be done is likely to be done better by individuals instead of government. In general, there is no one first to conduct any business or to determine how or why whom it shall be conducted all those who are personally interested in it".

Second, allowing individuals to get together to do something, even if they do not do it as well as the government might have done it, is better for the mental learning of these individuals. The right of education becomes a 'practical part of the political education of a free people taking them out of the narrow circle of personal and family selfishness'.

Third, if we allow government do everything there is the malevolent of adding unnecessarily to its power.

It is apparent from explanation that On Liberty established the most influential and convincing defence of the principle of individual liberty ever written. Mill regarded individual character as a result of civilization, instruction, education and culture. For Mill happiness means liberty and individuality. Liberty was considering as a central prerequisites for leading good, worthy and dignified life. He considered liberty as belonging to higher and progressive societies and suggested despotism with serve restrictions in case of lower ones. It is generally believed that Mill's essay on liberty was essentially written with the aim of shielding the idea of negative liberty.

The harm principle: According to Mill, "the state is justified in intervening in a person's life, but only when that person is acting in a way that is harmful to others. Harm to self does not justify Governmental intervention".

The subject in on liberty was not the absence of restraints but the denial of individual independence by the coercion exercised by a moral majority and public opinion. Mill's principle of liberty has been imperilled to serve criticisms. Prof Ernest Barker criticised Mill's notion of liberty by describing that "Mill is a forecaster of empty liberty and abstract individual.

Mill had no strong Philosophy and theory of rights through which alone the concept of liberty attains a concrete meaning. Earnest Barker's observation followed from the interpretation that the absolute statements on liberty like the rights of one individual against the rest was not substantiated when one assessed in Mill's writings in their totality. For example, his compartmentalisation between self-regarding and other regarding actions, and the tension between his tilt towards welfares which conflicted with individualism were all signs of this incompleteness. But the point Prof. Barker overlooked was the fact that the tension that arisen in Mill was an unavoidable consequence of attempting to create a realistic political theory which attempted to extend the limits of liberty as much as possible. In fact, no political theorist including the contemporary thinkers like John Rowls, Nozick are free from this unavoidable tension.

It can evaluated that On Liberty, decent writing of Mill, presents the concept of individual freedom.

Representative government: Mill's major work, "The Considerations of Representative Government (1861)" offered a summary of his perfect government based on proportional representation, protection of minorities and institutions of self-government.

Mill expressed his views on Representative government by saying that we can only decide which the best form of government is by investigating which form of government fulfils most passably the purposes of government. Mill specified that a good government executes two functions.

  1. It must use the existing qualities and skills of the citizens to best serve their interests.
  2. It must improve the moral, intellectual and active qualities of these citizens.

A tyrannical government may fulfil the first purpose, but will fail in the second. Only a representative government is able to fulfil these two functions. It is a representative government that combines wisely the two principles of participation and competence which is able to fulfil the two functions to shield and educate the citizens. Mill considered Representative democracy as compulsory for development as it permits citizens to use and develop their faculties fully. It encouraged virtual intelligence and excellence. It also permitted the education of the citizens providing an efficient opportunity for conducting the collective affairs of the community. Interaction between individuals in a democracy ensured the possibility of the emergence of the sensible and recognition of the best leaders. It invigorated free discussion which was needed for the emergence of the truth. He judged representative democracy on the basis of how it promotes the good management of the affairs of the society by means of the existing faculties, moral, intellectual and active, of its various members and by improving those faculties. Mill tried to resolve the principle of political equality with individual freedom. He recognized that all citizens regardless of their status were equal and that only popular independence could give legitimacy to the government.

Mill expected that democracy was good because it made people happier and better. Mill developed several conditions for representative government.

First such a government could only function with citizens who have an active self-helping character. According to Mill, backward civilizations, would barely be able to run a representative democracy.

Second, citizens had to display their ability and willingness to preserve institutions of representative democracy. Influenced by De Tocqueville's thesis on majority tyranny, Mill promoted a liberal democracy which specified and limited the powers of legally elected majorities by cataloguing and protecting individual rights against the majority. He appealed for balancing the numerical majority in a democracy by adjusting franchise.

Mill suggested that open instead of secret ballot, for voting was a public trust which should be performed under the eye and criticism of the public. Open voting would be less dangerous for the individual. Voter would be less influenced by the threatening interests and discreditable feelings which belong to himself either individually or as a member of a class. Mill stressed that representative democracy was only possible in a state that was small and homogeneous.

Mill was fully aware of the weaknesses and danger of democracy. His mind was particularly disappointed by the insufficient representation of minorities in parliament and the tyranny of the majority over the minority. In order to guarantee adequate representation of minorities, Mill supported the system of proportional representative first proposed for parliamentary elections by Sir Thomas Hare in England and advocated its theory in his work: "Machinery of Representation". In addition to proportional representation, he has advocated plurality of votes to the higher educated citizens.

Mill's "Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy" of 1865 created the first developed presentation of the principle of Phenomenalism (the epistemological view which regards sensations as the basic constituents of reality, and attempts to construct the external world from sensations and the possibilities of sensation), and it comprised his quote: "Matter, then, may be defined as the Permanent Possibility of Sensation". Though the origins of Phenomenalism had origin since ancient time which can be traced back to George Berkeley, Mill's doctrine became standard among scientific philosophers, until superseded by Physicalism in the 1930s.

Another master piece,"The Subjection of Women" of 1869, seemingly published late in life in order to avoid debates that would lessen the impact of his other work, was considered as excessively radical in Mill's period. But is now appreciated as a classic statement of liberal Feminism. Mill debated that if freedom is good for men, then it is for women too, and that every argument against this view drawn from the evidently different "nature" of men and women is based on mere superstitious special pleading. If women do have different natures, the only way to discover what they are is by experiment, and that requires that women should have access to everything to which men have access. He felt that the tyranny of women was one of the few remaining remnants from ancient times, a set of prejudices that severely obstructed the progress of humanity.

Mill's political theories are criticized by many challengers. The critics of Mill, such as G. E. Moore and Sidgwick, asserted that if pleasure is one specific feeling, then it is impossible to claim that some kinds of pleasure are better than others, as Mill mentioned in his theory of qualitatively superior pleasures. But it is a mistake to claim that pleasure is one specific feeling. Pleasure is a genus with many specific varieties, with "family resemblances" that make them all species of pleasure.

Mill was an introspective psychologist. When he said that pleasures are not homogeneous, he is denoting to the different phenomenal experiences that we count as pleasures. Pleasures of the mind are different from pleasures of the body in the way they feel as pleasures.

To summarize, John Stuart Mill was prominent English-speaking philosopher of the 19th century. He had multiflorous persona as a British philosopher, economist, and moral and political theorist. His outstanding works include books and essays covering logic, epistemology, economics, social and political philosophy, ethics, and religion, among them A System of Logic, On Liberty, and Utilitarianism. Mill's On Liberty is a seminal antiprohibition text, which assumes ever greater importance and relevance in contemporary period. Mill initiated the dialogue on justice and equality in the 19th century. His views of a healthy society as one that grows and changes with the times which encourages individuality, even eccentricity.