John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill

(*1806, Pentonville, England — 1873, Avignon, France)

John Stuart Mill, son of James Mill, was kept from school and tutored by his father and Jeremy Bentham, according to their strictly utilitarian convictions. Force-fed empiricism and utilitarianism—with no religion, no metaphysics, or other irrational notions regarded contemptuously as “‘transcendental intuitionist moonshine” allowed to reach him.

John Stuart Mill grew up to be an exceptional man, with an extremely well trained mind, yet simultaneous sense of emotional emptiness, letting him suffer crisis and depression at the age of 20. Upon recovery, what he came to value most in human life was not rationality, but diversity, dissent, originality, spontaneity and uniqueness each person has. Indeed, he consistently shows a liking of dissent, variety, individuality and originality for their own sake. Mill's work's Leitmotif and his ideal is to preserve that very characteristic, which in his view distinguishes man from other species, which is: the ability of choice. The freedom to choose one's own lifestyle, religion and tastes in life, not according to custom or official doctrine, but according to inner, own longings, for him is the tantamount ideal which ultimately ranks higher than life itself.

Mill decisively departed from utilitarianism by rejecting that happiness could be brought about in a ‘rational', calculating manner, as well by his opposition to utilitarianism's central tenet that there exists an unalterable nature of things. Utilitarians argued that answers to social, as to other, problems can be scientifically discovered once and for all. For Mill, such finality was impossible to achieve. All solutions were necessarily tentative and provisional, as he saw man as not infallible in discovering the truth. Consequentially, he argued for the need to respect diversity of opinions and that all must remain open to discussion and criticism.

Mill ventured to write “On Liberty”, as he saw a new doctrine of liberty necessary, for he saw a danger that the old repression by despotic governments may be replaced by the “tyranny of the majority” and “despotism of custom”. His criticism of other political doctrines, as e.g. socialism, is motivated by his distaste for all uniformity and dogmatism: he lamented that they, too, attempt to alter social opinion in order to make it more favourable to this or that scheme or reform, instead of assailing the monstrous principle itself, which says that social opinion should be a law for individuals. Mill's greatest fear was that people become transformed into mere “industrious sheep” and that “collective mediocrity” would gradually strangle originality and individual gifts.  Being a consistent defender of individuality, he asserted: The only legitimate restriction to individual freedom was harm to others.

In Mill's words:  “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 (Mill, On Liberty, p.13).”

This principle is the one he stated as the core of his essay “On Liberty”.  Mill favoured democracy, but like his contemporary and friend Alexis de Toqueville, he feared unintended consequences of the rule of the masses. The exaltation of the individual is the thread running through his work. The word “dwarfs” and the fear of smallness, pervades all his writings.
He condemned the English Society of his age—Victorian England-- for its conformity and mediocracy and for being such that real individuality had become almost impossible. “In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship”(p.61).

Turning to the discussion of his work, later thinkers have questioned Mill's differentiation between the private and public domains.  In addition, Mill's focus on the spiritual obstacles to freedom has been said to remain one-sided, neglecting material conditions as poverty, disease and as obstacles to freedom. Finally, it has been pointed out that Mill restricted the scope of his analysis to his age. Being preoccupied with contemporary conditions and all that which could hinder diversity and freedom of choice for the individual, he overlooked factors, which would cause an individual's or group's alienation and isolation in society. Unlike in the work of thinkers such as  Friedrich Nietzsche or Karl Marx, who described and anticipated  the rise of irrational forces such as nationalism, class and sectarianism, which would later disintegrate societies, such anticipations are not to be found in Mill's work.

Yet, notwithstanding such criticism, it may be argued that his central thesis remains the classic statement of the case for individual liberty and his insights to perennial questions still reward today's reader. The issues Mill dealt with--and did so admirably consistently-- are still relevant today. This becomes evident when we feel sure that we can tell where he would have stood on the issues of our day. To borrow the judgement of another great mind and liberal thinker, Isaiah Berlin, Mill's On Liberty “is still the clearest, most candid, persuasive, and moving exposition of the point of view of those who desire an open and tolerant society.” (Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, p.201).


Mill, J.S.

“On Liberty”, Penguin Books, 1986

Berlin, Isaiah

“Four Essays on Liberty”, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969

Gray, J. and Smith, G.W. (eds.)

“J.S. Mill On Liberty in Focus”, Routledge, London, 1991

Text by Barbara Plank

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