PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday April 9, 2003

John Stuart Mill


[1.] Background.[1]

·         1806-1873, English

·         famously educated by his father, James Mill, a friend and follower of Jeremy Bentham and a formidable philosopher in his own right

·         lived during the French Revolution (1848) and was a supporter of the Second Republic; was shocked by Napoleon's coup in 1852

·         in 1851, married Harriet Taylor, a feminist who significantly affected his thinking about social justice; this was controversial, since they had been friends for many years while she was married to her first husband (whose death was soon followed by Mill's and Taylor's marriage)

·         Mill contracted tuberculosis from his father and may have passed it on to his wife, who died in 1858 (Mill improved and outlived her by 15 years)

·         Before Harriet's death, she and J.S. had planned to write a series of essays laying out their thoughts on various subjects. The only one they completed was On Liberty (1859)

·         For more biographical details see introductory essay by Waldron (Cahn pp.890-892).


Along with On Liberty, other influential moral/political works by Mill are:

·         Utilitarianism (1861)

·         The Subjection of Women (1869)



[2.] Basic Ethical Ideas.


[2.1.] The Harm Principle.


The central idea of On Liberty is as follows:


The Harm Principle: The only justification for interfering with the actions of other individuals is to prevent them from doing harm to others; the desire to do them (physical or moral) good does not justify interference.


In Mill's own 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. ... 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. (OL ch.1 ¶9; Cahn. p.932)[2]



To accompany this idea, Mill distinguishes between:

1.       self-regarding actions -- actions that only affect oneself and over which each individual should be allowed to exercise complete control

2.       other-regarding actions -- actions that affect others and with regard to which each individual is responsible to society


The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he 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. (OL ch.1 ¶9; Cahn. p.932)


Mill does not mean the Harm Principle to apply to:

·         children (those not recognized as legal adults by the state)

·         "barbarians" -- those who have not yet "attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion"; in a barbarous society, despotism is a morally justified form of government (i.e. a single individual may possess authorityN to control all aspects of life), given that such control is simply a means to the end of the betterment of his or her subjects. (OL ch.1 ¶10; Cahn p.932)


[2.2.] Utilitarianism.


Unlike John Locke, Mill did not intend to base his account of individual liberty on natural rights. Rather, he took the basis for individual liberty (and in fact, the basis for all of morality) to be something he calls utility:


...I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. (OL ch.1 ¶11; Cahn p.932)


This raises the question: what is utility? A true, but not very informative answer, is this: "utility" is the word that Utilitarians (those who accept a moral theory called utilitarianism) use to refer to the consequence or effect of an action that makes the action moral.


So what's utilitarianism? It's a theory of normative ethics (df. the branch of ethics that tries to answer general questions about how we should behave, how we ought to act). Utilitarianism consists of three separable claims:

1.       consequentialism: what makes an action right or wrong are its effects

2.       impartiality: the interests of every being who is affected by an action are just as important as the same interests of any other being (so utilitarianism is very different from ethical egoism, which says that the only effects of your action that are morally relevant are the effects it has for you)

3.       [a specification of exactly what effects make an action right or wrong]


Different utilitarians have specified different effects:

·         happiness

·         preference satisfaction (i.e. individuals have their preferences satisfied)

·         welfare / well-being / making beings better off.


For Mill, it's happiness that's important, and when he uses the word "utility" he means happiness (e.g. "I have dwelt on this point as being a necessary part of a perfectly just conception of utility or happiness considered as the directive rule of human conduct." UT ch.2 ¶9; Cahn p.898). So on Mill's version of Utilitarianism (which today is sometimes called "classical utilitarianism" to distinguish it from modern versions), the right thing to do is whatever results in the greatest increase in happiness for everyone affected by your actions.


This sounds more plausible when you discover that Mill had a very robust concept of happiness.  For Mill, "happiness" means pleasure and the absence of pain (UT ch.II ¶2; Cahn p.896), and that includes two types of pleasure:

·       "lower pleasures": physical pleasures, of which humans and non-human animals are both capable

·       "higher pleasures": intellectual and emotional pleasures, e.g. friendship, knowledge; only humans are capable of these


(So for classical Utilitarians like Mill, the word "utility" means happiness; for modern Utilitarians, the word means welfare or well-being.)


[1] Informed by Thomas, William. Mill (Oxford UP, 1985).

[2] This was not a completely new idea. Previous thinkers (e.g. Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Mill's mentor, Jeremy Bentham) had argued that the state's power ought to be limited so as to leave a private realm over which individuals have control. Mill's Harm Principle was an attempt to condense the ideas of these earlier thinkers into a single, simple principle.

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