John Stuart Mill

By: Victoria Yates

John Stuart Mill was born in Pentonville, a suburb of London, in 1806, the eldest son of the Scottish philosopher James Mill and Harriet Barrow. His father was an avid follower of Jeremy Bentham and whilst employed with the East India Company he spent a great deal of time on his son’s education.

Mill started learning Greek at the age of three and Latin by eight. By the time he was fourteen he had read most Greek and Latin classics and had a broad knowledge of history, logic, mathematics and the basics of economic theory. His father stringently followed Bentham’s associationist psychology in Mill’s education (the idea that mental processes operate by the association of one state with a successor state). He was hoping to make him a leader in promulgating the views of Bentham and other philosophical radicals.

At fifteen, Mill began studying Bentham’s fragments on the theory of legal evidence, inspiring his life-long goal of reforming the world with the priority of interest in human well-being. He devoted himself to the work of the philosophical radicals and a literary career, before also joining the East India Company in 1823.

The stringency of his education took its toll when, in 1826, Mill suffered several months of intense depression. He began believing that while his intellect had received a thorough education, the rigorous analytic training he had received had weakened him emotionally. It was in the poetry of Wordsworth that he came to find the cure he needed. 

Two years later, Mill met Gustave d’Eichtahl who introduced Mill to the later works of Auguste Comte. Around the same time he also met John Sterling, a disciple of Coleridge. With these two influences, Mill came to have a greater appreciation for the role of social and cultural institutions in the development of human beings. The Comtean perspective was that social change develops from “critical periods” in which old institutions are overturned, and the subsequent “organic periods” from which new social cohesion emerges. Mill saw society at that time as emerging from a critical period and he saw (as influenced by Coleridge) that the educated class were an important vehicle in ensuring social cohesion in the coming organic period.

From this Mill reformulated his task to helping society in its coming emergence into the organic period. He saw the negative approach of Bentham and his father as increasingly limited, and realized the necessity to not simply criticize older forms of social organization but to work towards their replacement by something better. Although staunchly maintaining his acceptance of the principle of utility (“the greatest good for the greatest number of people”), he employed it more positively. Mill emphasized that utility could be constructively used, enabling the new forms of society to emerge whilst incorporating the best that the older forms had to offer.

Mill married Harriet Taylor in 1851, twenty-one years after their first meeting. Taylor had been recently widowed; initially having been married when they met, but she was an invalid who had lived separately from her husband and as such had carried out a platonic relationship with Mill of which her previous husband was very tolerant.  Taylor proved vital to Mill’s development as a thinker. It was from her that he gained his sense that the real purpose of a human being is the development of individuality in all members of society. It was also Taylor who inspired Mill’s new ideas that came to replace those of Bentham in his reworking of utilitarianism. A key idea was that human beings are only experiencing a fraction of the happiness that was possible.  

Mill retired from the East India Company around the time of its dissolution in 1858, the same year that his wife became ill and died in Avignon. Mill was inconsolable and for the remainder of his life spent half a year in Avignon in order to be close to her grave.  

He was elected to the House of Commons in 1865 and given his previous seclusion and the reputation he had amassed, his work received a great deal of attention. He found himself at odds with his electors despite receiving a great deal of acclaim for his actions within the post and, not wishing to sacrifice his own principles, he failed to be re-elected three years later. Despite this Mill continued to work for radical causes, pre-eminent amongst them the status of women. After the death of his wife, Mill turned to her daughter Helen who became a real help to his work.

Mill died in 1873 at Avignon where he was buried next to his wife.

In terms of Mill’s writing, he made numerous contributions to philosophical thought at the time. His best-known moral works were On Liberty and Utilitarianism (1859 and 61 respectively). Although he tackled a myriad of issues in scientific, linguistic, political, and moral arenas throughout his life, for this newsletter his contribution to utilitarianism is central. Mill disagreed with some of Bentham’s fundamental theoretical concepts, criticizing very strongly the implied loss of individual liberty and the denigration of imagination and culture. 

Where Bentham had seen the quantity of pleasure as the only guide, (“Act Utilitarianism”) Mill revised Utilitarianism to tackle some of its most basic flaws, and formed “Rule Utilitarianism”, where issues about the potential rules of courses of action are discussed.

Mill was a strong believer in the arts, and so he also set out his theory of higher and lower forms of pleasure. He believed that, in civilized societies at least, there was a distinction between the higher and lower pleasures experienced, those of the higher realm involving imagination and the mind versus the lower, carnal pleasures. Mill criticized Bentham for his ‘narrow’ understanding of human motivation, ignoring other factors such as the pursuit of personal excellence or actions out of duty. According to Mill, Bentham was suffering from a “deficiency of imagination,” and in reducing the ethical dilemma to pleasure/pain, everything that cannot be precisely quantified or measured became redundant. In Mill’s terms, the greatest good is quantifiable from past experience, instances that form the rules upon which morality is based. This theory of understanding allows a less stringently scientific attempt at moral reasoning than was offered by Bentham, as well as allowing for ongoing alterations of morality dependant on evolving circumstances.

Mill was a leading thinker whose ideas form the basis of much of Western legal systems today. He was an avid reformist who fought for human dignity and respect and sought to reform Bentham’s ideas so as to no longer narrowly define humanity in a way that ignored the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.  He sought respect for individuals and continues to lead a great deal of moral philosophical thought that succeeds him.