John Stuart Mill

"Born in London in 1806, son of James Mill, philosopher, economist and senior official in the East India Company. Mill gave a vivid and moving account of his life, and especially of his extraordinary education, in the Autobiography 1873 that he wrote towards the end of his life. Mill led an active career as an administrator in the East India Company from which he retired only when the Company's administrative functions in India were taken over by the British government following the Mutiny of 1857. In addition, he was a Liberal MP for Westminster 1865-8, and as a young man in the 1830s edited the London and Westminster Review, a radical quarterly journal. He died at Aix-En-Provence in 1873.
Mill was educated by his father, with the advice and assistance of Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place. He learned Greek at three, Latin a little later; by the age of 12, he was a competent logician and by 16 a well-trained economist. At 20 he suffered a nervous breakdown that persuaded him that more was needed in life than devotion to the public good and an analytically sharp intellect. Having grown up a utilitarian, he now turned to Coleridge, Wordsworth and Goethe to cultivate his aesthetic sensibilities. From 1830 to his death, he tried to persuade the British public of the necessity of a scientific approach to understanding social, political and economic change while not neglecting the insights of poets and other imaginative writers.

His System of Logic 1843 was an ambitious attempt to give an account not only of logic, as the title suggests, but of the methods of science and their applicability to social as well as purely natural phenomena. Mill's conception of logic was not entirely that of modern logicians; besides formal logic, what he called "the logic of consistency", he thought that there was a logic of proof, that is, a logic that would show how evidence proved or tended to prove the conclusions we draw from the evidence. That led him to the analysis of causation, and to an account of inductive reasoning that remains the starting point of most modern discussions. Mill's account of explanation in science was broadly that explanation seeks the causes of events where it is events in which we are interested; or seeks more general laws where we are concerned to explain less general laws as special cases of those laws. Mill's discussion of the possibility of finding a scientific explanation of social events has worn equally well; Mill was as unwilling to suppose that the social sciences would become omniscient about human behaviour as to suppose that there was no prospect of explaining social affairs at any deeper level than that of common sense. Throughout the System of Logic Mill attacked the "intuitionist" philosophy of William Whewell and Sir William Hamilton. This was the view that explanations rested on intuitively compelling principles rather than on general, causal laws, and that ultimately the search for such intuitively compelling principles rested on understanding the universe as a divine creation governed by principles that a rational deity must choose. Mill thought that intuitionism was bad philosophy, and a comfort to political conservatism into the bargain. His Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy 1865 carried the war into the enemy camp with a vengeance; it provoked vigorous controversy for some twenty years or so, but is now the least readable of Mill's works.

To the public at large, Mill was better known as the author of Principles of Political Economy 1848, a work that tried to show that economics was not the "dismal science" that its radical and literary critics had supposed. Its philosophical interest lay in Mill's reflections on the difference between what economics measured and what human beings really valued: leading Mill to argue 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 starvation for the overburdened poor. Mill also allowed that conventional economic analysis could not show that socialism was unworkable, and suggested as his own ideal an economy of worker-owned cooperatives. Commentators have argued inconclusively over whether this is a form of socialism or merely "workers' capitalism". Mill remains most nearly our contemporary in the area of moral and political philosophy, however. His Utilitarianism 1861 remains the classic defence of the view that we ought to aim at maximizing the welfare of all sentient creatures, and that welfare consists of their happiness. Mill's defence of the view that we ought to pursue happiness because we do pursue happiness, has been the object of savage attack by, among others, F. H. Bradley in his Ethical Studies 1874 and G. E. Moore in Principia Ethica 1903. But others have argued that on this particular point, Mill was misinterpreted by his critics. His insistence that happiness was to be assessed not merely by quantity but by quality - the doctrine that a dissatisfied Socrates is not only better than a satisfied fool, but somehow happier, too - has puzzled generations of commentators. And his attempt to show that justice can be accounted for in utilitarian terms is still important as a riposte to such writers as John Rawls (A Theory of Justice 1971).

During his lifetime, it was his essay On Liberty 1859 that aroused the greatest controversy, and the most violent expressions of approval and disapproval. The essay was sparked by the feeling that Mill and his wife, Harriet Taylor, constantly expressed in their letters to one another: that they lived in a society where bold and adventurous individuals were becoming all too rare. Critics have sometimes thought that Mill was frightened by the prospect of a mass democracy in which working-class opinion would be oppressive and perhaps violent. The truth is that Mill was frightened by middle-class conformism much more than by anything to be looked for from an enfranchised working class. It was a fear he had picked up from reading Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America 1836, 1840; America was a prosperous middle-class society, and Mill feared that it was also a society that cared nothing for individual liberty.

Mill lays down "one very simple principle" to govern the use of coercion in society - and by coercion he means both legal penalties and the operation of public opinion; it is that we may only coerce others in self-defence - either to defend ourselves, or to defend others from harm. Crucially, this rules out paternalistic interventions to save people from themselves, and ideal interventions to make people behave "better". It has long exercised critics to explain how a utilitarian can subscribe to such a principle of self-restraint. In essence, Mill argues that only by adopting the self-restraint principle can we seek out the truth, experience the truth as "our own", and fully develop individual selves.

Of Mill's shorter works, two others deserve mention. The Subjection of Women 1869 was thought to be excessively radical in Mill's time but is now seen as a classic statement of liberal feminism. Its essential case is that if freedom is a good for men, it is for women, and that every argument against this view drawn from the supposedly different "nature" of men and women has been superstitious special pleading. If women 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. Only after as many centuries of freedom as there have been centuries of oppression will we really know what our natures are. Mill published The Subjection of Women late in life to avoid controversies that would lessen the impact of his other work. He chose not to have his Three Essays on Religion 1874 published until after his death. They argued, among other things, that it is impossible that the universe is governed by an omnipotent and loving God, but not unlikely that a less omnipotent benign force is at work in the world. They thus tended to disappoint those of Mill's admirers who looked for a tougher and more abrasive agnosticism, while doing nothing to appease critics who deplored the fact that he was any kind of agnostic. But they remain models of the calm discussion of contentious topics, and highly readable to this day."

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