Key Concepts of John Stuart Mill

p01j1lkx.jpgEnglish philosopher, social critic, political economist, civil servant and liberal. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was educated by his father. As Mill notes in his Autobiography, the latter handled his son’s education by introducing him to a wide range of very difficult books from an early age. Thus, Mill started learning Greek at the age of 3 and he was familiar with half a dozen Platonic dialogues before the age of 10. As a youth Mill also became acquainted with the works of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748—1832), of whom his father James was perhaps the most prominent disciple, and the economic theories of David Ricardo. These figures are among those referred to as the ‘Philosophical Radicals’ of the nineteenth century and Mill himself came to be numbered among them. Mill’s own work displays a critical attitude to utilitarianism, which he retains in a modified form. Utilitarianism, as propounded by Bentham, is the theory that holds that ethical actions can be evaluated by way of reference to the guiding principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. This is also known as the principle of Utility. According to this principle one should, when presented with a moral problem, act in such a manner as to ensure that the consequences of one’s action ensure the greatest happiness of the majority of people affected by it. For Bentham, it is human nature to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, and this principle is what also provides people with the basis for rules of conduct. Mill, in contrast, argues that although human conduct is dominated by the search for pleasure, it is also the case that there are higher and lower order pleasures. So, an educated person when faced with the choice of a lower order pleasure (e.g. indulging in alcohol) and a higher order pleasure (e.g. contemplating a work of art) will always choose the higher order one. Likewise, seeking the betterment of humanity as a whole is a higher order pleasure, as is the pursuit of a life of critical reflection. Mill’s reputation rests upon a number of works: System of Logic (1843), The Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1863) and The Subjection of Women (1869). Of these, the most famous is On Liberty, which presents one of the most forceful arguments in defence of the individualistic philosophy of liberalism.

In On Liberty Mill’s aim in the text is to explore ‘the nature and limits’ of society’s power over the individual. The key issue of such power presents itself in the context of the ‘struggle’ between individual liberty and political authority. Although the tension between liberty and authority that concerns Mill is nothing new, in that it was also present in the Ancient world, modern society according to him is faced with a specific modulation of this problem. In short, modern society has undergone historical developments that have redefined the nature and terms of this struggle. In the past, Mill argues, the struggle over authority took the form of a contest between subjects and rulers. As such, this struggle centred on establishing the limits of the power of monarchies or aristocracies. In the modern era social provisions designed to satisfy the ‘new demand for elective and temporary rulers’ have led to the formation of institutions of representative democracy. This has raised a different problem. The rulers are now ‘identified’ with the ruled, and therefore the will of the government is also that of the people. However, with this comes a decisive increase in the power of collective opinion. For, a society in which the rulers are elected is also a society that can become subject to the power of majority opinion. This power Mill refers to as the ‘tyranny of the majority’. By this term he is referring to the political condition in which ‘society itself is the tyrant’. In Mill’s view, then, modern society is characterised by way of the presence of a new type of conflict between two different forms of interest: those of the individual and those of society. Mill also refers to this in terms of a tension between ‘collective opinion’ and ‘individual independence’.

Mill’s approach, it should be clear, rests upon the endorsement of individualism. For him, the individual ought to be conceived above all as an independent entity. This entity has, according to him, an absolute right to independence with regard to the pursuit of his or her interests. Since society contains a diversity of individuals, it follows that such a society will also embody a diversity of interests. A society of this kind is the one that, for Mill, is the most progressive. For a culture to be designated progressive, therefore, means that it fosters individuality. By the same token, a culture that ceases to possess individual diversity ceases to be progressive. This is an important point for Mill, since a progressive society will, at the same time, be one that is presented with the possibility of conflict on a regular basis. This is because diversity brings with it the inevitable result that some individuals will exhibit interests and modes of behaviour that are ‘antisocial’ in the specific sense of having the potential for conflicting with the dominant norms that constitute public morality. In short, there is an ever present potential for disparity between collective forms of social organisation and individual interests simply because individuals can and will make choices that do not conform to the rule of convention. The individual, for Mill, most completely expresses their unique identity when they think and choose without direct reference to the force of custom. To choose something because it is the custom, it follows, is to make no choice at all, for it involves no more than the use of the ‘ape-like’ faculty of ‘imitation’ (Mill 1984, p. 123). To act in this way, in Mill’s view, epitomises acceptance of the repressive power of the tyranny of the majority.

In the context of his diagnosis of the potential of modern society to dominate the individual by the force of popular opinion, Mill then attempts to set out the limits of public power. These limits depend largely on a contrast being drawn between the self-regarding and other-regarding aspects of human behaviour. For Mill, as long as an individual’s beliefs or actions do not affect someone else (i.e. are self regarding) they ought not to be the concern of society at large. An individual, in other words, ought to be free to choose the mode of living that suits them (one is free, it follows, to choose a style of living that is self-destructive). Likewise an individual should be entitled to freedom of thought and expression. The only limit set to these freedoms is that one person ought not to harm another. Of course, there is a problem with this view. It is, for example, very difficult to draw a line  separating an individual’s actions from their consequences for others. Equally, the expression of some opinions can be construed as being harmful to others. Mill’s main point, though, is that respect for individuality, for different views and ways of living, is a precondition for a healthy culture. For, if’free scope’ is ‘given to varieties of character’ (Mill 1984, p. 120) this will have as its positive consequence the fullest possible realisation of human potential. Such diversity makes for the greater long-term benefit of society: ‘In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is, therefore, capable of being more valuable to others’ (p. 127). Equally, the individual, for Mill, is the key to discovering ‘new truths’ necessary for society to continue to thrive in the future: There is always a need of persons not only to discover new truths and point out what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices and set the example of more enlightened conduct and better taste in human life’ (p. 128). Individuality also presents itself as the highest possible object of aesthetic contemplation (p. 123) and exemplifies Mill’s conception of a ‘moral being’ (p. 80).

The social and hence cultural role of the individual is thus of central importance to Mill’s conception of the self. What is also notable is the fact that he situates his discussion in the context of a number of comments about other cultures. Thus, where European culture exemplifies individuality and historical development, Chinese culture is regarded as static and lacking individuality. Mill also draws a distinction between those who would be qualified to express their individuality in virtue of possessing maturity and those who would not. On one level this seems reasonable, in so far as children, to cite an obvious example, are often unable to make decisions about their fate in an informed manner. On the other hand, Mill also includes within this category ‘those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered in its nonage’ (p. 69). For this reason, ‘Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement and the means justified by actually effecting that end’ (it should perhaps be borne in mind that Mill spent much of his life working for the British government of India). The word ‘culture’ for Mill, it follows, can be taken to signify European culture, for it is this that sets the standard whereby cultural development can be judged.

Mill was actively committed to furthering the rights of women in Victorian society. As a Member of Parliament he sought, in 1867, to amend the second Reform Bill in the House of Commons to include granting votes for women. In 1869 he published The Subjection of Women, a polemical pamphlet arguing against the view that the social inequalities experienced by women in the legal and political arenas could be justified by way of reference to any supposedly ‘natural’ differences between men and women. Thus, according to Mill, the so called natural’ incapacities of women are merely reflections of a male dominated social order that needs, therefore, to be questioned. Women, he says, deserve equal access to educational opportunities. Likewise, Mill argues for the view that women are equally fit to undertake forms of work that are male dominated, and that in some respects they have superior abilities to them. For example, women have the ability to undertake a number of tasks at the same time and can gain rapid insight into situations, which Mill refers to as ‘intuition’. At the same time, he is open to being criticised by feminists for his endorsement of the view that, in the last analysis, a woman’s intuition stands in need of the guiding hand of a man’s practical knowledge, or for claiming that an ill-educated woman will be a liability to an educated man. Mill is also open to being criticised for his humanism and liberal individualism. Thus, it could be argued, in placing so much emphasis upon the individual his thinking ignores the fact that individuality itself is a category that can be rendered open to various forms of critique, either from the Marxist perspective of thinkers like Althusser, or the poststructuralist viewpoint espoused by figures such as Lyotard. Whether such criticisms blunt the force of Mill’s liberalism is another matter however. For, on the one hand, it should be noted that his conception of individuality has historical and cultural aspects. Some cultures, after all, do not foster individuality according to Mill, which implies that social factors need to be taken into account when discussing it. Equally, Mill’s claim that diversity is the highest expression of human potential has its parallels in a thinker like Lyotard’s advocacy of a politics and ethics of cultural multiplicity.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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