Social & Political Philosophy 9 – Mill’s On Liberty


John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 CE) was born in London, influenced by Ancient Greek, French, and liberal thought.  He is considered the major founder of Utilitarianism and one of the first champions of individual freedom, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery.  His father wrote a history of India, and Mill was for a time involved with his father in the British East India company, the corporation that helped Britain maintain their hold over India.  Mill’s family was friends with Jeremy Bentham, from whom Mill took up his consequentialist, ‘happy principle’ thought.

Jeremy Bentham

In fact, Mill’s father had Bentham tutor Mill as a child with the idea that Mill would become a champion of consequentialist thought.  However, it was Mill who found the name ‘utilitarian’ in a Christian text that used the term to describe an evil way to strive for good without principles.  Mill picked up the name and developed the thinking in line with Bentham, his mentor, becoming utilitarianism’s famous spokesman.  Mill is a central thinker in Logic, Economics and Ethics.  In all of these subjects, he advocated rethinking basic principles and assumptions based on the ongoing experience of their usefulness.  For Mill and Utilitarianism, the true is not true in itself but true because it is useful for creating happiness and avoiding pain.  Like Rousseau, Mill does not argue based on natural rights but rather on the natural liberty and freedom of the individual.

Bentham Mill Maximum Happiness Minimum Pain


We can see two sides to this utilitarian principle, maximizing the positive and minimizing the negative.  Bentham argued that we should maximize happiness for the most people.  Mill argued that we should minimize pain for the most people.  It is important to add that Mill argues we must look at consequences in terms of the social view (for the most people) and the long view (for the greatest length of time).  While Bentham and Mill are two sides of the same coin, they are different in important ways.  There are times when striving for maximum happiness can cause pain (majority happiness at the expense of the minority), and there are times when striving for minimum pain impairs happiness (overprotective parenting, inhibitive forms of insurance, gain often comes with pain, etc.).

Communism Capitalism Equality Freedom

homeless alchoholic

Consider that Communism sometimes sacrifices freedom for equality, providing structure for all but imposing this on those who dissent (much like Bentham) while Capitalism sometimes sacrifices equality for freedom, providing little structural support but imposing very little on the lives of the people (much like Mill).  Mill is considered one of the central philosophical influences on American law, which leans very much towards Mill.  Consider the example of the Dutch house where the socialist state provides allowances and living space for alcoholics to drink themselves to death vs. homeless people (including Vietnam veterans) drinking themselves to death in the streets in America.  Mill admits that there will be continuous problems whatever we do, but we must try to evolve in a positive direction.

Nelson Mandela

Mill addresses many attacks on Utilitarianism.  One is the interesting problem of the Bad as Good Example.  Everything terrible that happens is good, because it serves as an excellent example of what NOT to do in the future.  We can compare PBS documentaries on slavery and the US overcoming slavery as freedom and our view as Americans of the type of place South Africa is.  Are America and South Africa excellent places because they rose up against oppression, or are they terrible places where oppression likely still exists?  If there is a movement to overcome oppression, this could be celebrated as proof that the problem is over, or it could be viewed with suspicion as proof that the problem remains.  We can compare this to the typical prosecuting attorney arguing that a criminal past is evidence of a repeat offender, and the typical defense attorney pointing at the same criminal past as evidence of reform and pulling one’s life together after a bad upbringing and environment.


The American philosopher Daniel Dennett uses Three Mile Island as an example of the good in the bad.  After the nuclear reactor there exploded, it led to much better nuclear standards and restrictions.  This might lead someone to conclude that causing harm can be beneficial and affordable if more good than the initial harm is the result.  Consider that we love villains who go from good to bad and heroes who go from bad to good.  We can very easily see bad as good and good as bad.  The attack on Utilitarianism says that it is prone to confusing bad with good especially compared to systems of principles or rights that are given, not based on their consequences.

Tuskeegee study

Consider animal testing, as well as the infamous Tuskegee Study.  In 1932, the US Public Health Service began studying the effects of untreated syphilis in black men who believed they were receiving treatment but were in fact guinea pigs, a study which lasted forty years until 1972 when its existence was leaked to the press.  Consider Nazi scientists, the most infamous being Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death from Auschwitz, who, in part inspired by American Eugenicists, did experiments on Jews, including Jewish children.  Mill and Utilitarians would of course reply that such experiments do more harm than good if we take the long and social view, as it would create a culture in which human life has little value or respect.

Mill and Taylor Husband and Wife

Karl Marx, who was much into progressive change in society, attacked Utilitarianism in a different way.  He asked: Who are the ones who tell us what is useful or makes us happy as a society?  It would be the rich and powerful, the upper class, who use the lower class as labor.  Obviously, it is the task master or overseer and not the worker who gets to say who is useful in their place and how happy the system is overall.  Mill in fact did approve of war to advance civilization, and he approved of colonialism for improving the lives of the “uncivilized”.  Marx criticized him for this shortsightedness.  Mill was a champion against the enslavement of black people and the second class status of women.  His wife was brilliant and a significant influence his thinking and On Liberty.  He was one of the first passionate voices in philosophy, in fact one of the few, who argued that we must evolve to overcome slavery and second class status for all types of people.  In response to those who argued that Africans are incapable of civilization, he wrote in 1850:

egyptian couple senejem and wife

It is curious, withal, that the earliest known civilization was, we have the strongest reason to believe, a negro civilization.  The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a negro race: it was from negroes, therefore, that the Greeks learnt their first lessons in civilization; and to the records and traditions of these negroes did the Greek Philosophers to the very end of their career resort…as a treasury of mysterious wisdom.”  I must say that we still are not wise to this in many of our texts and museums today.

On Liberty Mill

In his work On Liberty, which I gave you to read, Mill argues that society only has the right to check or limit individual freedom when the individual is harming others or significantly harming themselves.  Otherwise, individuals should have the freedom to do anything.  If the state destroys life or property, this affects not only the targeted individual but the entire community.  Mill argues that failing to act can also be unjust when it causes harm, such as allowing a child to fall into a well (like the child discussed by Mencius).  He argues that the utility principle will not only protect the individual from the state, but also the minority from the majority (useful, considering the problem Rousseau shares with Hobbes).

South Africa Protest

The state must have checks and balances to prevent abuse of the individual and minorities.  In his work on economics, Mill argued that managers and executives should be voted into positions of power by the laborers or there will be economic dictatorship.  Unfortunately, Mill does argue that children and the “uncivilized” (read: native populations of Africa, India, and the Americas) can be limited by the family or state because they are not fully developed and so should not be given full freedom to act on their own.  In such cases, strict yet loving parenting and benevolent despotism is justified.  Sad to say, this is much in line with British and American foreign policy in Mill’s time and still is today.

free speech berkeley

Mill also argues for radical freedom of speech.  Because offense does not constitute harm, the state has no right to regulate offensive speech or arguments.  We learn more by hearing arguments we hate rather than prohibiting them, and any argument may contain an element of truth no matter how much we hate it.  As a Utilitarian Mill believes in the evolution and progression of truth over dogmatism and tradition, and new truths are often offensive.