John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) wrote an Autobiography (1873) which set out what he wished to be remembered about his life. The point from this book which is most commonly remarked upon concerns his prodigious early capacity for learning, best shown by studying, under his father’s tuition, Ancient Greek from the age of three. When it is considered that his first set-text was Aesop’s Fables, this seems a bit less eccentric than might at first be thought. But soon after Aesop there was much more solid work, and by the time he was 13 he was reading the first five dialogues of Plato – in the original. Mill’s own comment on this is that it shows that what he achieved in terms of intellectual development, anyone else of average intelligence could achieve, given the same high-powered education. Such a statement may, of course, not have been anything more than false modesty, but there is some evidence that he believed it, or half of it.
Mill’s first great philosophical work, which he says in the Autobiography would probably be one of his most enduring, was the System of Logic (1843), which defends the position that all knowledge derives from experience, either directly or by the inferences we draw from this experience. Mill argued against the idea that some knowledge was, as it were, self-supporting and did not depend on the senses for its existence of justification. He extended this view to mathematics, a field where self-supporting knowledge was – and is – sometimes held particularly to exist, but he was also thinking of religion, and the social and political views sometimes, especially in his day, drawn from revelation. So, if all knowledge is derived from experience and the inferences we draw from it, it might help to explain how it could be that every average individual is able to achieve as much as J S Mill, since every individual is subject to similar influences. At least it shows the value of education. In the System of Logic, Mill’s belief in fallibility is also clearly sketched: the inferences drawn by induction are never founded on necessity. Every average individual is perfectible, as far as fallibility will allow. He was distrustful of logical necessity, but perhaps surprisingly in the Logic he came down on the side of Necessity or Determinism, rather than Free Will, although in the process argued the controversy more or less out of existence. He believed that the social and moral sciences would progress so far that in the end human actions would be so well understood that it would be possible to predict accurately what a combination of circumstances would produce in terms of response from a given individual.
Mill wrote a great deal on a tremendous range of subjects, but is best known for his three ethical and political books, published towards the end of his life: Utilitarianism (1863), On Liberty (1859), and On Representative Government (1861). Mill’s teacher-father, James, had instilled in his son the ideas of Benthamite Utilitarianism, the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. As the young Mill grew older, he inevitably reacted against his father’s teaching (the most poignant passages in the Autobiography describe how he suffered a period of depression in early manhood as he was beginning to escape from the hot-house of his father’s influence), but in the end like a good son was unwilling to abandon Bentham, the great guide of James Mill. What he did do, was to enlarge the scope of Utilitarianism considerably, arguing for a qualitative element to be added to the quantitative calculations of the Principle of Utility. The point now was to maximise the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but also the higher pleasures of the greatest number; higher pleasures being the intellectual rather than carnal ones. Mill has been accused of elitism in this, but as will be recalled he believed (subject to fallibility) in the perfectibility of all the average and above. He hoped that most people would, after sufficient instruction, naturally prefer poetry to ten-pin bowling. But Mill was still worried about the ‘tyranny of the majority’, which he felt Utilitarianism committed him to. In Representative Government, Mill, therefore, advocated proportional representation, plural voting, and a literacy test for the franchise, in order to reduce the influence of the below average.
In On Liberty, all these themes come together. The scope of Utilitarianism must now include liberty. Complete freedom to express ourselves will enable fallible humans to live with our fallibility and to progress to what perfection it is possible to achieve in a world where there is no logical necessity. Freedom of action is essential for the moral development of individuals, but this development is also impossible if individuals do not live securely in communities. Hence the famous Harm Principle, which says that the only reason liberty may be interfered with is in order to prevent harm to others.
Mill’s work is not without its inconsistencies: liberty, equality and fraternity do not work together as easily as Mill tries to maintain. His idea of Progress, taken from Condorcet, the French philosopher, could easily be criticised, and seems to lead him astray. But it is difficult to be harsh on a philosopher whose instincts on so many things were so sound, and whose daring in the field of thought was so great. Modern commentators are increasingly sympathetic to Mill, and his stock as a philosopher now stands very high.
The Autobiography and On Liberty are both published by Penguin.
Utilitarianism and Representative Government are available in Everyman.
Recommended commentaries include Alan Ryan, The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill;
William Thomas, Mill (Pastmasters);
F R Berger, Happiness, Justice and Freedom;
Wendy Donner, The Liberal Self.