Mill, John Stuart

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Mill, John Stuart

John Stuart Mill was the leading English political philosopher of the middle and late nineteenth century. Mill's writings on individual freedom, most notably the essay "On Liberty" (1859), have had a profound influence on U.S. Constitutional Law. His "libertarian theory" continues to attract those opposed to government interference in the lives of individuals.

Mill was born on May 20, 1806, in London. His father, James Mill, was a leading proponent of Utilitarianism, a political theory that claimed that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the sole purpose of all public action. James Mill provided his son with an unorthodox but extensive education. John Mill began studying Greek at the age of three, and by the age of 17 he had completed advanced courses in science, philosophy, psychology, and law.

In 1822 Mill began working as a clerk for his father at India House, the large East Indian trading company. He rose to the position of chief of the examiner's office and stayed with the company until his retirement in 1858.

Mill's real passion, however, was political and social philosophy. In 1826 he had a serious mental crisis that caused him to reevaluate the tenets of utilitarianism and to reconsider his own purpose and aim in life. At the same time, he became acquainted with Harriet Taylor, a gifted thinker who would become Mill's collaborator and later his wife. Largely ignored by historians, Taylor is now credited as a major contributor to Mill's published works.

Mill's essay "On Liberty" remains his major contribution to political thought. He proposed that self-protection is the only reason an individual or the government can interfere with a person's liberty of action. Outside of preventing harm to others, the state has no legitimate reason to compel a person to act in the way the government wishes. This principle has proved complex in application, because it is difficult to determine which aspects of behavior concern only individuals and which concern other members of society.

In chapter two of "On Liberty," Mill considered the benefits that come from Freedom of Speech. He concluded that, except for speech that is immediately physically harmful to others (like the classic example of the false cry of "fire" in a crowded theater, cited by oliver wendell holmes jr.), no expression of opinion, written or oral, ought to be prohibited. Truth can only emerge from the clash of contrary opinions; therefore, robust debate must be permitted. This "adversarial" theory of the necessary nature of the search for truth and this insistence on the free marketplace of ideas have become central elements of U.S. free speech theory.

Mill also applied his principle of liberty to action as well as speech. Mill believed that "experiments of living" maximize the development of human individuality. Restraints on action should be discouraged, even if the actions are inherently harmful to the individuals who engage in them. Mill claimed that society should not be allowed to prohibit fornication, the consumption of alcohol, or even Polygamy.

"The worth of a state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it."
—John Stuart Mill

Mill asserted the importance of personal development and the negative impact of conditioning and conformity which he believed tended to stunt or stifle individual development. The liberty he proclaimed was one in which all individuals are equally free to develop innate talents and abilities. He assumed that individuals will naturally tend to be drawn toward what they are good at doing and this natural ability, freely allowed to develop, enhances and contributes to all society.

Mill's other works include A System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848), The Subjection of Women (1869), and Autobiography (1873).

Mill served in Parliament from 1865 to 1868. He was considered a radical because he supported the public ownership of natural resources, compulsory education, Birth Control, and social and legal equality for women. His advocacy of women's suffrage contributed to the creation of the suffrage movement.

Mill died on May 7, 1873, in Avignon, France.

Further readings

Capaldi, Nicholas. 2003. John Stuart Mill: A Biography. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Mill, John Stuart. 1960. The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Ofseyer, Jeremy J. 1999. "Taking Liberties with John Stuart Mill. Annual Survey of American Law 1999 (fall): 395–433.

Packe, Michael St. John. 1954. The Life of John Stuart Mill. New York: Macmillan.

Passavant, Paul A. 1996. "A Moral Geography of Liberty: John Stuart Mill and American Free Speech Discourse." Social & Legal Studies 5 (September): 301–20.

Rose, Phyllis. 1984. Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. New York: Vintage.

Ten, C.L., ed. 1999. Mill's Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy. Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, Vt.: Ash-gate: Dartmouth.


Bentham, Jeremy; Libertarianism; Utilitarianism.

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