John Stuart Mill: A (Slightly Different) Introduction

Who was John Stuart Mill? A liberal? A socialist? This (not entirely unbiased) introduction is based on 5 key concepts related to Mill’s philosophy.

Mar 25, 2022By Florian Maiwald, BA & M.Ed Philosophy

john stuart mill portrait house commoners painting


An ordinary introduction to the thought of the British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) would, in all likelihood, begin by classifying him as one of the prototypical masterminds of classical liberalism. Moreover, one would probably emphasize that Mill is an important representative of the utilitarian movement (utilitarianism is an ethical position that assumes that the morality of specific actions is measured by the utility caused by these actions).


The reason why I call this introduction rather unusual is due to the fact that introductions — in the conventional sense — are aimed at making essential thematic aspects accessible and understandable to a broad audience. Indeed, the aim of this introduction is to make John Stuart Mill accessible to a broad audience. Nevertheless, the reader is corrupted to a certain extent — a rather less bona fide goal of introductions — since this introduction is far from a mirror shining back the general reception of Mill.


I shall present this introduction based on 5 points of Mill’s thinking. Along with this, it will be pointed out why Mill is not to be regarded as the classical liberal that many consider him to be. Rather, it should be argued (which I also argued in a recently published article at ABC Australia) that Mill’s liberal convictions can be understood as a key element of why he can be regarded as a thinker in the tradition of liberal socialism.


John Stuart Mill’s Liberalism 

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John Stuart Mill, by John Watkins, by John & Charles Watkins, 1865, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


It is often presented as an unchallenged commonplace that Mill is to be considered one of the paradigmatic representatives of modern liberalism. A decisive reason for this reception is due to his work On Liberty, published in 1859, which is considered one of the pamphlets of modern liberalism. Already in the first chapter, John Stuart Mill draws attention to OL’s objective:

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“The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”
(Mill, 1977, 236).


The focus of Mill’s treatise on liberty is the interrelationship between the individual and society. More concretely, it focuses on the question of under what circumstances society (or the state) is authorized to restrict the freedom of the individual. According to his harm principle, the only legitimate reason for state or societal exercise of power in the form of restriction of liberty is if the individual poses a concrete danger to society. Otherwise, one’s independence is to be regarded as an absolute right that is not to be touched.


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Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill, exhibited 1829, via the National Portrait Gallery, london


In his time, however, Mill does not imagine that the freedom of the individual — at least in Western civilizations — is subjugated by despotic rulers, but rather by an increasing social striving for conformity. John Stuart Mill assumes a tyranny of the majority, which threatens to limit the freedom of individual members of society through increasing pressure to conform. He even goes so far as to claim that the tyranny of public opinion is far more dangerous than state-imposed forms of freedom restriction, since “[…] it leaves fewer means to escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself” (Mill, 1977, 232).


However, Mill’s observations should be seen in a broader context, since these developments are inextricably linked to the democratization process of British society, which Mill noted in his time. Therefore, Mill focuses on the question of how individual freedom can be reconciled with the increasing process of democratization in society.


At this point, a question remains to be asked, which may sound banal and obvious at first, but is immensely important for a closer understanding of Mill’s thought: Why is the defense of individual liberties so important for Mill? In this context, it is worth taking a closer look at John Stuart Mill’s concept of human individuality.



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Authors (John Stuart Mill; Charles Lamb; Charles Kingsley; Herbert Spencer; John Ruskin; Charles Darwin) published by Hughes & Edmonds, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


According to Mill, freedom is important primarily because it is only possible for people to cultivate their individuality by guaranteeing them individual liberties. In this regard, Mill first points out that he is not primarily concerned with defending the principle of individuality because it represents a particularly important benefit for society (which would correspond to a genuinely utilitarian type of argumentation). Rather, the cultivation of one’s individuality represents a value in itself:


“In maintaining this principle, the greatest difficulty to be encountered does not lie in the appreciation of means towards an acknowledged end, but in the indifference of persons in general to the end itself,” (Mill, 1977, 265).


One of the main problems for Mill in this context is that the value of individuality itself does not receive the kind of appreciation from his contemporaries that he believes it should. Given the social circumstances of his time, John Stuart Mill draws the pessimistic conclusion that most of his contemporaries do not realize how valuable the cultivation of one’s individuality is:


“But the evil is, that individual spontaneity is hardly recognised by the common modes of thinking, as having any intrinsic worth, or deserving any regard on its own account. The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they now are (for it is they who make them what they are), cannot comprehend why those ways should not be good enough for everybody; and what is more, spontaneity forms no part of the ideal of the majority of moral and social reformers, but is rather looked on with jealousy, as a troublesome and perhaps rebellious obstruction to the general acceptance of what these reformers, in their own judgment, think would be best for mankind.”
(Mill, 1977, 265-266)


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The Triumph of Independence, by John Doyle, 1876, via the National portrait Gallery, London


Mill also provides a clear explanation for why the majority of people do not appreciate the intrinsic value of individual self-development. According to Mill, this can be partially explained by the “despotism of custom” which prevails everywhere. If people and societies persist in their habits, progress in society as a whole is made impossible in the long run. In order to stop the tyranny of habit and to make progress possible, it is necessary to offer people a variety of possibilities to develop their own individuality.


Similarly, as John Stuart Mill argues in the second chapter of On Liberty, freedom of speech is needed to make a variety of opinions (including false ones) heard, there is also a need for a variety of experiments of living to give as many people as possible the opportunity for individual self-development. This brings us to another extremely important concept which, in my opinion, is indispensable for a closer understanding of Mill’s thinking: the importance of social diversity.



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John Stuart Mill, by Sir Leslie Ward, published in Vanity Fair 29 March 1873, National Portrait Gallery, London


Mill concisely articulates the importance of different ways of living in On Liberty:


As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress (Mill, 1977, 265).


If one compares John Stuart Mill’s advocacy of a variety of experiments of living with his advocacy of freedom of opinion, an interesting analogy becomes apparent. According to Mill, freedom of opinion is important for the reason that Mill assumes that (I) every suppressed opinion can be true and one should not at any time presume to represent the right opinion oneself, or to own the truth (cf. ibid. 240). (II) Furthermore, opinions can be at least partially true, which is why they certainly have aspects that need to be discussed socially (cf. ibid. 258). And (III) last but not least, one can assume that even if an opinion should be completely false, it is still worthwhile to make it heard.


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Thomas Carlyle, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1877, via the National Portrait Gallery


Even true opinions, according to Mill, tend to degenerate into forms of dogmatic superstition as long as they are not subjected to continuous and critical examination. A similar idea underlies Mill’s advocacy of the greatest possible plurality of lifestyles, as indicated earlier. Just as different opinions are needed to gradually approach the ideal of truth, different possibilities are needed to develop one’s individuality. If, on the other hand, people simply give in passively to the habits of the social majority, then not only social progress but also the happiness of man himself falls victim to this behavior. This brings us to the next important concept, which is of great importance for a closer understanding of Mill’s thinking: Mill’s qualitative hedonism.


Mill’s Qualitative Hedonism

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John Stuart Mill, by John Watkins, or by John & Charles Watkins, 1865, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


What distinguishes Mill’s basic utilitarian conception from other quantitative versions of utilitarianism in the Benthamian tradition is his thesis that happiness or pleasure are not to be understood as arbitrarily quantifiable goals, but that they can certainly differ in terms of their qualitative content.


In his writing on Utilitarianism, Mill very aptly describes the central characteristics of his qualitative-hedonistic approach to utility. Here is a quotation, which is of great importance for a closer understanding of Mill’s views concerning utility:


“A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and is certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. […] It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for […] is imperfect. But he can learn to bear his imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”
(Mill, 1833, 264)


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Jeremy Bentham writing, by Robert Matthew Sully, 1827, via the British Museum


Mill acknowledges that people who strive for higher spiritual pleasures are more difficult to satisfy than those who do not. Nevertheless, he assumes that a person who has once enjoyed the higher spiritual pleasures will not want to give up this form of existence so quickly — not even in favor of lower pleasures, although these are easier to satisfy. Mill assumes that especially more highly gifted people are capable of experiencing the higher pleasures and at the same time can be exposed to greater forms of suffering; not least because higher pleasures are more difficult to satisfy than lower pleasures.


In this context, it also becomes evident that Mill’s conception of individual self-development is directly related to his qualitative-hedonistic utilitarian approach. This can be explained above all by the fact that the living out of one’s individuality, as well as the cultivation of the higher spiritual pleasures, presupposes that people can carry out autonomous and individual decisions. This, in turn, can only be guaranteed if the individual is not prevented by external circumstances from expressing his or her individuality.


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The House of Commons, 1833, by Sir George Hayter, 1833, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


According to Mill, finding out under which social circumstances people can best bring their individuality to fruition can only be determined through experience. To offer people these experiences, they must be allowed to try out a wide variety of different ways of living. In my view, these points alone show that Mill’s thinking is a particularly good illustration of why the liberal and socialist schools of thought do not necessarily contradict each other but can be mutually dependent.


Of course, there are many more arguments that could be used to support this thesis, but this would require a more detailed explanation of Mill’s views on economic policy. For the sake of clarity, however, the points mentioned above are sufficient to understand why Mill’s views on socialist forms of economic organization can be regarded as quite compatible with his more liberal views.


Mill’s Socialism 

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Harriet Mill, by an unknown artist, 1834, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


First, however, it should be clarified at this point that Mill had a very specific form of socialism in mind — in the tradition of early socialists such as Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. The socialist approach of Robert Owen in particular shaped Mill’s thinking immensely. In his Chapters on Socialism, Mill also clearly distances himself from centralized forms of socialism — as they are characteristic of Marxism (cf. Mill, 1967, 269).


Mill prefers Owenian-style socialism at the community level to centralized forms of socialism. This can be justified, on the one hand, by the fact that Mill considers it an open question whether capitalism or socialism offers the best social framework for social progress. Collectivization of property in individual associations is not only compatible with Mill’s conception of freedom, but also with his basic empirical attitude mentioned earlier. Accordingly, such communal socialism can also be understood similarly as the experiments of living, which Mill discusses in On Liberty — everyone can join these associations based on his/her own free will and they can also be abandoned by the individual at any time, if it is not conducive to his/her self-development.


Mill considers centralized forms of socialism problematic because they are characterized by too much heteronomy and are therefore not conducive to the freedom of the individual. One advantage that Mill sees in socialist communities is the fact that the introduction of collective property abolishes dependence on wages and an employer, which in turn frees people from harmful relationships of dependence.


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David Ricardo, by Thomas Phillips, 1821, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


It would be presumptuous, however, to believe that Mill is simply blindly advocating the establishment of a new socialist system. Such a system, according to Mill, presupposes a high degree of moral progress at the individual and societal levels:


“The verdict of experience, in the imperfect degree of moral cultivation which mankind have yet reached, is that the motive of conscience and that of credit and reputation, even when they are of some strength, are, in the majority of cases, much stronger as restraining than as impelling forces — are more to be depended on for preventing wrong, than for calling forth the fullest energies in the pursuit of ordinary occupations.”


Mill makes the valid point that it is indeed questionable whether the present social conditions — with which Mill saw himself confronted — register such moral progress that all the negative character traits fostered in the capitalist system would automatically disappear in the communist system. According to Mill, therefore, it is clear that certain forms of socialist economic systems (especially communist ones) demand a high degree of altruism and moral insight. Capitalism, on the other hand, does not demand such a level of moral development and manages to get people to work through material incentives.


These objections, however, should by no means lead to the assumption that Mill is hostile to socialist forms of economic organization. Rather, Mill believes that a certain amount of moral progress is still necessary for its realization. With that, however, Mill very well believes in the future feasibility of communist systems as soon as such a level of development is reached (cf. ibid).


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John Stuart Mill, Replica by George Frederic Watts, 1873, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


Accordingly, Mill’s socialist approach is to be understood in a similar way as his experiments of living thematized in On Liberty:


“It is for Communism, then, to prove, by practical experiment, its power of giving this training. Experiments alone can show whether there is as yet in any portion of the population a sufficiently high level of moral cultivation to make Communism succeed, and to give to the next generation among themselves the education necessary to keep up that high level permanently. If Communist associations show that they can be durable and prosperous, they will multiply, and will probably be adopted by successive portions of the population of the more advanced countries as they become morally fitted for that mode of life. But to force unprepared populations into Communist societies, even if a political revolution gave the power to make such an attempt, would end in disappointment.”


According to Mill’s empirical approach, it remains to be examined whether communist forms of property distribution and economic organization are compatible with the human potential for individual self-development and human progress. Instead of revolutionary upheavals, Mill, therefore, strives for socialism in the sense of voluntary associations. These are compatible with Mill’s ideals of freedom and individuality — it is the individual decision of each person whether to join such an association or not.


The form of socialism advocated by John Stuart Mill can therefore be compared to a hypothesis that can be falsified at any time as soon as it does not contribute to the general human welfare. Mill emphasizes that this can only be realized through targeted decentralized reforms without producing a complete upheaval of the entire social system (where no one knows what will come after).


John Stuart Mill in Conclusion: Liberalism or Socialism? A False Opposition?

john stuart mill
John Stuart Mill, by John & Charles Watkins, or by John Watkins, 1865, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


As is clear from what has been discussed, the accusation that Mill wants to reconcile seemingly incompatible positions is entirely unjustified. Of course, one can read Mill as a liberal who was highly critical of socialist forms of economic activity. But one can also read him as a thinker who was well aware of the distortions of the liberal-capitalist economic system. And this is where the appeal of Mill’s thinking seems to lie: Mill rejects any kind of dogmatism, but at the same time is already thinking about completely new social designs.


He ultimately tries to overcome the classification into schools of thought, which ultimately allows him to be argumentatively instrumentalized for various schools of thought such as socialism or liberalism. But the most important insight is that Mill shows that a liberal attitude (in the sense of traditional liberalism) and the advocacy of a democratic-socialist approach are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but can be mutually dependent. Only through a liberal attitude can alternative social designs be thought of, since any form of dogmatism, which restricts the flexibility of one’s thinking, consequently works against it. This is one of the most important insights if one wants to approach Mill’s thinking.

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By Florian MaiwaldBA & M.Ed PhilosophyCurrently a PhD Student of Philosophy at the University of Bonn. In my PhD thesis I examine John Stuart Mill in order to explore the connection between liberalism and socialism. Furthermore, my Master’s thesis in which I compare John Stuart Mills and Erich Fromm’s concept of Individuality has been published as a book in German this year.