John Stuart Mill


John Stuart Mill was trained up by his father, James Mill and John Austin. In his earlier days, Mill was very considerably influenced by Bentham's philosophy and its reforming programme. But with the passage of time, many of the evils, against which the early utilitarians laboured hard, ceased to exist and Benthamism began yielding place to other philos­ophic systems. The biological speculations of Darwin and Spen­cer and the sociological researches of Auguste Comte had set in motion new currents of thought and John Stuart Mill was not uninfluenced by them. J. S. Mill while still a utilitarian, somewhat modified the narrow principles of the original Benthamite utilitarianism.  Bentham and John Mill, for instance, believed that pleasures were different in quantity, not in quality. J. S. Mill saw both Qualitative and Quantitative differences in pleasures. If to Bentham, a ‘pushpin was as good as poetry', Mill held a different view. Mill brought about a greater identification between individual happiness and general happi­ness than did Bentham. ''The utilitarian standard is not the agents' own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether" Unlike Bentham, Mill held that there were internal as well as external sanctions for happiness. Un­like Bentham and James Mill, John Stuart Mill held liberty to be a personal right. His conception of liberty was not based on the principle of Benthamite utility. His assertion that the whole world was not justified in suppressing one individual's freedom of thought and expression was not in accord with the Benthamite principle of the greatest good of the greatest number.


The principles of political philosophy of J. S. Mill are to be found mainly in his­:

  1. On Liberty (1859).
  2. Considerations on Representative Government

Mill believes that "society is not founded on a contract". The Government comes into existence for social well-being. Political institutions find their basis in human will and interest. A government owes its authority to the consent and coopera­tion of the people. The end of the government is to promote social welfare by promoting the qualities of virtue and intelli­gence is a number of concrete human beings.

Mill on Liberty:

Mill lived at a time when the policy of laissez faire was being abandoned in favour of greater regulation by the state of the actions of the individual. Besides due to the growth of democracy, the individual was getting lost in the society. To Mill, this increasing regulation and elimination of the indivi­dual was a wrong and harmful development. He believed that the progress of society depended largely on the originality and energy of the individual. He, therefore, became a great advocate of individualism i.e. of the supreme necessity and importance of the individual developing on his own lines, as far as possible to the supreme perfection of his personality for his own good and that of the society. If, unhindered by society, the individual reached the perfection of his personality; his services to the society would be great and rich. The society would be enriched also by the 'variety' of characters in it. Instead of the society or the state regulating the individuals and producing individuals of the same pattern, the society should leave the individuals the widest possible margin for free development. He lays down as a general principle that governmental interference in the activity of the individual should be reduced to the minimum. On the basis of utility, he advocates a complete system of individualism.

Mill believed that an individual had two aspects to his life i.e. (1) the individual aspect which concerned himself alone and (2) the social because every individual was also an integral part of society. The actions of the individual may similarly be divided into two categories i.e. (1) self-regarding, and (2) other-regarding. With regard to actions in which he alone is concerned his liberty of action is complete and should not be regulated by the state. However, in actions of the individual which affect the society, his actions can justifiably be regulated by the state or society. "The sole end for which man­kind is warranted individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-pro­tection. 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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. The only part of the conduct of anyone, 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 or mind, the individual is sovereign.

Freedoms of the Individual:

Mill pleads for certain freedoms for the individual without which he cannot develop his personality properly. These are: (1) freedom of conscience (2) liberty of thought and of its expression, (3) liberty of pursuits and tastes, (4) liberty of association (5) liberty to pursue his own vocation in life (6) liberty of religion and morals. Mill laid great stress on liberty of thought and expression. The society must allow the individual freedom of thought and opinion and must not sup­press his opinion on the plea that his opinion is contrary to commonly-held opinion. It may be that his opinion is correct. Custom and tradition are no guarantee of the correctness of an opinion. Freedom of expression is very useful because it leads to discussion and the discovery of truth. It leads to clear, full and consistent thinking. It improves ideas and strengthens convictions and thereby renders action more posi­tive and effective. Truth has various aspects which come out in a discussion when there is freedom of expression. Freedom of thought and expression leads to the development of personality on individual lines and, therefore, to a 'variety' of characters which enriches society. Other freedoms are similarly necessary for proper development of personality. Any state action which reduces his freedoms reduces the sponta­neity of choice and action of the individual and hinders the growth of his personality.

Besides, the purely individual or private aspect, there is also the social aspect to a man's personality. Here the society, agrees Mill, has the right of interference. But this interference must be reduced to the minimum. Any increase in state interference and action is prejudicial to the liberty of the individual and to the development of his personality. State action can mean collective tyranny.

Though Mill is against excessive state interference, he concedes to the state the right of regulating the actions of the individuals which affect the society on the plea of self-pro­tection. In the actions of the individual which concern himself alone, the state should not interfere. He should be allowed to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost. Similarly, the state should not interfere in the private affairs of the associations or corporations which affect their members only. But where a man's conduct is prejudicial to the rights and interests of others, society or state may legitimately step in. The society can also compel a man to perform his duties and obligations as a member of society.

Mill's doctrine of the liberty of the individual is based on three essential elements i.e. (1) strong advocacy of the importance of impulse and desire in the individual and letting the individual follow his own impulses in actions which con­cern him alone, (2) insistence on the view that spontaneity and individuality are essential elements in individual and social welfare, and (3) revolt against the tyranny of custom, tradition or public opinion which might hinder the expression and development of individuality.

There is much which is admirable in Mill's advocacy of individual liberty. But Mill overstates his case. (1) He is apt to confuse individual eccentricity with originality and genius. Eccentricity does not always denote strength of character. Mill does not realize that impulses and desires of the indi­vidual may be unhealthy and are not always a sure guide to proper development of personality or proper social action. Un­less impulses and desires of the individual are properly canalized, they may ruin him and do harm to society.

Representative Government:

Mill holds that the best government is not that which is the most efficient but that which best promotes the virtue and intelligence of the people i.e. one which best promotes the moral and intellectual qualities of the people. This is best done through the association of the people in public affairs. Therefore, to Mill, there is no difficulty in showing that the ideally best form of government is that in Which the sovereignty or supreme controlling power in the last resort, is vested in the entire aggregate of the community, every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that ultimate sovereignty, but being at least occasionally, called on to take an actual part in the government, by the personal discharge of some public function, local or general. But since, except in a very small community, all cannot directly and personally participate in public affairs, it follows that the best government must be a representative government. Mill was in favour of a representative democracy.
Though a radical, Mill was very alive to the dangers and weaknesses of democracy. He feared democratic despotism as something worse than monarchial despotism. Extreme democracy would kill individuality. Democracy generally means the rule of the majority and the tyranny of the majority exercised over the minorities. It leads to sectional legislation and pro­motion of class interests. Generally, representative democracy though better than other forms of government, suffers from two dangers i.e. (1) general ignorance and incapacity in the controlling body in the state and in the average member in the parliament and 2) the danger of the democratic machinery being in the controlling hands of a section of population whose interests are not identical with the general welfare of the whole community. Representative democracy gives undue prominence and power to sheer numerical majority. It tends towards 'col­lective mediocrity'. It leads to under-representation of the minorities in the parliament and therefore suppression of their interests.

Proportional Representation:

Ordinarily, in a representative democracy, the majority party succeeds in securing a larger number of seats in the parliament than its proportionate number of votes would jus­tify. In the General Election of 1906 in Britain, the govern­ment party polled about two lacs of votes and secured thirty seats, while the minority party polled about a lac of votes but secured not a single seat. In this case, a strong minority of one lac voters went unrepresented in the parliament. As a rule, minorities suffer from under-representation in the parliament. To guard against this injustice to minorities and to make sure that majorities and minorities get their due share of repre­sentation in the parliament, Mill supported the system of pro­portional representation which he regarded as necessary for representative democracy. It is a system of transferable vote, first proposed by Mr. Hare.

Mill thought it necessary for democracy that the legisla­tors should be wise, educated and enlightened. They should be men of culture and of independent views who could rise above selfish considerations. They should be men who would make a special study of politics and of legislation. For this, two things were necessary. One of these was weighted suffrage. Mill would grant universal suffrage to all men and women, knowing the 3 R's. But he would give weighted suffrage i.e. plural votes to higher educated citizens. This would give pro­portionate weight to men of superior intelligence. He even drew up a list of those classes whose superior intelligence entitled them to plural votes. In order to prevent the rich higher educated men practicing class legislation, he was in favour of the poor getting plural votes by proving their supe­rior intelligence by voluntary examinations. Another thing he advocated was the non-payment of members of parliament. This he did on the basis of purity and efficiency of parliamentary work. But, at the same time, he recommended that the expenses incurred at an election should not be charged to the candidate himself.

Both Bentham and James Mill were ardent supporters of voting by ballot i.e. secret voting. J. S. Mill was against voting by ballot as being wrong in principle. Voting by ballot converted a vote into a right, something that a voter could deal with as he chose without regard to the interests of others. Mill believed that voting was not a right but a trust, demanding a due sense of responsibility and re­gard for general good instead of personal advantage. This should obviate the necessity of secret voting. It must be said, however, that the experience of mankind has supported Bentham rather than Mill on the question of voting by ballot. Secret voting does minimize, if it does not eliminate, bribery, corruption and intimidation.

Mill did not express his opinion about monarchy but considered the House of Lords in Britain as a useful body for drafting bills because of its superior legal ability.

Mill's Modified Utilitarianism:

J. S. Mill, as the greatest of Bentham's disciples, differed a little from his master in his utilitarianism. But he simply softened the angles of Benthamism without introducing any new principles. In economic theory, Mill diverged from original Benthamism when he argued that instead of pure com­petition based on the notions of individualism and laissez faire policy, co-operation was necessary for production. In spite of utilitarian individualism, Mill realized that there were some avenues of social effort. He stressed more than other Benthamites did the importance of education from the standpoint of liberty and representative government. Mill made whatever improvements were called for in Benthamism in the latter half of the 19th century. If the utilitarianism of Mill were not unalloyed nor were his individualism and democratism. In his revision of Benthamism he was influenced by the col­lectivism of the Idealist school.

Mill's individualism is more pronounced than his Ben­thamism for due to changed environment, he developed some points of disagreement with Bentham. Bentham ignores history and traditions; Mill respects history. Bentham conceived of utility based on self-regarding motives while Mill's utility was based on self as also other regarding motives. Bentham took a quantitative view of pleasure; Mill viewed it both quan­titatively and qualitatively. Bentham was in favour of equal franchise; one man one vote. Mill supported weighted suffrage for the educated. Bentham based liberty on utility; Mill's liberty could even be divorced from utility. Bentham was against a second chamber; Mill was for the retention of a second chamber. Bentham was in favour of voting by ballot; Mill was against voting by ballot.

Influence of Utilitarianism:

Utilitarianism, a British gift to political philosophy, repre­sented a British reaction against the vague generalities about natural rights and social contract and the mystic idealism of the German political philosophers. Utilitarianism brought political theory back from the abstractions of the Age of Reason to the level of concrete realities. The Utilitarian philosophers particularly Bentham and Austin, rendered valuable service to political philosophy by giving simplicity and definiteness to its political terminology. They constructed a new theory of government according to which government was based not on contract but on the habit of obedience born of utility. The individualism and emphasis on individual liberty of utilitarian­ism represented a much-needed corrective to the growing deifi­cation of the omnipotent state at the hands of the Idealist school. The individual was rescued from his complete absorption by the state and became the prominent subject of political Speculation once again. The utilitarians, however, viewed their political society merely as an aggregate of so many individuals. They failed to realize that an aggregate possesses attributes different from those of the individuals who compose it and that such an aggregate has a life of its own. Their political philosophy did not take count of such a thing as group psychology. Their theory of state is, therefore, more a theory of government than one of the state. Utilitarianism had little influence on the Continent because of its metaphysical weak­ness, whereas Germany, the leader of Continental political speculation, was more interested in metaphysics than pure political speculation.


Achievements of Benthamism:

Bentham and his followers are chiefly responsible for the parliamentary reforms in England during the 19th century. The Municipal Reform Act of 1835 in England and there­ organization of the administrative machinery in India are very much due to the activities of the Benthamite school. The whole reforms of law and legal procedure as well as of prisons in England are the direct outcome of Bentham's suggestions. It was due to the influence of his school that university educa­tion became available in England to people other than the Church of England ones, and that trade unions were establish­ed. It would be no exaggeration to say that every important reformer in England during the 19th century was a Bentham­ite. Benthamism was influential because it answered to the spirit of the times. The generation after the French Revolution was determined to do away with natural rights and secure property. It picked up the Benthamite doctrines because they were conservative and practical. Benthamism represented an anti-socialist theory because it was individualistic. It limited the sphere of the government to the minimum and provided for freedom of contract. The promotion of the well-being of the state in terms of individual activity was fundamental to it. The Benthamite influence waned after 1870, though the collectivism of to-day is based on the Benthamite conception of the greatest good of the greatest number.

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