Times of J S Mill ( 1806 – 1873 ) – English philosopher
John Stuart Mill belonged to the time when classical liberalism ( where the State gives importance to freedom of the individual by limiting governments power ) was coming to an end and modern liberalism ( theory of welfare state where government interferes to provide basic economic security for example during old age or social insurance etc ) was yet to start. He belonged to the time when people started realizing the negative consequences of absolute freedom given to capitalists making a profit. But till that time, the idea of state intervention on behalf of the workers has not been established. Like Machiavelli, he is also a transitional thinker. Because of his times, we find inconsistencies in his thoughts.
His father was an economist and a close associate of Bentham. Through his father, Mill got to know about Bentham ( known as the father of utilitarianism ) and started appreciating utilitarianism.
J S Mill works:
- On Utilitarianism
- On Liberty
- On Representative Government
- On Subjection of Women
John Stuart Mill On Utilitarianism
What is Utilitarianism?
Utilitarianism was the dominant philosophy in Britain in the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century. It is known as the philosophy of the common man because it appeals to common sense. Its popularity was because of its simplicity. Utilitarians suggested a very simple yardstick for human actions – pleasure and pain that can be understood in terms of profit and loss. They say that what gives you the pleasure you should do and what gives you pain you should not do. It is a philosophy of capitalism in which man only thinks about his pleasure and pain in terms of profit and loss. The strongest defense for capitalism comes from utilitarianism, and J S Mill was like that.
Hence it justified extreme form of exploitation of the working class by the capitalist for profit. Later on, its exploitative consequences became clear. There were reactions against utilitarianism from early socialists and philanthropists. Carlyle called utilitarianism “pigs philosophy”.
It converts man into an animal and undermines human dignity with no ethical standards of what is right or wrong. As one goes only for pleasure, therefore utilitarianism came under attack and was criticized as pigs philosophy. But JS Mill, who was the disciple of Bentham, thought it was his duty to defend his master.
Chief features of Utilitarianism?
Bentham was the first person to give the systematic philosophy of utilitarianism/ (also called Benthamism ), although he was not the originator of it.
According to Bentham, pleasure is just a quantitative concept, and there is no concept of quality in it. There is always more pleasure or less pleasure, but we cannot say superior pleasure or inferior pleasure.
In the words of Bentham, “pushpin is as good as poetry”. Meaning the pleasure you get by playing pushpin (child’s game; in philosophy it has been used as an example of a relatively worthless form of amusement) or getting pleasure by reading poetry cannot be classified as superior or inferior. In other words, pleasure differs only in the form of quantity, not in terms of quality.
As per Bentham, If one gets happiness in one thing, the other person gets in another thing; we cannot say that one is superior and the other is inferior.
He further says that since pleasures do not differ in quality, human beings also do not differ in quality. All are the same as everyone seeks pleasure. There is no one Socrates. There is nothing like a superior soul or an inferior soul.
Statement of Bentham – “Nature has placed us under the sovereign control of pleasure and pain. Not only we ought to do what they command but we shall do what they command” Explanation – Like Hobbes, Bentham also suggests that nature has made man in such a way that he cannot act otherwise except working for his pleasure and avoiding pain. Bentham has provided utilitarian ethics. According to Bentham, we are bound to act for our pleasure, and this is the way we should act. Thus, he ends the gap between what ought to be there and what is. Like Hobbes, he removes the sense of guilt in working for pleasure.
Bentham says – Firstly, pleasure does not differ in quality. Secondly, human beings do not differ in quality. Thirdly, Bentham has proposed felicific calculus to calculate happiness ( algorithm to calculate ) for States. Bentham has given a yardstick for state policies which is called “The greatest happiness of greatest number”.
It is a defective principle but looks like a humanitarian type of principle in appearance. It looks as if it is very much concerned with the happiness of the greatest number, which means poor or workers. But in reality, it ends up justifying the accumulation of wealth by capitalists. For Bentham, only when the State does not intervene in the economy, it ensures the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
The State intervenes in the economy to force capitalists to pay more taxes or more wages. For Bentham, the extra wages given by the capitalists can be used otherwise to drive economic growth that can produce more jobs. He seemed to be good in giving such prescriptions that were in the interest of the capitalists. So Bentham’s theory is based on this concept that state intervention in the economy does not benefit the poor rather it adversely impact economic growth and ultimately results in a decrease in happiness and more pain.
Socialists objected to the concept of “The greatest happiness of greatest number” where priority is on happiness and then comes number. Socialists gave priority to the number than happiness. That is why there is an argument that socialism way cannot lead to higher national incomes. It is also said that Socialism searches for equality which they can achieve by keeping everyone poor. Capitalists argue that the Socialist formula for equality is that you snatch property from the capitalists and redistribute it. Socialism will make everyone propertyless. They will feel everyone is equal, but their economic policies are not practicable because everyone’s property is no one’s responsibility.
If we take the example of China, politically they are socialists but not economically. They have left economic socialism in the 70s and 80s.
J S Mill on Utilitarianism
Why Mill revises Utilitarianism? He considered himself as the disciple of Bentham. But by this time, Benthamism came under attack because of its inhumane consequences. Hence, Mill wanted to defend Utilitarianism.
How Mill revises Utilitarianism? Mill was also influenced by Greek thinkers. He brings idealism to Utilitarianism.
The net result of Mill’s efforts? By mixing two extreme philosophies, he ends up shaking the foundation of Utilitarianism itself.
Modifications by Mill – It is better to live Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.
For Bentham, pleasure is just a quantitative term, whereas for Mill pleasure is both quantitative and also qualitative. Not only pleasure differs in quality, but human beings also differ in quality. Some are Socrates, and some are fools. Socrates (intellectual person) will not be satisfied in the thing in which fool or ignorant persons are satisfied. He also suggests that some persons are not better than pigs. Like animals, they are concerned only with the satisfaction of their wants by any means.
Once pleasure is regarded as qualitative, it renders the felicific calculus of Bentham useless because quality (feeling) cannot be measured.
Other than this, Bentham makes no difference in pleasure and happiness. Mill makes the difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is materialistic, whereas happiness is spiritualistic. We may get pleasure by experiencing material good, but we get happiness by sacrificing pleasure.
For Bentham, “pushpin is as good as poetry”, but for Mill, it is not. The beauty of Bentham was simplicity, but Mill is telling something right but making it too complicated.
The defining feature of individualists is self-interest is more important; defining feature of utilitarianism is to work for pleasure i.e. human actions are guided by pleasure and pain.
By making difference between pleasure and happiness, Mill again contradicts Hobbesian and Benthamite idea which states that man is individualistic by nature who cannot understand the pleasure of another person.
For Bentham, Utilitarianism is a guide to states’ actions. In Mill, Utilitarianism is a guide for individuals’ actions. J S Mill ends up making it a philosophy of ethics. According to Mill, we have to take the progressive view of human nature. We must evolve as human beings. The real progress is the evolution of human beings from mere animals. An animal knows only about the satisfaction of his wants, whereas human beings live in a society. Man is ethical by nature.
Even Gandhi has criticized the utilitarianism of the west.
Thus it is true if we say that Mill has destroyed Utilitarianism that is actually Benthamism and has given a new shape to it.
John Stuart Mill On Liberty
It is said that if there is anyone who is liberal in the real sense, it is J S Mill. J S Mill is the first person to give a comprehensive idea of the concept of freedom/liberty in liberalism. Freedom for the individual is necessary for the development of a persons’ personality or self-actualization, that is liberty to do what you want. Not only it is important for the individual, but it is also beneficial for the state and society. This is because State is nothing except the persons comprising the State, and if persons are developed State will automatically be great.
STATEMENT OF MILL – “No state becomes great by dwarfing its own people as no great goals are achieved by small men”
As he suggests that no state becomes great by dwarfing its own people by not making its people realize their full potential. We can give examples of the western world. Modern western civilization has recognized the importance of individual liberty and that is why there has been scientific progress that has led to progress in other fields. In comparison to the western world, the notion of individual freedom has not yet been accepted as a value. Hence we can say that Mill was right when he demands maximum liberty for the individual in the interest of the State itself.
There are social practices found around the world that are against human dignity, especially for women. They take away the freedom to do what one wants. Society becomes more exploitative. But liberalism is all about freedom. Western society has recognized the importance of giving liberty to man. Liberalism is not the political philosophy of the west but its culture. It is their way of life. As a result, the civilizational values of liberalism are different from non-western societies. It results in the clash of civilizations.
The USA is known for giving liberty to its people. States that have given liberty they have progressed, and states and societies that have kept individual under the clutches customs, religion, tradition, they have not reached to that level of greatness. If we compare the USA with China, China may be a powerful country now, but no one says that it is a great country. It is not a source of attraction for soft power.
The opposite of liberalism is fundamentalism. Right now, there is a clash between western civilizational values and Islamic fundamentalism.
How much liberty should be given to an individual, or should there be any limit on liberty?
Mill suggests maximum possible liberty. The only limitation is if a person’s liberty harms the liberty of someone else. In the words of Mill “The soul purpose for which mankind is permitted to interfere individually or collectively in the liberty of any other person is self-protection. All restraints qua restraints ( all restraints for the sake of restraints) is an evil.”
Mill invents the famous “harm principle”. Thus for Mill even harm to oneself is not sufficient for State to interfere in man’s liberty. The only purpose is when a person’s actions impact the liberty of others.
Man is considered rational who can take decisions for himself, who knows what is good and what is bad. This is the belief of liberalism. Liberalism comes with enlightenment and rationalism. So that is why they believe State’s role should be limited. It shouldn’t increase the powers of the State but that of an individual.
Evaluation of Mill
Mill has been criticized by Ernst Barker as the “prophet of empty liberty”. Barker is a positive liberal who considers the concept of negative liberty as hollow. For Barker state is not a necessary evil rather State is a source of virtue. Barker believes in the concept of positive liberty. Liberty is not the absence of State but the presence of State. Man becomes freer when the State goes for positive intervention like the development of human capacities by providing facilities for education, health, nutrition, etc. Barker has a fundamental disagreement over the way Mill understands liberty as non-interference from State. J S Mill is a classical liberal.
You will agree with Mill or Barker depending upon which school of thought you belong to. Both are right in their own context.
Barker further says that not only the Mill’s concept of liberty is unacceptable, but Mill also could not provide sufficient defense for his theory. In his “harm principle”, he creates lots of scope for state intervention.
Barker calls Mill a scholar of ‘Abstract individualism’. Mill’s individual is a fictional person rather than real. The real individual is a member of society. Such individuals will only have a limited possibility of freedom in the way Mill defines. Thus his individual is an abstract individual.
Arguments of Mill in favor of freedom of speech and expression
Out of all the liberties, Mill has given the most important position to freedom of speech and expression. Why?
This freedom is the foundation of a democratic society – the right to oppose and dissent. As per Mill, speech is the most precious gift of God to humans. Only the human species can communicate through dialogue. Freedom of speech and expression should not be denied. The only limitation can be in accordance with the “harm principle”.
If you want to fight, fight on the table of diplomacy, no need to have a costly war. Rather than a clash of civilizations, there should be a dialogue between civilizations. Mill states that democracy is not for barbarians and is only for civilized people. Only civilized people will respect other persons’ freedom of speech and expression.
Mill also suggests that freedom should be there to act as per one’s ideas as well as the freedom to form an association for better articulation of ones’ ideas. These three freedoms are necessary components of a democratic society.
Freedom of speech and expression is a means for the attainment of truth and the removal of imperfections. The nature of truth is that it automatically emerges. There is no advantage in postponing the truth. If we are doing that, we are depriving ourselves of the truth.
Mill further says that there is no advantage in silencing a person. If the person is wrong, he will keep quiet, and you will be more confident about yourself. If the other person is right and you are wrong, then it is an opportunity to correct yourself. Mill goes to the extent of suggesting that even the mad people should be allowed to speak and others should listen as we do not know from where the truth will emerge.
In the words of Mill “if all but one has a difference of opinion, the majority is not right in silencing that person, in a similar way that person is not right in silencing the majority.”
According to Mill, democracy should not be understood as the tyranny of the majority. Therefore, neither tyranny of majority nor the tyranny of one person is acceptable.
In western countries, there is no restriction on freedom of speech and expression. I must respect those views which I totally disagree but for this to happen, society has to be rational and tolerant – only in those societies, you can enjoy this freedom. Voltaire said that I completely disagree with you, but I will respect your freedom to say what you want, even at the cost of my life. This is one freedom where there should be no restriction at all. No freedom of speech and expression means no democracy.
John Stuart Mill on Representative Government
The best form of government is democracy. The ideal is direct democracy. We can see the link between Mill’s advocacy for freedom of speech and expression and democracy as a form of government because direct democracy gives the best opportunity for exercising freedom of speech and expression. However, some form of representative government has become enviable. Hence, representative democracy is the second-best form of government.
Concern of Mill
Mill’s concern for democracy has been influenced by Alex de Tocqueville’s work on democracy in America, where he raised apprehension of democracy getting converted into the tyranny of the majority.
Mobocracy gives rise to demagogic leaders. This happened in Germany where Hitler came into power by the democratic method. J S Mill is fearful of such situations when working classes do not have sufficient rationality and elect wrong leaders. Once democracy turns into mobocracy, people will start challenging democracy itself. In other words, if such governments do not work, one might feel autocratic officers are the best.
Mill was concerned with the future of democracy. According to him, democracy has not been a free gift. Generations have struggled for democracy. If we are unable to manage democracy and it gets converted into mobocracy, this will lead to a question mark on the desirability of democracy as a form of government. Hence, he proposed certain reforms.
- Change majoritarians system into proportional representation
- Introduction of weighted voting – All should have one vote but those who are educated and poses property should have more than one vote.
- Plural voting – A person should have the right to vote in all constituencies where he has the right to property.
- He was in favor of strengthening the powers of the House of Lords (assembly of elders).
- He favored open ballot rather than secret.
- Advocated the right to vote for women.
Mill is concerned about protecting the future of democracy. Therefore, he introduced aristocratic elements.
Mill on Governance of Colonies
Mill’s Statement – Despotism is a legitimate form of government for barbarians given the end is their improvement. [ Despotism – exercising power in a cruel and oppressive way ]
Mill is a reluctant democrat who does not favor the introduction of democracy anywhere, anytime. Society should fulfill certain prerequisites. According to him, people must be civilized. They should have a civic sense and commitment towards democracy. Democracy is not just a form of government, it is a way of life.
First, there is a need for a democratic society then only democracy should be introduced. The chances of success of democracy are higher where constitutionalism comes first, as happened in Britain rather than those countries where democracy has been introduced without constitutionalism or democratic culture. From Mill’s point of view, such democracies that lack democratic culture are false democracies.
In countries where people have not learned what is rule of law is but had overnight democracy, in their parliaments one gets to see undemocratic culture very often.
In the case of colonies, Mill suggested benevolent despotism rather than democracy. According to him, China and India were once great civilizations but not at present. Hence do not qualify for self-government. In comparison to Mill, leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi were passionate democrats. According to Nehru, if people cannot come to democracy, we can take democracy to their doorsteps.
Democracy in India is the most successful model of democracy in third-world countries. The success of democracy in India in the absence of essential prerequisites is a miracle for the western world. As suggested by Nehru, India made a tryst with destiny.
It is to be noted that for Mill, democracy was end in itself. But for leaders like Nehru and Gandhi, democracy is a means to an end with the empowerment of the masses as its end.
John Stuart Mill On Subjection of women
After Plato in ancient Greece, it was Mill in modern Europe who emerges as a thinker in the history of western philosophy who talks about the right of women to participate in the public sphere. According to Mill, we have abolished all forms of slavery except the slavery of women. He advocated the right to vote for women and has suggested the advantages of allowing women to participate in the public sphere.
John Stuart Mill is considered the greatest champion of freedom of speech and expression. Though John Locke is known as the father of liberalism, it is J S Mill who deserves to be known as liberal in the true sense. John Locke has given absolute defense to the Right to Property. He does mention natural rights to life, liberty, and property but has not dealt with the right to liberty, which is the core value of liberalism, in an exhaustive sense. It was J S Mill who in his book on liberty has given a comprehensive idea of the liberal concept of “freedom of liberty”.
So Locke emerges as the scholar of the capitalist class, but liberalism is not just capitalism as it also talks about freedom where JS Mill is contributing.
For the article on John Locke – Click here