Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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John Stuart Mill (1806‒73)

In the pantheon of secular liberal saints, the place of John Stuart Mill is assured. Whenever liberal ideas are discussed, sooner or later Mill becomes a major, if not the major, point of reference. Mill, let it be said immediately, was not typical of liberal thinking. If typical implies normal, Mill was exceptional in his acuteness, powers of imagination, dexterity of analysis, and breadth of comprehension. If we seek the normal liberal thinking of the 19th century, we need to look at pamphlets, newspapers, Parliamentary debates, and other conventional writers. If we want liberal thought at its best, Mill is a suitable starting point. He merits investigation both as a producer of complex philosophical arguments and as a disseminator of ideas to a general public that propelled liberal ideology in new directions. If political parties are ideological stragglers, philosophers of Mill’s ilk are ideological trail-blazers. Mill may not be entirely representative of his times, but he was instrumental in giving liberalism a powerful and influential voice well beyond the borders of the United Kingdom.

Mill’s elucidations of liberal thought are manifold. In his famous essay ‘On Liberty’, published in 1859, he stipulated a divide between self-regarding and other-regarding actions, a distinction that highlighted the boundary between the public and private spheres that became one of liberalism’s hallmarks. Self-regarding actions were those with which no one had a right to interfere. Among those, Mill listed decisions about one’s personal safety, one’s tastes and beliefs, and the purchase of drugs and medicines as long as they were clearly labelled. In all those cases, individual reason was to be relied on and, even if people made mistaken decisions, it was always better that they learn from these than that they be directed by others. Other-regarding actions were far more common, given that most individual actions affect others. But they too could be engaged in freely by individuals unless they would cause injury. That rule was known as the harm principle and found in far earlier accounts of natural law and duties, including Locke’s. Mill, however, elaborated on it markedly. Mere inconvenience to others, or offence, were insufficient causes for intervention in an individual’s actions. Intervention was justified only when other-regarding actions were critically detrimental to the interests of other members of a society. Mill’s notion of harm to others was narrow by today’s standards. It comprised physical damage and legal compulsion, or the undue pressure of public opinion, but not psychological, emotional, or historical harms of oppression. In the 19th century the conceptual apparatus for identifying such additional harms as equally dehumanizing was barely available. Still, the harm principle and the integrity of individual space have remained distinguishing features of modern liberalism. And Mill’s commitment to the freedoms of thought, speech, and association as the indicators of a decent, open society, without which neither individual nor society could thrive, remained paramount.

That was not Mill’s only, or even main, contribution to liberalism. He was one of the first to transform utilitarianism from a pleasure-seeking theory into a more refined doctrine. He replaced the utilitarians’ focus on fleeting pleasures with a solid insistence on the permanent interests of people, concentrating on their self-development and insisting that they were progressive beings. That idea of improvement had previously not been prevalent in utilitarianism, as its precept of maximizing one’s pleasure did not have to involve any idea of personal growth.

Ultimately, Mill bequeathed to the liberal tradition a more sophisticated understanding of its values. As already noted in , he saw liberalism as based on a triple conceptual combination—even if the title of his essay referred to liberty alone—centred on the ‘free development of individuality’:

If it were felt that the free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being; that it is not only a co-ordinate element with all that is designated by the terms civilisation, instruction, education, culture; but is itself a necessary part and condition of all those things; there would be no danger that liberty should be undervalued …

In this inner circle of liberal concepts, liberty was both enhanced and constrained. It was enhanced because it was purposive, understood as the unfolding of human potential. It was constrained—although not fully—because the licence to do nothing or to disrupt one’s capacity to lead a good life was frowned upon. Development was specifically located in an individual’s will, emanating from within, not imposed from without. And individuality was a substantive ethical ideal and the route to cultivating character. It conjured up the attributes of vigour, variety, and originality—giving full rein to individual diversity. It entailed designing one’s own life-plan. Above all, it involved the exercise of choice, an exercise absolutely essential to judgement, discriminatory feeling, and moral preference.

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