Join us for this analysis of nineteenth century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose radical political and ethical ideas based in utilitarianism have had a profound effect in the final frontier and on our current political landscape.
Ethics the Mill Way
Have you ever seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? You might know it by someone yelling 'KHAAAAN!' really loud and angrily. It's okay if you haven't - not everyone's a Trekkie. But you've probably heard about the climactic scene in that film, where the Enterprise's first officer Spock sacrifices himself to save his crewmates and, by extension, a whole lot of other people. Right before he dies, Spock tells his superior officer, Captain Kirk, that 'the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.' This is a pretty classic example of utilitarianism, the philosophy that today's subject, one Mr. John Stuart Mill, is most associated with.
Throughout his life, John Stuart Mill (or JSM, as I like to call him for short) contributed to a variety of philosophical disciplines, including logic, epistemology, economics, religion and metaphysics, but it's really his work in political and ethical philosophy that has garnered him the most longevity and fame (it's okay if you've never heard of him). He produced dozens of texts in his lifetime, but the two writings that stand above the rest are 1859's On Liberty and 1863's Utilitarianism. Those texts led fellow philosopher Henry Sidgwick to note upon Mill's death: 'I should say that from about 1860-65 or thereabouts he ruled England in the region of thought as very few men ever did.' Pretty high praise.
The Life of John Stuart Mill
But before we talk about how John Stuart Mill died, let's talk about how he lived. He was born on May 20, 1806 in London, England, to Harriet Burrow and noted economist James Mill - he's already off to a good start genetically. James was an educated fellow heavily involved in the early nineteenth century movement called 'philosophic radicalism,' which led to him pushing his son's education from an early age - John studied Greek at age three and Latin at eight, and he was made to recite everything he'd learned to his father each night. Pretty intense. John was also responsible for educating his eight younger siblings, which is a huge deal.
Education was really important to him from a very early age, and that rich educational connection to his father really defined Mill's career. He was obsessed with merging the rational, Enlightenment-influenced philosophic radicalism of Mill Senior with his own interest in the more humanistic, emotional Romanticism, particularly the works of Samuel Coleridge, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Wordsworth and many others.
Mill felt that his own upbringing lacked the aspects of imagination and humanities that are so crucial to the Romantics, but he really appreciated and loved his father's devotion to what could be called radical empiricism, or a stringent belief that everything one can and should know about the world is observable. You may have heard of empirical evidence - something that can be observed and scientifically proven.
Before we get into a discussion of Mill's more defining works, there are a few key concepts that it's helpful to know because they show up in all of his writings. One that we already mentioned is utility, which literally means usefulness, and we'll talk about it more fully in a second. The other is naturalism, and that's a philosophy that denies that there is really anything outside our empirical world that can be known or really is even worth knowing.
Finally, there's anti-institutionalism, a by-product of both of those beliefs that rails against the social institution (against 'The Man,' if you will) - churches, governments, etc. - that don't abide by those naturalistic principles. Keeping those three principles in mind, let's take a look at his works.
Although On Liberty was published earlier, I think we should talk about Utilitarianism first because I think it's really Mill's most iconic text. It was released in 1861 in a serialized magazine format and then as a book in 1863. This text lays out a full definition of Mill's conception of 'utility,' the central framework of his philosophy in politics, ethics and pretty much everything else. He defines the utilitarianism theory like this:
(A)ctions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.
This is a fairly simple rule that can get complicated pretty quickly. For Mill, happiness is the only thing that has intrinsic value; in other words, it's the only thing we find valuable without any external validation. But what makes us happy? Mill thinks we can only figure that out through careful personal introspection - which means that utilitarianism is, at its base level, a very individualistic philosophy. But then, how would that function in a larger society? If Spock was a utilitarian, why would he sacrifice himself for 'the good of the many'? I mean, that probably wouldn't make him very happy.
For Mill, the key to emphasize is that society is nothing but a collection of individuals. In an earlier work called A System of Logic, he had this to say about society: 'Men, however, in a state of society, are still men; their actions and passions are obedient to the laws of individual human nature. Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance with different properties.'
By extension, therefore, Mill thinks that what makes one person happy should end up making society happy. The only exception to this is when Mill notes that individuals must never infringe upon the rights of others - everyone has the right to seek their own happiness, but no one has the right to take away someone else's. Mill spells this theory out a little more clearly in another one of his major texts.
We're going to jump now to On Liberty, which came in 1859. In this one, he pays more attention to his conception of society and a little less on the individual. He lays out what he calls 'one very simple principle,' but it's something that people have actually referred to as the harm principle. If we take the definition of utilitarianism as a rule for how individuals should treat themselves, the harm principle really lays out how individuals should treat each other. Mill says:
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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise.
That is a mouthful. Really, all he's trying to say there is individuals have domain over themselves and their own happiness, only except in cases where one's happiness is infringing upon the happiness of another or the rights or freedom or liberty of another. An important thing to keep in mind here is that no one has the right to force another to act 'correctly,' except in cases of avoiding harm. Mill actually calls this society's biggest problem, noting that it can be tyrannical and describing it as 'the feeling in each person's mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathizes, would like them to act.'
According to Mill, people need to be free to pursue their own happiness in order for humanity to prosper, and then prosper it will. Mill saw the human race as one that must necessarily make progress, though they can only do so when the harm principle is applied. Humanity, says Mill, is not 'a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.' What that means is that this requires individual freedom to put one's self in situations where one can prosper. Further, Mill thinks, we will naturally gravitate towards prospering in groups because human beings like each other's company - we desire unity with others because it makes us happy.
This point allows us to make some sense of Spock's sacrifice - by allowing himself to perish, Spock fosters the happiness of countless others. He makes this choice because he feels united to his fellow crewmates (no matter how cold he may seem), and he decides that this action will foster the most harmony. Still, had Spock not wanted to sacrifice himself, Mill's harm principle would have prevented Captain Kirk, Doctor McCoy or anyone else on the ship from forcing him to do so. Freedom of choice, or strict individualism, is, after all, the most important part of Mill's philosophy.
Of course, we don't have to boldly go where no man has gone before to see the relevance of Mill's philosophy - it applies other places than the starship Enterprise. His heavy emphasis on empiricism, individualism and essentially this hands-off, live-and-let-live ethics has some really serious relevance today. For example, Mill's 1869 text The Subjection of Women advocated for thorough gender equality, a radical notion in the nineteenth century and, unfortunately, to some of our contemporaries today. Though Mill's principles leave us with a lot of unanswered questions and some gray area that later thinkers would go to explore, the core of his philosophy - seek your own happiness and do not prevent others from doing so - is one worth taking to heart. Those are the works of John Stuart Mill.
After finishing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the life of John Stuart Mill
- Define utility, naturalism and anti-institutionalism
- Summarize the contents of Utilitarianism and On Liberty
- Identify and discuss the main point of Mill's philosophy