The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill

As a philosopher John Stuart Mill made important contributions to logic, empiricism, moral philosophy and political thought. Further, he was an early and vigorous advocate for what would later be called “women’s rights.”

John Stuart Mill was subjected to a rigorous classical education by his father, James Mill; a friend and disciple of the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham.  This course of study was designed to produce a genius that would carry on advocating and developing the theory of utilitarianism after Bentham and the senior Mill were deceased.

In the area of logic and empiricism, Mill’s most important work was “A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive”. Mill was a radical empiricist who believed that all knowledge, even what Hume would have called “ontological truths”, like mathematics and physical laws, were generally derived from human sensory perceptions.   However for Mill using exacting inductive reasoning humans could learn about and draw some conclusions about causal connection in the observable world.   Further, Mill defined and delineated the modern theory of the scientific method in Book Three of “A System of Logic”.

In his moral philosophy Mill was a utilitarian, much like his father and his mentor, Bentham.  In his work “Utilitarianism” published in 1861, Mill advocated a modified version of Bentham’s ideas. Mill did state that right action resulted in the most happiness for the most people, but was careful to draw a distinction between temporary pleasure and near-permanent happiness.  Also Mill tried to develop an irrefutable logical proof of utility, but fell short and also discussed the connection to utility and justice.

In the realm of political philosophy Mill made his greatest contribution in the work “On Liberty” where he argues for the greatest possible liberty for the individual and were the state may only intervene in the affairs of individuals in so far as they prevent one person from harming another.  For Mill, humans are rational actors that seek to perform, what they as individuals, see as right actions, therefore the state should not intervene with an individual if the person is only harming themselves. Mill could be described as a radical libertarian philosopher.

In his last major work, Mill advocated for women’s equality in society.  In “The Subjection of Women”, Mill argues that male dominance and denial of women’s human rights to property, free choice and economic freedom was tantamount to slavery and just like slavery had no basis in natural law or logic.

Sources:

• Nicholas Capaldi, “John Stuart Mill: A Biography” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

• John Stuart Mill, “System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive”, J.M. Robson (ed.), (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963)

• John Stuart Mill, “Utilitarianism and Other Essays”, ed. by Alan Ryan (New York: Viking, 1987)

• John Stuart Mill, “Autobiography”, ed. by John Robson (New York: Penguin, 1990)

• John Stuart Mill, “The Subjection of Women” (New York: Prometheus, 1986)

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