Phil 305/pols 370 Notes #12 Page John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)



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PHIL 305/POLS 370 Notes #12 Page


John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

  1. Mill was an English philosopher, politician and social reformer

  • his best-known books are:

  • On Liberty (1859), about individual liberty as self-development

  • Considerations on Representative Government (1861), about representative democracy

  • Utilitarianism (1863), about his moral philosophy

  • On The Subjection of Women (1869), an early example of what is now called feminism

  • Autobiography (1873), about his life and the development of his ideas

  1. Mill’s epistemology was similar to that of his father, James Mill, who was an associationist (i.e. an empiricist who thinks complex ideas arise from the combination of simple sensations)

  • for the 19th c. associationists like James Mill, everyone's mind at birth is a blank slate or tabula rasa

  • this idea is sometimes attributed to John Locke, but he did not think human nature could be changed

  • however, by the 19th c., associationists like James Mill came to believe that human nature could be fully reconstructed

  1. James Mill’s associationism led him to design a strict program of education for his son

  • in one sense it worked: John Stuart Mill grew up to be the most famous English thinker of his century

  • but in another sense it failed: in his 20s, he had a mental breakdown, which he later described:

My course of study had led me to believe, that all mental and moral feelings and qualities, whether of a good or of a bad kind, were the results of association.... But there must always be something artificial and casual in associations thus produced. The pains and pleasures thus forcibly associated with things are not connected with them by any natural tie.... I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail. (Mill, Autobiography)

  1. Mill's recovery was gradual and for several years he had relapses of depression marked by feelings of purposelessness

  • according to Mill, his depression was partly caused by the problem of determinism (then called "philosophical necessity"):

[D]uring the later returns of my dejection, the doctrine of what is called Philosophical Necessity weighed on my existence like an incubus. I felt as if I was scientifically proved to be the helpless slave of antecedent circumstances; as if my character and that of others had been formed for us by agencies beyond our control, and was wholly out of our own power. (Mill, Autobiography)

  • he eventually began to recover by reading the poetry of romantics like Coleridge and the works of Goethe and other German thinkers

  • he says he emerged from depression when he came to believe that human nature is shaped both by external conditions and by our own free will:

[W]hat is really inspiriting and ennobling in the doctrine of free-will, is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character; that our will, by influencing some of our circumstances, can modify our future habits or capabilities of willing. (Mill, Autobiography)

  1. Mill’s most influential book is On Liberty, which begins with a quote from William von Humboldt

  • Humboldt was an 18th c. German educational theorists who contributed to the idea of “Bildung

  • Bildung in German means self-development, both by individuals and by societies, with connotations of cultural progress

  • the root word is “Bild,” which is German for “picture” or “image” (but it is not related to ”build”)

  • the idea of Bildung began from Lutheranism, which taught that that humans should be inwardly reborn in the image (“Bild”) of God

  • in writers like Herder, Goethe and Humboldt, Bildung came to mean self-cultivation and progressive self-development for individuals and societies

  • Humboldt's best-known book is On the Limits of State Action (1792), which Mill begins by quoting:

The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.

  1. the central chapter of On Liberty is called "Of Individuality"

  • “individuality” does not just mean “individualism” because the former has specific connotations of unique self-development while the latter is a more general term

  • “individualism” refers more generally to any kind of liberalism in which the individual is primary and the social whole is secondary

  • the best-known alternatives to liberalism are socialism and conservativism, each of which in its own way prioritizes the social over the individual

  • Mill’s liberal individualism is different from that of Hobbes or Locke

  • for Hobbes and Locke, we are equal because we all have the same natural “passions” and powers

  • for Mill, we are equal because we all have the potential to develop in our own unique way

  • Mill believed that to develop one’s individuality, one must be protected from both the political authority of governments and the moral authority of society

  • people should be allowed to try a variety of what he called “experiments of living” so that society can learn to progress in new ways

  1. Mill is famous for the “harm principle,” which says that the only legitimate reason to interfere with a person is to prevent harm to others, but never for that person’s own good

  • the harm principle is meant to limit the power of both governments and ordinary society:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that 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…. 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 opinions 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…. The only part of the conduct of any one, 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 and mind, the individual is sovereign. (Mill, On Liberty)

  1. in his moral theory, Mill was a follower of Jeremy Bentham

  • Bentham is famous for his hedonistic utilitarianism, which is a consequentialist moral theory

  • hedonistic utilitarianism is a moral theory that defines goodness as pleasure and evil as pain

  • consequentialism in moral philosophy is the theory that the goodness of an action, rule or policy lies only in its consequences rather than in anyone’s prior intentions or good will

  • in hedonistic utilitarianism, the consequences of an action, rule or policy are measured by the net amount of pleasure over pain it produces

  • Bentham famously wrote that "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong" (A Fragment on Government, 1776)

  • he thought that pleasure and pain could be measured in "utiles" and added up in a "felicific calculus"

  • Bentham’s moral philosophy was deliberately simplistic; his goal was to provide an easy-to-follow formula for social reform

  1. Mill identified himself a utilitarian but his theory differed from Bentham’s in some ways

  • unlike Bentham, Mill thought that some kinds of happiness are better than others

  • Bentham wrote that "the quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin [a child’s game] is as good as poetry"

  • in contrast, Mill wrote that it is “better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied"

  • Mill thought that better kinds of happiness involve the use of higher mental powers

  • he also mixed his utilitarianism with his theory of individual self-development:

I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. (Mill, On Liberty)

  • in Mill’s form of liberal individualism, we are equal in our power of self-development but we use it to become different from each other

  • today, this idea sometimes called “expressive individualism,” in which individual freedom is seen as the ability to express ourselves uniquely based on our own self-chosen values


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