On Liberty and Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

On Liberty and Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

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On Liberty and Utilitarianism
In the history of economic, political and philosophical thought few thinkers have had a stronger influence than John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). He was the last great exponent of the old classical school of economic liberalism, but also, at the same time, an early forerunner of modern liberalism, which seeks to make government a powerful instrument of regulation and control. In the English-speaking world his though mesmerized and even dominated the groves of Academe well into the 20th century. Although he was a disciple of both Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo, his writings nearly always had a distinct character. Trying to be fair and judicious in his discussion of any theory and doctrine, he always added numerous modifications, extensions, qualifications, which often were so significant that his theories became rather eclectic and even inconsistent.

John Stuart Mill was educated primarily by his eminent father, James Mill. For thirty-five years John Stuart served the East India Company. During this period, he contributed to various periodicals and published two influential treatises: A System of Logic (1843) and Principles of Political Economy (1848). Soon after the company's dissolution in 1858, he published his famous On Liberty, in which he discusses the notion of "Social Liberty:" the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. In the long run, Mill believed that the state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power (found in free men) needed to run it smoothly, has been vanished. On Liberty, which was followed by Utilitarianism in 1863 and his Auguste Comte and Positivism in 1865. From 1865 to 1868, he served as an independent member of Parliament, after which he retired, spending most of his time in Avignon, France, where he died. His celebrated Autobiography appeared soon after his passing.

John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism advocating human action, which brings about the most good overall. Rightness or wrongness is determined by its usefulness in bringing about the most happiness of all individuals affected by it. Jeremy Bentham identified good consequences with pleasure, which he sought to compare in terms of intensity, duration, certainty, purity, and extent. John Stuart Mill introduced to his utilitarianism calculus of pleasure a qualitative principle that goes far beyondBentham's conception of utility. Although Mill always professed to be a disciple of Bentham and claimed to espouse a utilitarian point of view, and although utilitarianism significantly influenced his views, he was no consistent defender of the system.

Mill distinguished two great classes of government intervention: "Authoritative," in which legislators and regulators say, "do this" or, "do that," and "non-authoritative" or optional, in which they merely provide information and education. The burden of proof rests primarily upon those individuals who advocate the former; the latter is discretionary. Mill was substantially in accord with Adam Smith although he allowed much more government interference with the economic actions of the individual. "There are matters in which the interference of the law is required," he wrote, "not to overrule the judgements of individuals respecting their own interest, but to give effect to that judgement; they being unable to give effect to it except by concert, which concert again cannot be effectual unless it receives validity and sanction from the law."

Mill was an ardent reformer, ever eager to change the world for the better. He advocated proportional representation, emancipation of women, the development of labor organizations, farm cooperatives, and many other reforms. He pointed the way not only for some modifications and improvements but also for serious impediments and injuries to the private property order. His influence in economics, politics, and philosophy continues to be strong throughout the English-speaking world.

Paperback (pp. 203)