John Stuart Mill

Utilitarian philosopher

In the early part of the nineteenth century John Stuart Mill, a prominent thinker and writer, promoted a way of deciding moral issues known as Utilitarianism. His father’s friend, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, had done much to develop and popularise the theory, and Mill refined it in a book called Utiltarianism. Moral questions, he believed, should be decided by a rational, commonsense approach and by looking at their practical effects. Mill said we should choose the actions which will produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, or the least pain. He defined happiness as pleasure and absence of pain. He thought that we should also consider quality of happiness as well as quantity. The principle makes us think first about the consequences of actions and people’s happiness rather than unthinkingly accepting rules that were laid down centuries ago.

Mill was born in London and had a remarkable education from his father. He must have been a very bright little boy because he learnt Greek when he was three and Latin when he was eight. He followed his father into working for the East India Company in 1823 until he retired in 1858. As a young man he had some kind of nervous breakdown, perhaps due to his intensively intellectual upbringing. He claimed to have restored his health and enthusiasm for life by reading poetry, and perhaps as a result put more stress on the life of feeling and emotion than some other Utilitarians, such as his father and Jeremy Bentham. He especially appreciated Romantic writers like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Goethe. He valued poetry and art for their own sake and as a means of developing feelings and character. He believed that happiness involves the rich and varied growth of one’s personality. Because of this, he feared mass conformity and thought it had a stifling effect on individual freedom. Freedom was important because it would allow people to realise their potential in their own way and lead to a more creative, dynamic and progressive society.

Mill was a Member of Parliament for some years. He was an important writer on politics, economics and philosophy and is considered to be one of the founders of modern liberalism with its basic concepts of freedom of speech and thought. One of his best-known books is On Liberty. In it he suggested that the state should interfere in our lives only when necessary to prevent harm to others.   Mill was an important social reformer. He proposed proportional representation as a more democratic electoral system, and supported women’s rights at a time when they were practically non-existent (such as the right to vote). He married a like-minded writer, Harriet Taylor, who helped him in his work.

In his writings he put forward the idea that the sense of community in every society arises from a common set of beliefs and values. These had, until recent times, been based on supernatural religious belief. Moral values and feelings of moral obligation may have arisen from religious belief in the past but he saw no reason why they should not have a purely secular basis. He looked forward to a time when people would feel it was their duty to serve humanity at large and have a deep concern for the general good. This would be ‘a religion of humanity’ – an expression he took from the philosopher Auguste Comte.

Mill has been immensely influential on our ideas of morality, justice and how society should be arranged. Many humanists today would agree with his analysis of moral values and human happiness. William Gladstone, a famous Liberal Prime Minister, called Mill ‘The Saint of Rationalism’.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of J S Mill’s birth in 2006, the Humanist Philosophers held a seminar called ‘J S Mill On…’ which was published by the BHA and is available from our shop.

150 years on from the publication of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Richard Reeves, Director of the think-tank Demos, argued that true liberalism – the liberalism of Mill – is not the problem, but the solution, when he gave the BHA’s annual Bentham Lecture. Read the text of the lecture.

Read the BHA’s 2009 briefing on ‘On Liberty’.

Read a 2009 article on Mill from The Guardian by BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson here