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Birthday Special: John Stuart Mill

Peter Cave of his own free will lists 21 things – and more – that you probably didn’t know about John Stuart Mill.

John Stuart Mill was born 200 years ago, on 20th May 1806. On this anniversary, we give Peter Cave free reign in scattering some observations from, and on, this great British thinker.

When the name of John Stuart Mill is mooted, the words ‘utilitarian’, ‘liberty’, ‘sexual equality’ readily spring to the minds of those in the philosophical know. For those in want of the philosophical know, a quick website search provides basic information. Let us, though, take a lucky dip into some lesser known facts about this highly influential philosopher and his thinking. Some facts might surprise us. I pick and mix at will; but a picture emerges, I hope, of the richness of his oft-condemned – unfairly condemned – utilitarian thinking. It is worth remembering that this Victorian London gentleman helped radically to change the world, and to change the world for the better: no remote ivory tower for him. Those of us who value liberty, individuality, humanism – without recourse to God or gods – have much for which to thank him.

1. Feckless Breeding

John Stuart Mill was one of nine children. He notes in his Autobiography (published posthumously, 1873) that given his father James Mill’s early impoverishment – his father was first a journalist, writing on British India (six volumes) – marriage and having a large family was conduct that lacked good sense and possibly showed neglect of duty. Many years after his childhood experiences, in his highly influential On Liberty (1859), Mill stresses that his liberty does not amount to ‘anything goes’. Parenthood brings duties – to support and educate offspring well. If we cannot afford so to do, then having children is a moral crime: we harm them and harm others who end up paying for our neglect. Contrary to today’s ethos and unthinking liberalism, Mill would discourage parenthood for those who intend to rely on State support. He would, I suspect, oppose maternity and paternity pay: after all, people voluntarily embrace having children because they value family joys. I yearn for peaceful – hence childless – travelling experiences; yet no special travelling pay comes my way.

2. Educationally Challenged

John’s father, a University of Edinburgh graduate, considered formal school and university education much overrated – and expensive. So James himself taught John, starting him off, at the age of three, with classical Greek – by eight, Latin. There were no Greek-English dictionaries. Imagine the chaos, the precocious John forever interrupting the busy father for guidance. In fact, it worked well, though John notes his father’s exceptionally high expectations. This was to the good: in later life, John argued that why so many people fare badly in life is because they are not educationally stretched. Having one’s ignorance on view, through difficult questioning, also instils modesty (a feature not much in evidence though, in the adult John). Hence, John’s utilitarianism stresses education. Educated individuals are in a better position to choose how to conduct their lives. Some educationalists of today might reflect that there are benefits in properly correcting children’s work, even in red ink.

3. Jail – Or Liberty Lost?

In the nineteenth century birth control was a delicate topic. Recommending ‘obstructions’, not mere moral restraint, could lead to charges of obscenity. Restraint being no solution to the misery of unwanted children (not that Mill himself lacked such restraint, of course, of course), the young Mill, aged seventeen, distributed birth control tracts by Francis Place, entitled To Married Working People. Mill was arrested and brought before magistrates. Some doggerel used by his enemies did the rounds:

There are two Mr. M..ls, too, whom those who like reading
What’s vastly unreadable, call very clever;
And whereas M..l senior makes war on good breeding
M..l junior makes war on all breeding whatever.

Did Mill spend just a few hours in jail? A week? The papers are lost. Much is shrouded in mystery.

4. “No” To State Education

Fearful that universal state education would lead to conformity and even state control, Mill promoted instead the need for the state merely to ensure that education took place. There should be public examinations of fact and ability, to establish whether children can, for example, at least read. Today he would surely set high minimal hurdles – and would, no doubt, insist that private schools educate for open critical minds, not for minds closed down by indoctrinated religious doctrine. If children fail, then where possible, the parents should be fined, the state needing to arrange the additional required teaching. Diversity was important because as On Liberty puts it, “a 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 really be accomplished”. Great things are needed for the greatest happiness of the greatest number: great things are needed for both individuals and the society in general to flourish.

5. The Godless of Gower Street

University College London, founded in 1826, opened its doors in 1828 as the first University of London, a limited liability company. Deliberately lacking religious entrance requirements and religious teaching, it encountered much opposition. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is wrongly thought its founder, not least because he sits even today, embalmed, in a sedan chair, in the University, in Gower Street, silently greeting all comers. The founders were in fact a group of Benthamite liberals, James Mill becoming a leading member of the University Council. John Stuart, with other radicals and non-conformists, attended the University’s postgraduate classes in Jurisprudence given by John Austin. The Duke of Wellington and bishops of the day, appalled at the institution’s godlessness, quickly secured status for a rival, King’s College London, essentially to imbue youthful minds with Christianity. John Stuart attacked it as a ‘church university’.

6. Knocking Down Religion

Northampton – my town of birth – is unknown for controversy and indeed, is pretty unknown for anything. To Northampton’s former credit, it repeatedly voted in Charles Bradlaugh as Member of Parliament. Scandalous! Bradlaugh was an infamous atheist maverick, was prosecuted for blasphemy, and refused to take any religious oaths. Consequently he was in turn refused his Commons’ seat. At the 1868 election, Mill supported Bradlaugh – and working class radicals – against his own party’s candidates, reaping condemnation from some fellow liberals, and indignant outbursts from The Times, the Lord’s Day Observance Society and other influential bodies. I was going to add that Mill supported Bradlaugh ‘courageously’; but when questioned, he dithered a little about quite what he had said in support. Mill was solid though in his belief that religion deserved no privileges. As with universities, so with Parliament and free speech: non-believers should have the same opportunities as believers.

7. Stoics, Socrates and Pigs

Utilitarianism is intertwined with Bentham’s name. The doctrine has a long history, Bentham acknowledging for example the influence of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). Priestley (a Unitarian, note) is well-known for his oxygen discovery, but little known for his political philosophy. Utilitarians are often labelled ‘satisfaction theorists’. The right thing to do is to maximize happiness, that is, get desires satisfied. Things cannot remotely be so simple, as is shown by Mill’s notebook entry of 23rd March 1854. “Socrates would rather choose to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. The pig probably would not, but then the pig knows only one side of the question: Socrates knows both.” That it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig is argued further in Mill’s famous Utilitarianism (1861), where he identifies many features of a happy flourishing life: curiosity, nobility, fellow feeling and much more. Just as Mill wisely discovered that happiness should not be our conscious everyday motivation if we do indeed want happiness, so he embraces some stoicism, recommending that we concentrate on the sources of satisfaction realistically open to us, and free ourselves from excess anxiety concerning life’s evils.

8. Austin’s Sensibility

For a few student weeks, I confused the Austins (though happily not with Jane Austen). I encountered the works of the Oxford linguistic philosopher, the translator of Frege’s Grundgesetze der Arithmetik, and someone writing about law. The first two turned out to be but one, namely John Langshaw Austin (1911-1960) who with Jane Austen in mind, entitled a lecture series Sense and Sensibilia. The other, John Austin (1790-1858), became the first Professor of Jurisprudence at the new University of London. A friend of Mill’s, a significant legal theorist and fellow utilitarian (though one who thought the Greatest Happiness Principle identified God’s moral laws), this Austin rightly distinguished motivations from the utilitarian aim of the greatest happiness. Love is part of happiness; but this Austin’s sensibility declared, “It was never contended by a sound orthodox utilitarian that the lover should kiss his mistress with an eye to the common weal”.

9. Nothing To Live For

Mill commented thus at the age of twenty. He met a mental malady: a nervous breakdown. “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” Mill’s answer was “No!” The end had ceased to charm. He broke free from this crisis through recognizing that happiness embraced feeling, not just active goal seeking. This was courtesy, in large measure, of Wordsworth’s poetry. Mill met Wordsworth and Coleridge on various occasions, discovering, in contrast to Bentham, that poetry is better than the pushpin game – that some pleasures are higher than others. He travelled to Grasmere in the Lake District, took on walking, botanising and feeling for the sublime aspects of some natural scenes. This was how he came to realize that happiness should not be consciously sought. It comes en passant. “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

10. Running Out of Tunes

During his mental crisis in 1826, Mill was tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations. The finite number of beautiful sound combinations meant that there could be no long succession of Mozarts and Webers. This led Mill to suspect a flaw existed within life: were universal happiness to be achieved, life’s pleasures, no longer requiring struggle and privation, would cease to be pleasures. His answer was that there could be pleasure in tranquil reflection. Awareness of finite beautiful sound combinations failed to lead Mill to ask whether there existed a finite number of interesting sentence constructions out of the alphabet which, if all appropriately asserted and grasped, would put an end to curiosity – well, an end in that all the information would be there. Would that the misinformation be sifted away!

11. All Men Are Mortal

When introduced to Aristotelian syllogisms, students are often given: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal. It remains a moot point how Aristotle considered such arguments with a singular proposition as a premiss, but that example is not in his extant writings. It is Mill who most famously used the ‘Socrates’ example, suggesting that such attempted proofs involve a petitio principii, that is, are begging the question. In seeking to prove that Socrates is mortal, one asserts that all men are mortal, which, as Socrates is a man, presupposes that he is mortal. Mill is best remembered for his ethical and political philosophy, but this should remind us that he wrote far more widely, and was much read, notably in logic, metaphysics, the philosophy of science and political economy. His A System of Logic (1843) became a set university text, for example.

12. Eloping?

Mill and a married mother, Mrs Harriet Taylor (1807-1858), fell in love; yet out of respect for her husband, the lovers – despite passionate letters, despite travelling together – lived separately for twenty years. The understanding Mr Taylor, knowing of their intense kinship, accommodated things pretty well. That there was no ‘impropriety’ was, wrote Harriet to John, “an edifying picture for those poor wretches who cannot conceive friendship but in sex – nor believe that expediency and the consideration for the feelings of others can conquer sensuality”. This might also have been John’s sincere view, though evidence suggests that at times he hoped they would elope. After Mr Taylor’s death in 1849, and despite some family opposition, they married in 1851. True to his condemnation of the legal inequality between men and women, John disclaimed any resultant rights over Harriet and her property. With Harriet’s death in 1858, John, heartbroken, continued their reforming advocacy, declaring how intellectually and emotionally indebted he was to her. On Liberty was published soon after her death, the manuscript having repeatedly been discussed by them.

13. W.H. Smith: The News Politician

In 1865, Mill was persuaded to stand for parliament as a liberal, though not the official candidate. Unlike politicians of today, he refused to electioneer, announced that his views were well known, spent most of the election in France – and got elected, beating the Tory, W.H. Smith (yes, that W.H. Smith). Mill was a conscientious MP, toeing no party line, and as it transpired, later influencing Gladstone’s reforms, such as disestablishment of the Protestant Church in Ireland and the Married Women’s Property Act. At the 1868 election, Mill lost against Smith, the Tories running a vigorous and expensive campaign, with Mill suffering attacks over his support for Bradlaugh.

14. Votes for Mill

Mill was a democrat, fighting for votes for all adults, men and women alike, rejecting any claims that voting rights should be based on property and sex. Women’s suffrage was considered a peculiar whim of his – how times have changed! While everyone should have at least one vote, Mill eventually argued that some should have more than one, namely those with proved educational superiority – such as…er…Mr Mill. As Mill drily noted, the proposal found favour with nobody.

15. Hanging Supported

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), famed economist, quipped, “When the facts change, I change my mind; what do you do, Sir?” Mill happily changed his mind as facts and his reflections changed. Early on, he doubted whether capital punishment could be justified; by 1868 he was speaking in its favour, where atrocious murders were concerned. Capital punishment received utilitarian justification: it was a deterrent, yet one not as cruel as life imprisonment with hard labour. It is well to reflect on the prison conditions of his times.

16. Women’s Brains: Small But Perfectly Formed?

Mill argued vehemently against sex discrimination. Women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. This didn’t lead to the mistaken claim that men and women are typically the same intellectually or emotionally. In The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill conjectures – rightly, as it transpires – that, on average, women’s brains are smaller than men’s; this might explain men’s ploddings, in contrast with women’s prompt responses in thought and feeling. Mill was a rational empiricist. He sought and assessed the evidence. He also considered how things could be changed to enable both men and women to realize their full potential.

17. Defending Our Corner

Consistent with his Liberty Principle, which said that justified restrictions on individuals must at the very least be for preventing non-consensual harms to others, Mill supported free speech. In Parliament he helped talk out a motion that would have banned free speech at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner. Ever keen for individuals to be as unrestricted as possible, consistent with the Liberty Principle, he argued for poisons (maybe recreational drugs today) to be available to adults, so long as the dangers were explained, and purchasers’ details were recorded, in case crimes should result.

18. Disproportionate Sex

Sex, Mill insisted, occupies an absurdly disproportionate place in human life. It is, though, “superstition and barbarism of the infancy of the human race” to impose restrictions on people’s private activities. Prostitution he saw as a great evil; but restrictions could be justified only in as far as they prevented harms to non-consenting others. In the late 1860s, venereal disease was so great amongst Her Majesty’s sailors that the Contagious Diseases Acts were passed, allowing police to cart off suspected prostitutes for medical examinations. Mill, before an astonished Royal Commission, strongly criticized the Acts, arguing that if such examinations were right for women, then men suspected of brothel visiting should likewise be examined, not least because they could be directly infecting their wives.

19. A Malevolent God

Were an omnipotent God to exist, then, argued Mill, that God must be malevolent, given the vast sufferings amongst both humans and other aware beings. This consideration was not sufficient for Mill to conclude that no God or gods existed. With evolutionary theory primitive and speculative, Mill tended to believe, on a balance of probabilities, that, at some stage at least, there was a finite power which ordered the world. He recognized that our understanding of the adaptations of nature could improve; so, ever a rational empiricist, Mill would today, I judge, with advances in genetic explanations, now linger between atheism and agnosticism.

20. Humanism’s Godfather’s

Jeremy Bentham, although no formal godfather, took a keen interest in Mill’s education. A few months before Mill died, Mill became godfather to the newly born Bertrand Russell, born May 1872. Here, with John Maynard Keynes’s birth following eleven years later, we have a line of humanist thinkers who rejected any need for God where morality was concerned, morality being grounded in the happiness of sentient beings. Mill wrote of the Religion of Humanity, meaning a devoted commitment to the flourishing of all – Humanism in deed, as well as in word.

21. Avignon

In 1839, John and Harriet (then Mrs Taylor) stayed in Avignon. John would travel in that area, often staying at the Hotel de l’Europe. It was in that hotel, in 1858, that Harriet (then Mrs Mill) died. A few months after her death, John bought a small white house in Avignon. He installed the furniture from the hotel room in which she died. The remaining fifteen years of John’s life were much spent at this home, often with Harriet’s daughter Helen, who helped John continue his and Harriet’s reforming work. On 7th May 1873, Mill suddenly died – of erysipelas, a skin infection, caught a few days earlier, causing his face to swell. He died at his Avignon home. The small white house overlooked the cemetery where Harriet had been buried. From 8th May 1873, this small white house overlooked the cemetery where, next to each other, were buried both Harriet and John.

© Dr Peter Cave 2006

Peter Cave lectures for The Open University and City University London. He is Chairman of the Humanist Philosophers’ Group: pc@petercave.com. Peter’s BBC Radio 4 programme marking Mill’s birthday will be broadcast on 17th May, at 11.00am.

Why Mill Matters

John Stuart Mill gained fame for books including A System of Logic (1843), On Liberty (1859, the year Origin of Species was published) and Utilitarianism (1863). He is an exceptionally clear prose stylist (especially for a philosopher), and is recommended reading, if only for this reason.

In Utilitarianism for instance, Mill develops the utilitarian case put forward by Bentham, that the correct moral behaviour is to advance ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ – although Mill prefers to talk in terms of ‘pleasure’. As a matter of basic human psychology, what people seek in life just is pleasure and the avoidance of suffering. But he does not mean pleasure in any simplistically sensous way. He seperates the concept of the quality of pleasure from its quantity, and says that intellectual and artistic pleasures are to be favoured over the more base and sensual ones. Moral education should include an encouragement to seek the higher pleasures. This includes the pleasure of seeking the welfare of others – thus grounding the altruism that most people would recognize as the sign of morality in terms of his pleasure principle.

To Mill, all moral systems should be evaluated in light of their ability to increase the net pleasure and happiness of the human race. This also includes principles of justice and property rights, for example. Systems of laws are justified insofar as they tend to increase human benefit (ie pleasure). These days, this would perhaps make him a rule utititarian: the overall benign effect of the legal system means laws should be followed, even though it might apparently be that in specific instances more pleasure would otherwise be created through breaking or suspending the rules.

Mill’s utilitarianism also gave rise to his views on politics and liberty. He thought that on the whole we each individually know better about what is good for us than any government can. Therefore the course conducive to the greatest happiness is to let each person live as they please, so long as they don’t hurt others in the process. Or in Mill’s own words, “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... the only purpose for which power can be rightfully excercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (On Liberty).

Mill continues to be influential in philosophical circles because of the force of his arguments, which are always reasonable and insightful. This means that it becomes unreasonable to ignore what he has to say.

Grant Bartley

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