John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was the son of James Mill. James Mill gave Stuart Mill a very unusual early extensive education that began at only three years old. James mill wanted Stuart Mill to become a genius and as an advocate of utilitarianism together with the help of Jeremy Bentham. At the age of 20 while established as an intellect, Mills questioned himself if his life objective of creating a just society would be satisfying, of which he thought it would not thus mill developed suicidal thoughts. But after Mill read the poetry of William wordsmith, mill’s life was rejuvenated and he became determined to give an account of a just society that was based mainly on defending freedom and individual rights.
What was mill’s Ideal Society?
Mill argued that in a democratic society the rule of the majority is a tyrannical (dictatorial) threat to the freedom of the minority, thus, an ideal society for Mill was a civilized democratic society that strictly regarded individual liberty rationally as the justifying factor in the freedom of an individual, with liberty individuals in the ideal society were free from the imposing control of the state and society. However, mills argued evidently that liberty is unfit for every individual or society because it depends on the levels of human progress or how civilized a society is.
Who should rule?
Mill raised two standards in determining who should rule
- The first was the ruler’s capability and tendency to prioritize the eudaemonia (well-being) of the people
- The second was the ruler’s capability and tendency to make use of the capacities of the populace to achieve eudaemonia (well-being) or the common good.
Mill further argued that benevolent despotic (dictatorial) rulers sometimes can satisfy these standards, but not as much as rulers who have been chosen through universal suffrage (representative democratic rulers). Mill highlighted that representative government is the best form of governance in a civilized society as aggregates the people’s needs and concerns through citizen participation and provides adequate collective policies in response, but benevolent despotism undermines citizen participation. Citizen participation is the only way in which individuals can develop their higher capacities. However. When despotism is enlightened according to mill it teaches the obedience that is required in backward societies to prepare them for the next level of civilization development.
In a nutshell, Mill justifies the rule of representative democratic rulers over a civilized society and the rule of a despotic ruler over a barbaric society.
Benevolent despotism, in other words, is a kind dictatorship where people are ruled by a wise and goodhearted sovereign.
Barbaric society is a backward or uncivilized society
How can the state be justified to exercise power over an individual?
Mill states that “the only purpose which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his (her) will, is to prevent harm to others. His (her) own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant” to allow the state to intrude and this is known as the harm principle. This principle creates two spheres the sphere of action that concerns the actor alone (where the actor is sovereign over themselves. thus, they can do whatever pleases them) and the second sphere which is the sphere of action which may affect others (where the harm principle is applied).
Mills views on harm
Harm for mill involved acts of commission and acts of omission, and for Mill, an individual’s action cannot be constrained merely because it causes offense but only if it may cause harm.
What was mill’s defence to freedom of expression?
Mill defended the freedom of expression in two ways
(I) Firstly, Mill asserted that the freedom of expression is the best means of determining the truth
(II) Secondly, Mill asserted that the freedom of expression is beneficial even when the opinions being expressed are false because open debate carries important developmental benefits.
However, mill suggests that “ Expression should be restricted only when the act of expression could cause harm, such as
Incitement to violence”
What were Mill’s views on the Status of Women?
Mill despised the status of women in society, as women were legally subordinated to men, which Mill argued to be wrong in itself, and thus mill advocated for the adoption of the principle of absolute equality, permitting no power or privilege on one side, nor malady on the other. Males and females should be treated equally in all aspects of life, including employment, opportunities, and so on, to bring peace to society. Equality for Mill is a chief ingredient in human improvement
Criticism of Mill
- Mills argued that the interference in individual matters shall be considered harmful to a democratic society. However, putting these words into practice was impossible since he did not accept natural rights.
- Mill argued that the majority should interfere in the minority when they see that the minority actions are wrong, but knowing the action is wrong or right is a tough thing to do.
John Stuart Mill. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stuart_Mill
John Stuart Mill. (2008) Microsoft® Student 2009 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation,
Popkin, R.H & Stroll, A. (1972). Introduction to philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.