John Stuart Mill Research Paper

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  1. S. Mill’s main contributions to social science lay in three areas, political economy, political philosophy, and the philosophy of social science; the major works identified with these three fields are: Principles of Political Economy, On Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Considerations on Representati e Government, and his Logic. Although educated in the intellectual environment of classical Utilitarianism associated with Jeremy Bentham and Bentham’s collaborator, Mill’s father James Mill, Mill is famous for his amendment to utilitarianism strictly considered, particularly in his essay On Liberty, a classic statement of political liberalism. In many works he evinced a recognition of the importance of historical process that was absent from the aspiration to a deductive social science which characterized the previous generation of utilitarians, and the thinking of liberal political economists who would claim his legacy. Mill’s iconic status as a liberal has made his intellectual legacy a site of fierce ideological contestation.

Born in London, on May 20, 1806, his precocious education—famously described in the celebrated Autobiography (1873)—deliberately prepared him for a career as a social and political thinker and reformer. Although commonly held to have inculcated him with utilitarian principles, his early education was grounded in the classics—his father started him with Greek at age three—and was much wider than this, wider, indeed, than that of most modern social scientists. He spent a year in France in 1820–2 before beginning a career in the Civil Service, following his father’s footsteps at India House.

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In his Autobiography he describes an emotional crisis at age 20 which had important intellectual dimensions and was finally resolved only following the death of his father in 1836. In the intervening period Mill remained an active member of the Philosophical Radicals—a largely extra-parliamentary grouping on the more radical wing of those seeking reform of parliament culminating in the 1832 Reform Act—but his underlying philosophical position was undergoing a radical reappraisal. This was first outlined in a series of articles on ‘The Spirit of the Age’ in the periodical The Examiner. Establishing some distance from his father and his upbringing, he claimed, liberated his thinking from Benthamite utilitarianism, and led him to promote the ideal of self-cultivation (which his own Autobiography sought to encourage). He was inspired in the development of the imagination and emotions by his relationship with Harriet Taylor, a married woman whom he met and fell in love with in 1830. To her he also credited considerable influence in the intellectual development of his arguments. They were married eventually in 1851, after her husband’s death. Despite this awakening of feeling, Mill rejected intuitionism as a basis for philosophy and was committed to extending the experiential methods of the natural sciences to the social. The new dimensions in his thinking did, however, stress the limitations of the associationist psychology which had informed his own upbringing, and introduced ideal-regarding criteria— standards which look to the fulfilment of certain ideal principles—into the predominantly consequentialist character of his inherited utilitarianism. Furthermore, Mill increasingly recognized the thick historical texture required for an understanding and appraisal of social and political institutions. Through his father’s Scots education and his teacher Dugald Stewart, Mill had access to the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment—David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, and Adam Ferguson—who had developed sophisticated accounts of what would today be called historical sociology, then termed philosophical history. Mill’s interest in this can be seen as early as his essay Civilisation (1836).

There were new influences which he also acknowledged. These included that of S. T. Coleridge to whom he devoted an essay with his concern to institutionalize historically acquired learning and cultivation in a national clerisy—a kind of secularized church establishment; Alexis de Tocqueville, whose two volumes of Democracy in America Mill reviewed for the Westminster Review in 1835 and 1840 and who had a profound effect on his thinking about the need to manage the political effects of the historical movement to more democratic societies; and Auguste Comte, whose sense of history as a process of rational amelioration survived (frailly) in Mill, even after his rejection of the more elitist policy implications which Comte had drawn from it.

Impressed as Mill was by Tocqueville’s account of local democracy in American townships, and seeing democratic culture as the inevitable future for European commercial polities, Tocqueville’s worries about egalitarian mediocrity reinforced Mill’s concerns, already voiced in Civilisation, about the stifling of individuality, energy, and dissent in the emergent mass societies. Although America had abolished an aristocracy of taste or intellect, this had not eradicated deference, which Mill now saw being abjectly paid to ‘public opinion (which) becomes in such countries a species of religion and the majority is its prophet.’ A continuing concern for Mill, henceforth, was, as he put it in his review of Tocqueville’s work ‘that there should exist somewhere a great social support for opinions different from the mass.’

Mill’s commitment to radical politics itself faltered at times following disillusionment with the Radicals’ Whig allies in the Reform Parliament of 1832. The major focus of his political activity at this time became a new radical periodical, the London and Westminster Review (1835). It was from the early 1830s too that he began work on his Logic.

Mill recognized that, since the application of the principle of utility required an assessment of consequences, a knowledge of social and historical context and process was needed to make such assessments. He also recognized that traditional utilitarianism—considered as a foundation of social analysis, rather than as a regulative principle—had failed to provide that rich contextualization or knowledge of historical processes. Macaulay famously had lambasted Mill senior’s a-prioristic, deductivist Essay on Government. The influences on Mill’s early maturity, following his ‘breakdown’—Saint-Simon, Comte, Coleridge, and Carlyle, and, in due course de Toqueville—all reflect a preoccupation with remedying these defects. Mill, in fact, had access through his father and his father’s tutor Dugald Stewart, to an earlier tradition of historical thinking in the Scottish enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Such thinking had operated through theorizing the effects of large-scale social changes, for example, economic and social mobilization, on human reasoning processes and ultimately on social conventions and forms of political association. By contrast, Bentham and Mill’s father, James, had attempted to model, understand, and explain political phenomena deductively, drawing out the implications of utilitarian psychology.

Mill rejects this approach. His Logic is an analysis of the methods appropriate to the different branches of science, based on the assumption that the only grounds for deductivism is the assured existence of the uniform operation of physical causes. In Book VI On the Logic of the Moral Sciences Mill discussed the extent to which the human sciences diverged from the natural. His discussion has become a suitable point of departure for much teaching and theoretical reflection in the social sciences ever since.

In the course of outlining the possibility of a social science Mill subjected to criticism two alternative methods which he called the geometric and the chemical methods, by analogy with sciences already treated earlier in the Logic.

The geometric method was that pursued by his father in his ill-fated Essay on Government—an attempt to deduce the optimum form of government from certain posited axioms about the selfish motivations of human beings. This cannot work, because deductive operations presume a uniformity that cannot cope with the quintessential sociopolitical circumstance of multiple, simultaneous, and conflicting causes impinging on a given circumstance. Geometrical deduction is not even yet mechanics, which, crude though it is, can at least cope with this multiplicity of forces.

The chemical method is the attempt to infer causal laws from the interaction of complex entities at (at least) one remove from their underlying physical causes. Mill’s thought here seems to be that if real causes take place at the level of physics, ‘chemical’ phenomena represent epiphenomena which are related in some systematic way to those underlying real physical causes, and that by a complex of observation and deduction the chemical properties of physical elements might be derivable at this level. The limitations of this method are that it can only apply where the observed phenomena are in ariantly related to underlying causal properties—as in the case of chemical compounds whose properties relate systematically to those of their constituent elements. Since the underlying causes of social phenomena are many and various and not elemental or invariant in their operation, it is not possible to treat political facts in the manner of chemical facts, nor to induce from experiment or observation, any reliable causal regularities. Mill instances the attempt to answer the question whether regulating imports is conducive to economic prosperity or not. Even supposing two apparently similar polities pursuing different policies in this respect would not constitute a test case, argues Mill. The reason is that different trade policies are not ultimate ‘properties of Kinds’ but presuppose a whole raft of differences in opinions, habits, and so on, which might themselves influence the success of the economy, with or without free trade.

For Mill, ‘true’ causation operated only at the level of local physical events. A human science that sought to base itself on causal generalizations, therefore, must ultimately be grounded in the discovery of physiological causes. However this, he recognized, was too far below the level of ‘the general circumstances of society’ which he sought to understand, for the latter, at least in the present state of knowledge, to be unpacked in terms of the former. In the meantime he thought, empirical induction about the effects of circumstance on human character formation (which he called ‘ethology’), although it does not yield full causal knowledge, could produce ‘empirical laws’ of greater or lesser range and accuracy, and which might certainly be useful presuppositions against which to consider the likely consequences of policy initiatives. Such empirical laws yielded what he called (following Comte) both ‘uniformities of co-existence’ (social statics) and ‘uniformities of succession’ (social dynamics). Although neither the deductive nor the inductive method was sufficient in itself, such confidence as we can have in deductive conclusions can be derived, Mill thought, from ‘collating the conclusions of the ratiocination either with the concrete phenomena themselves, or when this is unobtainable [as in the case of social science], with their empirical laws.’ This combination of deductive and inductive reasoning brought to bear on even very complex phenomena, whilst it could not achieve the level of predictive accuracy available in the natural sciences, could prove extremely useful to the ‘wise conduct of the affairs of society’ (Logic VI, ix, §§1,2). It might even, in time, be linked with or ‘resolved into’ the real causal laws at the level of physiology, so effecting a complete union of the social with the physical sciences. Yet even if this were not fully achieved, there was, Mill insisted, the possibility of constructing a science of society or what he called ‘that convenient barbarism’—sociology.

Following his Logic, which was a considerable publishing success, Mill returned to political economy. His father had taught him economics as a child, and he published in the subject at age 16. His Essays on Some Unsettled Questions in Political Economy, written in 1830–1, now found a publisher (1844) and he settled to the composition of the Principles of Political Economy, with Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy (1848). Not only (as the subtitle indicates) did he regard economics as inseparable from the rest of social philosophy, he also regarded the relationship between economics and social theory more widely considered as being the most important part of it. Whilst composing it, Mill was painfully aware of the Irish potato famine, and the impact of economic orthodoxies on its course. Seeking to avoid specific polemical issues Mill was nevertheless concerned to stress that political economy was ‘far from being a set of maxims and rules, to be applied without regard to times, places, and circumstances’ (Hansard v.190, 1525). Thus, although in pure economics he regarded himself as a follower of Ricardo, he distanced himself from those who took Ricardo to have established a purely deductive school. Historians of economic thought disagree as to precisely how to characterize this relationship, and who these economists might be (see Hollander 1985, Vol. II, pp. 914ff). It is clear however, that Mill regarded good economic method to combine both deductive and inductive operations, and in policy stressed the importance of knowledge of local conditions—such as those in Ireland or India—in applying that method. Economic science, he thought, operated under those limitations applying to the social sciences generally, outlined in the last volume of the Logic—deductions were only reliable if the generalizations which generated them were the result of physical causes, and even then only if other causal effects did not intervene. Neither of these conditions, in his view, obtained in economics any more than in the rest of social science. This also informed his view of the limited role which mathematical or formal modeling might be expected to play in economics—for without certainty or quantification such precision was likely to be misleading.

Mill’s insistence on subordinating economic analysis to policy is clear in his famous chapters on socialism in the Principles, which undergo considerable development in the first three editions (1848, 1849, 1852), under the influence of the European revolutions of 1848 which had reopened debate on the subject, and of Harriet Taylor whom he finally married in 1851. Originally sceptical about co-operation, Mill now discussed the ideas of Fourier as a supposedly superior synthesis of the ideas of Owen and Saint-Simon, which overcome earlier worries about incentives. He came to see the emergence of co-operative forms as both an evolutionary possibility within capitalist economies and, once population could be voluntarily controlled and inequalities overcome through control of inheritance, as a desirable social form in which individuality and moral progress, far from being under threat, could flourish better than in conventional economies.

Such themes integrate with the political writing to which Mill returned, at the end of the 1850s. He produced a trio of important essays, long in the making: Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and On Representati e Government. These worked out his concern to articulate a conception of progress consistent with utility, as a part of which he sought to support diversity of opinion and to protect social and political institutions from the effects of mediocre uniformity—whether deriving from the middle classes or the dominance of a socialist-inspired working-class movement.

Utilitarianism articulated a defense of the principle of utility into which Mill introduced significant modifications to Benthamite utility. The first was the claim that apart from the various dimensions of utility analyzed by Bentham, and contrary to the latter’s claim (made notorious by Mill himself?) that ‘pushpin was as good as poetry,’ it was possible to distinguish higher from lower qualities of pleasure, and that quality as well as quantity was to be given weight in seeking to apply the utilitarian criterion that actions were ‘right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness.’ Amongst the higher pleasures were those of altruism, the cultivation of the higher feelings and of the intellect. The former constituted a rejection of the Benthamite reliance on psychological egoism, the latter introduced what many have seen as an alien, ideal-regarding element into utilitarianism. Mill’s second innovation was his claim that the principle of utility should be deployed as a criterion of moral or social principles, practices or institutions, and not applied directly to regulate individual actions. The distinction has since been refined and elaborated as that between rule utilitarianism and act utilitarianism. Although Mill does not make the distinction in these terms, he makes it clear that utility is not meant to substitute for conventional morality, but rather is used to appraise and correct its rules. He is also clear that although justice is grounded in utility, appeals to utility cannot be used to overthrow (any but?) the hardest cases.

Classical utilitarianism was premised on the integrity of each individual’s experience of utility. Each was to count for one and no more than one, and each was the best judge of their own utility. Mill’s two modifications allow privileged judgements to be made, capable of overturning the subjective claims of the individual but they also allowed judgements of progress to be made which were not purely quantitative.

In On Liberty Mill formulated what he disarmingly called a ‘very simple principle’ introduced, in all but name, in his Principles of Political Economy. There he remarked that ‘there is a circle around every human being, which no government, be it that of one, the few or the many, ought to be permitted to overstep’ (PPE, Vxi, §2). Mill’s principle was 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, that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant’ (Acton 1967, pp. 72–3).

Mill’s argument has become an icon for liberals and occasioned a huge literature both academic and polemical. The academic controversy has centered around two issues—whether Mill’s defense of the principle of liberty was consistent with his claimed loyalty to the principle of utility, and whether his defense of the integrity of the sphere of individual liberty is, in the end, coherent.

Mill denied that his argument involved grounding liberty in abstract right distinct from utility, which was still the ‘ultimate appeal on all ethical questions.’ It was, though, ‘utility in the largest sense grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being’ to which one had to appeal, and not the maximization of existing preferences. This invokes the modifications made to the doctrine of utility in terms of the possibilities of increasing not merely the quantities, but the qualities and refinements of pleasure available to a population. Briefly, moral progress presupposes innovation, and innovation presupposes (though it does not guarantee) liberty. Liberty of thought and speech could generate and promulgate new ideas and test old ones, avoiding the static mediocrity that he feared so much. Liberty in the sphere of private action enabled experiments in living amongst which might emerge new and more beneficial social forms, new forms of domestic partnership and co-operative production in the sphere of the economy, being two such examples. On this view liberty is justified in instrumental terms as a means to a social progress defined, or definable, with reference to utility (‘in the largest sense … ’). However, Mill’s enthusiasm for liberty—redoubled in the closing passages of On the Subjugation of Women—his celebration of what he disarmingly calls the ‘intrinsic worth of individuality’ and the cultivation of the personality as a ‘noble and beautiful object of contemplation’—has a kind of autonomous aesthetic which have seemed to many commentators to go well beyond the instrumental role claimed for it in his more programmatic statements.

Mill also had great difficulty sustaining the boundaries of the ‘sphere of private action’ which he attempted to mark by distinguishing ‘self-regarding actions’—which were not to be interfered with, and ‘other regarding actions’ which were, in principle, candidates for legislative restraint. The viability of this in turn involved distinguishing between actions which merely ‘affect’ and those that ‘affect the interests of’ others. But the notion of interests, whilst clearly different from wants or preferences, is a notoriously difficult one to deploy—particularly for liberals— without establishing paternalistic claims over individuals’ preferences.

Mill’s discussion of the application of this principle is an object lesson of the sensitivity required in the application of philosophical principles to areas of policy, but to many it has revealed a residual paternalism.

Considerations on Representati e Government, Mill claimed, embodied the principles to which he ‘had been working up during the greater part of my life.’ It was certainly, amongst other things, an attempt to show how his commitment to liberty as a part of a revised conception of utility could be embodied in political institutions. It revealed an acute historical sensitivity to the broad circumstances that made representative government possible, to the generation of dispositions in the population and to those processes—the race, as he put it, between democratization and education—that might imperil it. Representative government is fixed firmly within the presuppositions of a progressive, national, metropolitan state, and for all Mill’s celebration of diversity he evinces little enthusiasm for sustaining relict regional or national cultures such as the Celtic-speaking nations.

Once representative government is possible—and it is not possible for all stages of human development— Mill considers there are two criteria by which government should be judged—efficiency and education. The one seeks the optimum use of the existing good qualities; the second seeks to augment the virtuous qualities in the population at large. These can be seen as a version of two principles widely seen as central to many nineteenth-century thinkers—stability and progress. Much of the work is a consideration of various political institutions in light of the trade-off between these two principles. Two examples may suffice—those of voting and local government.

Like all utilitarians, Mill rejected abstract or natural rights, and did not derive the vote, any more than liberty, from such considerations. The right to vote was grounded in the important necessity of ensuring that each—even, as he later publicly argued, women— had an institutional expression through which they could safeguard their interests. But this did not entail the privacy, equality, or unlimited domain of the franchise. All of these were to be assessed in consequentialist terms, through their contribution to Utility. Consequentialist judgments are sensitive to the empirical circumstances of that which is being judged. Mill acknowledged that privacy of the ballot box might once have been necessary to avoid undue pressure from employees, landlords, or social superiors. The danger had now, he thought, come to be from individuals regarding the vote as an expression of their selfish wishes. Public voting would, he thought, make it necessary for voters to justify their decisions to their fellows and this might require them to decide on grounds of public reason rather than private rationality. Consequentialist considerations also informed his thoughts about the electorate. Though all adults must have access to the vote for protection, equal voting is not conducive to the best outcome—part of which is to make the best use of the talents available. Mill advocates an educational test (at least partly to encourage self-improvement), disfranchizing those receiving welfare benefit, and proportional representation and plural voting for university graduates and professional classes. This ensured that minority and educated opinion would at least be heard in parliament, and mitigated the potential for majority tyranny, exercizing benign influence on less-informed representatives. For similar reasons he opposed the mandating of representatives. Finally, Mill regarded representative bodies as incompetent to draft or engage in detailed amendment of legislation, which should be left to commissions of experts. Mill thought such considerations enabled a distinction to be drawn between ‘True and False Democracy.’ In True Democracy the role of the People is ‘strong enough to make reason prevail but not strong enough to prevail against reason.’

Mill’s discussion of local government stresses the educative role it can play in giving the inexperienced scope for political participation in a limited sphere where it cannot damage great national interests. Devolution must not, however, be so great as to exclude the interest of at least some of the educated from whom lessons might be learnt, nor, he thought, should it ever escape the superintendence of the national government.

Mill sat as Liberal MP for Westminster—a notoriously radical seat since the 1780s—in the 1865–8 Parliament, his candidacy provoking huge demand for cheap popular editions of his Political Economy, Liberty, and On Representative Government. True to the spirit of his observations in On Representative Government he refused to pledge—or indeed campaign—prior to the election. The most famous cause he espoused during that period was to seek—albeit unsuccessfully—to amend the 1867 Reform Bill so as to grant votes to women. This became a major cause for him during the rest of his life and his The Subjection of Women (1869) has become one of the canonical texts in the study of women’s political emancipation. Harriet Taylor had died in Avignon in 1858, and from that time on until his death Mill spent half of each year there. Mill himself died in Avignon on May 7, 1873. Harriet’s daughter, Mill’s stepdaughter, Helen, acted as Mill’s secretary and arranged the publication of a number of his papers after his death, including the Autobiography and the Chapters on Socialism. In the latter Mill pursued themes explored in the later chapters of his Principles of Political Economy, although with even greater open-mindedness as to the possibility of one form or another of socialism proving itself superior. Although he thought revolutionary socialism and a centralized economy both unjust and ‘chimerical,’ and that even temperate, though extensive, forms of socialism were ‘not available as a present resource,’ he recognized the high moral values implicit in some of these and was firmly of the opinion that various socialist schemes ‘have a case for a trial.’ For him though, the criteria to be applied in such a trial were essentially those of the development of human character. The irresistibility of the advance of democracy was a given for Mill, and he recognized that the implications of this were still working their way through and that when they did so they would penetrate to ‘the very first principles of existing society’—in which he included private property. Yet, whilst accepting this, his concern to balance values which the mass of the people might not yet share is one of the central tensions in his work, informing what has come to be seen as his central preoccupation—the defense of liberty.

Mill’s Principles of Political Economy enjoyed huge—almost canonical—status in the middle of the nineteenth century, down to the marginalist revolution associated with Jevons and Marshall. It is now no longer of technical interest to economists but remains an important chapter in the history of economic, and social and political, thought. That part of his Logic devoted to the philosophy of the social sciences remains an important statement of a particular approach in sociology. Mill’s political writings have a more ambiguous legacy. Political Science now takes forms—and has preoccupations—Mill could not have foreseen; as a result his Representati e Government now has a less practical character than he might have hoped for it. On Liberty, however, is still often read in the spirit in which it was written—as a statement of moral and political philosophy to be considered as a success or failure in terms of the arguments advanced there.

Perhaps what would have been most satisfying of all to Mill, his own character as a public moralist, and the ideal of character formation, have re-emerged recently as an acknowledgedly central preoccupation of his work.


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