Profile: John Stuart Mill

Mill’s contribution to ethical thinking is as extraordinarily significant as his contributions across the board. As a child he read ancient Greek and Latin texts and as an adult made significant contributions to thinking about liberty, women’s rights and utilitarianism.

Mill’s writing and thinking On Liberty is a founding text for modern British and American politics on the relationship between the individual and society and the limitations that society has to exercise over individuals. The text On Liberty is an outspoken defense of free speech. Mill’s thinking was decidedly weighted towards the individual. An individual thinker and individuality is an asset to society, “Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.” Mill said, “In this age, the man who dares to think for himself and to act independently does a service to his race” and, “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” He was suspicious of the power of the state unduly restricting a person’s liberty. He wrote “The worth of the state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it” and he put it another way, “The individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.”

The argument that people should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as they do not harm another stresses the freedom of the individual to be as free as they can without limiting the freedom of another. He wrote, “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.” and, “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.”

This idea finds its way into all sorts of modern politics and ethical thinking. For instance, in a recent debate about Muslim women wearing the veil, politicians expressed the concern that people should be free to do what they want, allowing that the rights of others be preserved. Human rights legislation embraces this idea and it can be seen in discussions about the importance of having a small state, rather than a ‘nanny state’.

The absolute value of the individual that mill expressed is apparent in his radical thinking about women. He argues that, “the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.” Inequality has no place in the modern world. He argued for the right to vote for women, both in his writings and also in Parliament in his role as an MP and all this in the nineteenth century.

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