English philosopher and writer, son of the economist historian and philosopher James Mill, John Stuart Mill is one of the largest English thinkers of liberalism. Induced by his father, he early shows aptitudes for studies. He knows Greek and Latin at the age of eight. In 1822, he enters into the East India Company in which his father works. Very early, he participates in the works of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham's school (1748-1832).
John Stuart Mill illustrates himself initially as journalist in reviews praising a radical liberalism. From 1835 to 1840, he edits "The London and Westminster Review", organ of the Radical party. Disciple and friend of Auguste Comte whom he financially supports, Mill is deeply marked by positivism. From 1856 to 1858, he holds his father's position at the East India Company, then settles in France, in his house close to Avignon. Elected to the House of Commons in 1865, John Stuart Mill defends the right to vote for women and their emancipation, becoming in that way one of the precursors of feminism.
As regards morals, John Stuart Mill adapts the Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism of which he perceives limits. He bases duty on the research of the general happiness and extends it to law and policy. More that Bentham he put the emphasis on the qualitative aspect of happiness and takes more into account the difference between the individual happiness and the common happiness. The aim of humanity is to reduce this difference. As long as it exists, the other people's good should take first place over the personal happiness. One thus opposes the altruistic utilitarianism of Mill to the egoistic utilitarianism of Bentham.
Influenced by Hume, the philosophy of John Stuart Mill is an empiricism in which the perception of the world reality is based on the individual experiment and the associations of ideas. In logic, he develops an original theory of induction and processes of experimentation. Liberal Socialist, Mill develops a concrete political theory, which strongly marked the economic and political liberalism in England. Atheist from childhood, he remains relatively discreet on his religious convictions in his works.
The topic of justice received further treatment at Mill’s hands in his famous 1859 book On Liberty. This work is the one, along with A System of Logic, that Mill thought would have the most longevity. It concerns civil and social liberty or, to look at it from the contrary point of view, the nature and limits of the power that can legitimately be exercised by society over the individual.
Mill begins by retelling the history of struggle between rulers and ruled and suggests that social rather than political tyranny is the greater danger for modern, commercial nations like Britain. This social “tyranny of the majority” (a phrase Mill takes from Tocqueville) arises from the enforcement of rules of conduct that are both arbitrary and strongly adhered to. The practical principle that guides the majority “to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person’s mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathizes, would like them to act.” (On Liberty [OL], 48). Such a feeling is particularly dangerous because it is taken to be self-justifying and self-evident.
There is a need, therefore, for a rationally grounded principle which governs a society’s dealings with individuals. This “one very simple principle”—often called the “harm principle”—entails that: [T]he 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. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. (OL, 51-2) This anti-paternalistic principle identifies three basic regions of human liberty: the “inward domain of consciousness,” liberty of tastes and pursuits (i.e. of framing our own life plan), and the freedom to unite with others.
Mill, unlike other liberal theorists, makes no appeal to “abstract right” in order to justify the harm principle. The reason for accepting the freedom of individuals to act as they choose, so long as they cause minimal or no harm to others, is that it would promote “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” (OL, 53). In other words, abiding by the harm principle is desirable because it promotes what Mill calls the “free development of individuality” or the development of our humanity.
Behind this rests the idea that humanity is capable of progress—that latent or underdeveloped abilities and virtues can be actualized under the right conditions. Human nature is not static. It is not merely re-expressed in generations and individuals. It is “not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” (OL, 105). Though human nature can be thought of as something living, it is also, like an English garden, something amenable to improvement through effort. “Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself.” (OL, 105). The two conditions that promote development of our humanity are freedom and variety of situation, both of which the harm principle encourages.
A basic philosophical problem presented by the work is what counts as “harm to others.” Where should we mark the boundary between conduct that is principally self-regarding versus conduct that involves others? Does drug-use cause harm to others sufficient to be prevented? Does prostitution? Pornography? Should polygamy be allowed? How about public nudity? Though these are difficult questions, Mill provides the reader with a principled way of deliberating about them.