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Introduction, Context and Biography

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Introduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Lecture No. 29
J S Mill – l: Intro, Utilitarianism and Subjection of Women
Hello and welcome everyone. Today, we are going to study a new thinker, John Stuart Mill and
on Mill, we are going to have two lectures. In the first lecture, we will briefly discuss the
political and intellectual contexts of John Stuart Mill and his personal, political life. In the
second part of the lecture, today, we are going to discuss his views on utilitarianism and
subjection of women or his support for the rights of women.
In this second and concluding lecture on Mill, we will focus on his views on liberty and
arguments he provided for absolute freedom of the individual from any external interference that
later becomes a kind of negative freedom as said by Isaiah Berlin. So, we will discuss his views
on liberty and representative form of government before concluding the lecture on Mill. We will
also discuss the critical aspect of his philosophy and the mini criticism levelled against his
thought.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:02)
So, John Stuart Mill was one of the greatest British philosophers of the nineteenth century and
many of his thought such as his defence of liberty, support for women's right, defence for
representative government continues to shape the political debates throughout the twentiethcentury. It is relevant to understand politics in the twenty-first century, especially, when we talk
about free speech or hate speech, the rule of representatives in protection or empowering of the
democracy. We find Mills ideas relevant to understand politics in the twenty-first century as
well.
And particularly his text is a classic defence of liberal individualism. It is a defence of what is
later known as a kind of negative liberty that is individual should be left free to decide for
himself or herself, what is good for him or her. There should not be any obstruction or limits to
individual freedom and he defended not just because it is helpful for an individual to grow and
develop his personality and individuality the way he or she likes, but also, it has the social
implication. That means the society would be prosperous or progressive when individuals have
the freedom to make decisions or take actions which they think is good for themselves.
On Liberty, which is a classic defence of individualism and individual liberty, I will request you
to read this text. This text is written in an easy and accessible language, and certainly, it is not as
complex as Hegelian or Kantian text whether it is the Hegel’s, Phenomenology of Spirit or
Kant’s, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. So, this text, On Liberty, by Mill, I will
request you and recommend you all to read, to understand what liberty of thought, speech, and
expression means in a democratic society. And why we should all protect individual right to
express or think freely without question or restrictions from the society or state.
And the basis of such defence in Mill about individual liberty is his idea of human perfectibility
that means human being has the inherent capacity to perfect themselves and this perfectibility or
human gradual perfection or maturity if you like the Kantian discourse of coming out of selfimposed immaturity condition to bring about enlightenment. It is necessary to give individual
freedom. So, there is the kind of belief in the human capacity to perfect themselves that they will
be able to do when the condition of freedom is provided to them. Therefore, freedom is
necessary for individual growth, human personality or individuality.
That is an idea of human perfectibility or why human beings should have absolute freedom
without any coercion or interference from others in society or state. Human beings know what is
best for themselves. The society and state or anyone else cannot decide for him what is good for
himself and herself. So, the human being is rational and this is the kind of enlightenment ideas in Mills argument that human beings know what is good for himself and this is extended by many
contemporary philosophers as well.
So, whether it is John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, where what is good for the individual should
be left for the individual to decide, it is not the business of society and state to tell the individual
what is good for himself or herself. Similarly, Nozick, they defended this idea of human being
capacity to decide for himself what is good, what is desirable, and what should be done and how
they should perfect themselves or develop their personality and individuality, and develop that
the condition of freedom is necessary.
So, human beings know what is best for himself or herself and they should be allowed to develop
their personality the way they like and that is the basis for the liberal democratic state where the
state maintains the rule of law to punish those who violate the rule of law and ensure the
contract. But the individual in other spheres of life is left free to decide for themselves. That is
the kind of defence of the market economy as well.
This kind of defence is not just for the development of individual personality or human freedom,
but also, it would lead to overall progress and prosperity in the society that is the basis of the
classical economist as Mill is also known for his defence of liberty. In the next class, we will
discuss it in detail. But he is also known for his advocacy of equality among men and women
and unlike many other thinkers, we have discussed he had a systematic argument in support of
the equality between men and women.
Many scholars, therefore argued that the text, On Liberty, should be read together with his
equally significant work, The Subjection of Women. For a very long time, Mill was known for his
defence of liberty and On Liberty, the widely read the discussed text in western philosophy. But
now recently with the rise of feminism and their assertion of personal, political and criticism of
the patriarchal family, the text, Subjection of Women become a fascinating text for many scholars
and intellectuals.
And they argued that Mills arguments, On Liberty, should also be read along with his argument
in Subjection of Women. Mill was also the champion of the representative form of government
and it is stated the tyranny of the majority. So, all kinds of conformity which subject individual
freedom of choice to any external authority Mill detested and certainly in the democracy with the rule of popular passion or collective will should not limit or control the individuality or
individual freedom of thoughts, speech, and expression. We will discuss these ideas in the
second lecture in some detail.
So, what do we have in Mill is a kind of synthesis of many prevailing ideas such as the defence
of liberty with the right of working-class and women. He remained a utilitarian philosopher, his
defence of liberty or women's right or the representative form of government was based on the
fact that liberty or women's right or representative form of government enhanced the social
utility and improvement of mankind.
Although, utilitarians would provide however a kind of qualitative and ethical substance to the
philosophy of pleasure arguing about the higher and lower category of pleasure. This we will
discuss when we discuss in today's lecture, Mills views on utilitarianism that is a philosophy also
regarded as the hedonist philosophy based on the idea that human beings constantly search for
happiness, pleasure, and to avoid pain. And this you can connect with Hobbesian idea of
individual being a bundle of self-mechanism which avoids or avers any pain or threat to their
existence or welfare and they constantly seek fulfilment of desire.
Thus, utilitarian developed that idea and argue that the moral action or values should guide
human action or the policies of the state cannot be based on an isolated or independent set of
values or ethical norms. The criteria for measuring the correctness or incorrectness of a policy or
action is to understand whether it enhances human pleasure or happiness or not. Similarly, for
the state whether a policy would enhance the happiness and pleasure of the greatest number or
not.
So, the assessment or the measurement of a policy is then whether it satisfies the criteria that the
implementation of such policy would be in the benefit of the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest
number’. Mill remained a utilitarian. Although, he tried to provide an ethical or moral substance
to this idea of the philosophy of pleasure or happiness by arguing that there was a higher order,
pleasure, and a lower order pleasure. The pleasure of intellect is superior to the pleasure of body,
whereas, in the utilitarian philosophy, there is no such distinction between a philosopher
enjoying a text or a worker enjoying a coffee or doing other activities which give him or her
freedom or essence of pleasure.(Refer Slide Time: 13:08)
Now, if we look at the political and intellectual contexts of Mill, he was developing his ideas in
the intellectual context of philosophical radicalism of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. And
James Mill was John Stuart Mill's father. He was the eldest son of James Mill. Bentham and Mill
argued or advocated a radical philosophy of that time which is called utilitarianism and this
philosophy was based on the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’.
The criteria to decide a value whether it is correct or incorrect, desirable or undesirable, whether
it enhances the happiness or pleasure of the greatest number or not. So, there is a kind of
quantification of pleasure or happiness in this philosophy and that becomes the sole criteria of
judging the value of any action or policy of any state. It was regarded by the conservatives and
many scholars as a kind of crude or radical philosophy.
In other words, pleasure is the measure of value for Bentham and Mill, and they did not make
any distinction between different kinds of pleasure or happiness. So, reading a book can be as
pleasurable or defensible than talking with a friend or enjoying a cup of coffee or watching a
movie. The value that decides whether that action is correct or not is whether the individual who
performs that action is benefiting or not, in the sense of whether that action of individual enhance
his happiness or pleasure or not.
There is no distinction in different kinds of activities, pleasures, and utilitarian philosophy. And
yet the idea of happiness and pleasure and its enhancement is the basis of utilitarian philosophy, in the sense that if an action enhances individual pleasure that action is morally good, the value
of that action is based on consequences of that action. So, whether that action leads to happiness
or pleasure is the sole basis of deciding its value. It is known as the consequentialist philosophy.
This one can contrast with the Kantian idea of ‘categorical imperative’.
So, one can perform a certain action, not because of the consequences of that action or one
considers good in itself. That does not require any further justification in contrast to that
utilitarian philosophy as a consequentialist philosophy argued that the value of an action is
decided by the consequences whether it enhances the pleasure or not. Similarly, at the societal or
the state level, it is the policy of the state that enhances ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest
number order’. It should be the sole criteria of value and in assessing those actions or policies,
there should not be any description between different kinds of pleasures.
That is a kind of consequentialist philosophy and when Mill was developing his political ideas,
this was a kind of philosophically radical traditions in British political philosophical tradition.
And this philosophy of utilitarianism which talked about ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest
number’ led many scholars like Carlyle and others to criticize this philosophy as the philosophy
of swine. Let me say, it cannot be the philosophy or guide for human being as a moral-ethical
being. So, if all kinds of pleasures are equally or of same moral worth that is the philosophy of a
pig for a human being as a moral-ethical person cannot base his or her action, according to the
idea of pleasure and quantification of that pleasure.
Thus, Carlyle and many others criticized utilitarian philosophy as the philosophy of swine and
John Stuart Mill constantly tried to rescue the utilitarian philosophy from such criticisms. So,
Mill, himself a utilitarian philosophy tried to rescue the philosophy of utilitarianism from such
criticisms and provided ethical and qualitative content to its definition of pleasure and happiness.
We will come to this point later in this lecture when we will discuss Mills views on
utilitarianism.
It was also a time for radical politics in terms of demands for the extension of suffrage rights or
the right to vote to all men and not just a few based on their property or educational qualification.
There was a kind of movement for the extension of the right to vote in England and this should
be extended not just to all men, but also, to working-class and women. It is to believe in the philosophy of human perfectibility that all human beings are capable of developing his or her
personality or individuality if they are provided with the condition of freedom.
Mills fundamental belief in this idea of human perfectibility led him to support this kind of
demand for the extension of rights to both women and working class. So, in Mills, there was a
kind of synthesis or combination of the enlightenment, conservatism, utilitarianism with the
liberal philosophy or in doing that he also went beyond utilitarianism as well. Mill also supported
these radical politics as demonstrated by the supporters of women rights or the working class,
including the socialist or communism.
Politically, it was a turbulent time with the decline of the aristocracy and the conservatives in
British politics and assertion of democratic values of liberty, and equality. And these liberal and
democratic values, in turn, are challenged by both the socialists and communists. So, while
discussing Marx’s views, we have also discussed that how industrial society led to economic
disparities or huge economic disparities between the owners of production or the means of
production and those who were left to be dependent on their labour, to sell their labour in the
factories just for survival. It led Marx to develop a new philosophy about communism and also
many socialists who were talking about communal ownership of property and cooperative modes
of living.
So, they were very critical of equality and liberty extended to everyone only in the realm of
politics and law, and the social and economic realms, economic disparities continued and that led
many of the socialists and communist thinkers to challenge the bourgeois promise of liberty and
equality. In that sense, Mill was developing his defence of liberty or his views on representative
government, it was also in the intellectual context of this turbulent or certain times where there
was the assertion of liberty and equality. But that assertion was increasingly questioned by the
socialists and communists.
And it was in this context that we will support the representative form of government and use
against the tyranny of the majority. He defended the individual liberty and freedom even when
he was supporting the extension of the right to vote to everyone including the working class,
women, and also the representative form of government. So, he is a defence of the liberal
democratic institution of government and yet apprehensive of the tyranny of the majority. The individual must not be subjected to social codes or social control. The individuals must be given
the freedom to decide for himself and herself.
He was against the tyranny of the majority or majoritarian form of democracy. Thus, he
supported the extension of suffrage on the one hand but wanted only the best and skilled should
be allowed to govern and protect the interests of the people. Thus, in Mills philosophy, we find a
middle ground between the conservative views on democracies such as in Edmund Burke on the
one hand and the radical views, and the philosophy of socialist thinkers on the other. So, in Mills
views, we have a middle-ground, a synthesis between these two extreme political views led by
conservatives on the one hand and the radical socialists on the other.
Now, we move on to understand the personal life of John Stuart Mill briefly and we will also
discuss his major text, before moving on to discuss his views on utilitarianism and Subjection of
Women.
(Refer Slide Time: 23:36)
So, John Stuart Mill was the eldest son of utilitarian philosopher and economist James Mill and
James Mill developed this philosophy of utilitarianism as a follower and later on collaborator of
Jeremy Bentham. He eventually became the senior civil servant in the East India Company who
controlled India’s most parts. He also wrote this famous text called History of British India,
which became a kind of chronological ways of looking at British India divided into threehistorical past or ancient glorious past or medieval darks and a kind of renaissance undertaken by
the British rule.
Although there are many criticisms to this text, James Mill is the author of this famous text
called History of British India. John Stuart Mill had early education under the tutelage of his
father, so he did not go to a normal school learning with other kids according to the prevalent
norms of schools or universities in England of that time.
So, he was extremely intelligent and had his early education under the tutelage of his father who
on the recommendation of Jeremy Bentham asked him to read the classic text, which was beyond
his is. It is said about his education that John Stuart Mill learned Greek when he was three, Latin
at the age of eight, logic, mathematics and political economy by the time he reached ten. In his
twelve or thirteen years, he finished many of the dialogues of Plato and text on logic,
mathematics and political economy, and began to contribute in scholarly journals as well.
In that sense, Mill was a voracious reader knowing philosophy, logic, mathematics, Greek
writers such as Plato’s dialogues. And since a young Mill was trained to promote the utilitarian
ideas of his father and Jeremy Bentham. Soon, he began to write for radical journals like the
London or Westminster review and he suffered a nervous collapse in 1826 at the age of 20 years.
He accused the pedagogical training of his father which deprived of normal schooling for this
nervous collapse and he went into depression for two years and only recovered by reading many
philosophically treatises of the opposite schools of his own father's and romantic poetry of
William Wordsworth and others. So, he began to engage with the opposite schools of philosophy
such as conservatism and socialism, which opposed the philosophy of utilitarianism that was
promoted by his father James Mill and Jeremy Bentham.
Mill also discovered the solace in the poetry of romantics, poets, such as William Wordsworth.
And in that sense in much of his treatise, you find the combination of both the rationality of
enlightenment tradition with the passion or imagination of romantics or the gothic views on the
use of literature on education or development of one's personality or individuality. In Mills
writing, you have the combination of both the rationality or reason of enlightenment tradition,
but also the recognition of passion, emotion, and imagination attributed to the tradition of
romantics such as Goethe, Wordsworth, and others.(Refer Slide Time: 28:01)
In 1827, John Stuart Mill joined East India Company like his father before and work for it for
three decades until 1858. And 1858 is in the history of modern India, it was after the first
revolution for independence in 1857. In 1858, India came under the direct rule of the British
parliament. Before that, it was ruled by the East India Company under the overall supervision of
the British Parliament. But after 1857 revolt, India came under the direct control of the British
Parliament and until 1827, Mill served in the East India Company in different capacities for three
decades.
He met Harriet Taylor in 1830 whom he married after 20 years of friendship in 1851. And
Harriet Taylor was mostly self-educated. But more radical in her political views than Mill and
Mill in many of his writings acknowledged her contribution in stepping many of his ideas on
liberty and Subjection of Women. Harriet Taylor died in 1858 and since then he began to take a
more active interest in the politics.
Between 1865 to 68, Mill was a member of the British Parliament representing the city of
Westminster. He became a leader of the radical groups who advocated and fought for the rights
of women as well as the working class. He also took a keen interest in the conservatives as well
as the socialist philosophy of Saint-Simon and Robot Owen. Mill died in 1873. In Mills writing,
because of his early training in Greek and Latin in logic and mathematics, and political economy with a combination of other traditions of philosophy such as the conservatism or socialism that
allow him to develop his arguments.
And in developing those arguments, he remained though a utilitarian thinker, but also, provided a
more ethical and moral substance to the utilitarian philosophy. If you look at the major works of
John Stuart Mill, it was a system of logical principles of political economy On Liberty in 1859,
Utilitarianism in 1861, Considerations on Representative Government in 1861, Subjection of
Women in 1869 and his other works such as autobiography, three essays on religion, chapters on
socialism were published after his death in 1873. Among these, the autobiography can be
regarded as a classic text along with Socrates’s Republic or Rousseau’s Emile on the philosophy
of education.
He advocated against the method of education that was followed by his father and Jeremy
Bentham. These three ties can be read as a philosophy of education. Mill wrote numerous articles
in newspapers, magazines, and journals on the areas of scientific inquiry, ethics, philosophy,
politics, and economics. However, James Mill’s magnum opus remained On Liberty. In
contemporary times, there is a kind of interest in reading this text, On Liberty, along with his
views on the Subjection of Women.
(Refer Slide Time: 32:15)
Now, we move on to understand his views on utilitarianism known as hedonist philosophy,
which gives primacy to human pleasure or happiness. This philosophy was developed by Mills,father James Mill and his friend Jeremy Bentham. It was based on the idea that human beings
necessarily seek pleasure or happiness and avoids pain. So, the purpose of life according to
utilitarian philosophy is to seek pleasure or happiness.
The pursuit of happiness in that sense is the basis of utilitarian philosophy and it should also
guide the action of the state or policies of the state. The state should follow only those policies
that would bring ‘greatest happiness to the greatest number’ that would be in the benefit of the
greatest number in society. There is a quantitative approach to this idea of pleasure. So, in
assessing the value of an action or a policy, there is no pre or a priori maxim about what is
ethically or morally good.
The criteria to decide what is ethically or morally good is the basis whether it enhances the
pleasure or happiness of the individual or society or not. The utilitarian philosophy’s basic
assumption is the pursuit of happiness or pleasure as the basis of measuring any action of
individual or of the state. The measurement of a policy or course of action should be based on
whether it satisfied ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’. If it does, then that action is good,
but if it brings pain to individuals or the greatest number, it should be avoided.
So, it gives a very radical basis of measuring the value of any action or policy of any state, it
should not be based on any a priori notion of ethics or values, but whether in empirical material
terms, the course of action will enhance the happiness of an individual or the greatest number of
individual in the society or not. That should be the sole criteria for judging the action of the
individuals or policies of the state.
However, by the time Mills began to develop his political ideas, the philosophy of utilitarianism
came under severe attacks from scholars like Thomas Carlyle and these critics argued that the
philosophy which emphasized so much on quantitative pleasure was worthy of the only swine.
So, the pigs could be inspired by the philosophy of constant pursuit of happiness. The human
being as a moral-ethical, not on the course of action should not be based on quantifiable pleasure
or happiness.
Let us bring the Kantian idea of ‘categorical’ and ‘hypothetical imperative’ again. For Kant’s
‘hypothetical imperative’ is somewhat akin to this idea of utilitarian philosophy. That means you
choose a course of action. Because you want to achieve certain ends and that course of action is correct. In this sense, it helps you to achieve that ends and if it does not that course of action is
wrong. The happiness or satisfaction that you derive from a course of action is based on the fact
that it helps you to achieve certain ends certain desires, it should be fulfilled.
So, happiness and pleasure are dependent on the outcome of a certain action. It is a kind of
consequences further or external things that justify the course of your action. Whereas the
‘categorical imperative’ was based on a sense of universal morality that gives you pleasure in
doing the thing itself, it does not depend on the consequences of any action and in human life,
many actions we perform with a sense of duty or obligation may not necessarily lead to
enhancement of our material gains or a sense of pleasure or happiness. It may lead to some loss
or disadvantages for us.
But when performing that action, you derive certain pleasure and that cannot be explained in the
material quantifiable terms as put forward by James Mill or Jeremy Bentham. For him, human
beings and all kinds of actions are judged based on whether it enhances pleasure or happiness or
not. Carlyle and many other scholars considered utilitarian philosophy to be the philosophy of
pig and not for the human being. Mill attempted to rescue this utilitarian philosophy from such
criticisms. He summed up this philosophy of utilitarianism in his text, Utilitarianism in the
following way.
The creed which accepts the foundation of morals, so the philosophy of utilitarianism provided
us with the quantifiable mechanism to decide whether a course of action is morally or ethically
correct or not. So, the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, utility or the greatest
happiness principle is the basis for deciding the moral values of any action. It holds that actions
are right in the proportion as they tend to promote happiness ‘wrong as they tend to produce the
reverse of happiness’ that is a pig.
The philosophy of utilitarianism, according to John Stuart Mill is the foundation of morals and
the foundation of morality is its utility, and utility is explained in quantifiable terms. Thus, any
course of action or the policy of state helps in ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. If
it does, it brings happiness. Therefore, it brings utility and is morally correct. If it brings pain, it
is morally incorrect and unacceptable. Thus, the utilitarian philosophy is based on the moral
percept of utility or ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. Much of his defence of liberty of the individual or rights of the women or defence of the
representative form of government is based on the principle of social utility or the philosophy of
utilitarianism. For John Stuart Mill, the liberty or women's right or representative form of
government was good not because they were good in itself, but it also enhanced the social utility
or the happiness of mankind. Therefore, it should be defended.
(Refer Slide Time: 39:48)
Like Bentham, for Mill too, pleasure or happiness had both individuals as well as the social
aspect. Thus, the desire for one on the greatest happiness is the sole motive of the individual, so
an individual in that sense is a self-seeking creature to maximize his or her on pleasure. ‘The
greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is the object of social good. So, the state or
community tried to formulate policy for everyone, the purpose of that policy or objective of that
policy should be the benefit of the greatest number of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest
number’ and the object of moral action.
However, what Mill did was to introduce a qualitative aspect to the quantitative tradition of
Benthamite utilitarian. Mill made an extension or if you like a break from this quantitative
philosophy of utilitarianism. He argued that all pleasures were not the same or of equal moral
worth. He argued that the pleasure of mind was superior to the pleasure of the body. This is
famously asserted in his statement that ‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig
satisfied’. And better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.