John Stuart Mill: An Introduction and Collection of Resources

This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on John Stuart Mill. To get started, simply choose a topic from the list below.

Who was John Stuart Mill?

“Mill himself was never allowed to be a boy. He did not go to school or mingle with other children, but was educated at home by his demanding father. He began to learn Greek at the age of three and by the age of twelve had read much of Plato in the original. At that age he began studying logic from the text of Aristotle, while helping to proofread his father’s History of India. In the following year he was taken through a course in political economy. He was never allowed a holiday ‘lest the habit of work should be broken, and a taste for idleness acquired’. But when he was fourteen he spent a year in France at the house of Bentham’s brother Samuel, which gave him an opportunity to attend science lectures at Montpellier. Apart from that, he had no university education, but by the age of sixteen he was already far more well-read than most Masters of Arts.

What Mill, looking back, most valued in his extraordinary education was the degree to which his father left him to think for himself. ‘Anything which could be found out by thinking I never was told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself’ (A 20). He reckoned that he started adult life with an advantage of a quarter of a century over his contemporaries who had been to public school and university. But his education turned him, in his own words, into ‘a mere reasoning machine’. After several years spent campaigning for liberal causes alongside colleagues on the Westminster Review, while holding a day job as a clerk with the East India Company, Mill suffered a mental breakdown and fell victim to a deep depression in which even the most effective work for reform seemed quite pointless.” – Excerpt from A New History of Western Philosophy by Anthony Kenny.

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Mill’s Ethics

“Mill had been brought up as a utilitarian, and Bentham’s influence was immense. The Mills would stay at Bentham’s house in the Surrey countryside each summer. But, although Mill agreed with Bentham that the right action is always the one that produces the most happiness, he came to believe that his teacher’s account of happiness as pleasure was too crude. So the younger man developed his own version of the theory, one that distinguished between higher and lower pleasures.

Given the choice, would it be better to be a contented pig rolling about in a muddy sty and chomping through the food in its trough, or a sad human being? Mill thought it was obvious that we would choose to be a sad human rather than a happy pig. But that goes against what Bentham thought. Bentham, you will remember, says that all that counts are pleasurable experiences, no matter how they are produced. Mill disagreed. He thought that you could have different kinds of pleasure and that some were much better than others, so much better that no quantity of the lower pleasure could ever match the smallest quantity of the higher one. Lower pleasures, such as those an animal can experience, would never challenge the higher, intellectual pleasures, like the pleasure of reading a book or listening to a concert. Mill went further, and said that it would be better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied fool. That’s because the philosopher Socrates was capable of gaining so much more subtle pleasures from his thinking than the fool could ever achieve.” – Excerpt from A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warbuton.

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Mill’s Political Philosophy

“On what grounds may the state interfere to prohibit people from acting as they wish, or force them to act against their wishes? Different societies, Mill observes, have ‘solved’ this problem in different ways. Some, for example, have prevented the practice of certain religions or even suppressed religion completely. Others have imposed censorship on the press and other media. Many have outlawed certain sexual practices. Homosexual acts between men were illegal until as recently as the 1960s in Great Britain, and while prostitution is not illegal in Britain, it remains against the law for a prostitute to solicit for customers. All these are limitations of people’s liberty, carried out through the exercise of state power. But does the state have the right to interfere in people’s lives and liberties in any of these ways?

Mill seeks a principle, or set of principles, that will allow us to decide each case on its real merits, rather than abandoning the matter to arbitrary custom and popular morality – Mill’s greatest enemy. His answer is both radical and refreshingly simple. Mill’s Liberty Principle (cited at the start of this chapter) announces that you may justifiably limit a person’s freedom of action only if they threaten harm to another. To many modern readers this principle (also known as the ‘Harm Principle’) may seem blindingly obvious. But it has not been obvious through most of history. For centuries people have been persecuted for worshipping the wrong god, or for not worshipping at all. But what harm did they do to anyone, or anything, except perhaps to their own immortal souls? Mill’s view should not even be obvious to us now. Suppose a friend is falling into drug addiction. May you forcibly interfere to stop her only if she is likely to cause harm to others? This example opens up serious issues regarding both the interpretation and plausibility of Mill’s principle. Probably no society, past or present, has ever lived by the principle as Mill intended it to be understood. Indeed, as we shall also see, Mill himself shied away from some of its most unconventional consequences.” – Excerpt from An Introduction to Political Philosophy by Jonathan Wolff.

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Further Reading

If you’re new to the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the following books are a good place to start:

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Miscellaneous Resources

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If you are interested in the ideas of Mill, the following pages may also be of interest: