John Stuart Mill was a 19th century philosopher known primarily for his ethical philosophy of utilitarianism.
John Stuart Mill was born in London on May 20, 1806. His father, a philosopher and economist, devoted his life to ensuring that Mill was immersed in history, academia, and knowledge. Mill spoke Greek and Latin and was studying algebra by the age of eight and logic and economics by the age of twelve. He also contributed to his father’s textbook on Ricardian economics, based on the theories of David Ricardo.
Mill studied intensely throughout his youth, but he believed that his mental health was compromised because he suppressed his natural childhood tendencies in order to excel academically. At the age of 20, Mill experienced a crisis in his mental health that he referred to as a nervous breakdown. Subsequently, Mill decided to pursue a career in business rather than attend a university. Mill worked as a clerk for the East India Company from 1823–1856; was editor and co-owner of the London Review from 1835–1840; and he served in Parliament from 1865–1868.
In 1831, Mill met Harriet Taylor, who was married at the time. The two maintained a close friendship for nearly two decades, and Taylor eventually separated from her husband. The couple married in 1851, two years after Taylor’s husband passed away. Taylor heavily influenced Mill's thinking, encouraging him to delve deeper into his feminist beliefs and further advocate for the rights of women. Mill and Taylor published The Enfranchisement of Women in 1851, and Mill published The Subjection of Women in 1869. Mill claimed that his wife was his collaborator in everything he wrote. Mill wrote numerous books and articles on religion, liberty, political rights, women’s suffrage, education, and psychology.
Contribution to Psychology
Mill remains one of the most significant political philosophers and is still studied in colleges and universities. Mill's most significant impact was in promoting utilitarianism. Utilitarian philosophy argues that moral actions increase happiness, and thus the ethics of a decision are determined primarily according to the decision's outcome—this philosophical approach is sometimes called consequentialism. For example, a woman who decides to donate money to a cause would be judged primarily based upon whether the cause was a good one and her donation furthered the cause. Utilitarians would not judge her for her motives.
Although Mill's utilitarian ethics emphasize happiness as a moral good, Mill was not a simple hedonist. The goal of an action is not just to maximize happiness for oneself, but for others. Stealing money from a wealthy man, for example, does not maximize happiness because it harms the victim of the theft. Mill emphasized that much happiness could be gleaned from hard work and intellectual pursuits, and he claimed that people could attain happiness regardless of their education or intellectual prowess.
Mill wrote extensively on what constitutes a good life. He argued that people should pursue simple pleasures that bring about true happiness, not just contentment. He argued that freedom and individuality were key ingredients in the recipe for happiness, and emphasized that the oppression of racial minorities and women limited their opportunities to achieve happiness. Mill believed that pleasure was a primary human motivator that could also be used as a behavioral reinforcer.
In his early years, Mill’s economic position was one of free trade and a utilitarian society. He did, however, favor government interventions when they supported utilitarian principles. Mill published the Principles of Political Economy in 1848, and it quickly became one of the most widely read works on economics of its time. Later in life, Mill modified his work with a more socialist bent, arguing in favor of an abolition of the wage system that would be replaced with cooperative wage-earning.
Mill also contributed his expertise to the fields of justice, welfare, and the environment, but dedicated most of his resources to economics and philosophy. A strident proponent of democracy and equality, many of his arguments are still used to support liberal democratic principles and critique societies that deviate from these principles.
Selected Works by John Stuart Mill
- A System of Logic (1843)
- The Principles of Political Economy (1848)
- On Liberty (1859)
- Utilitarianism (1863)
- The Subjection of Women (1869)
- Harriet (Hardy) Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill. (1996). Feminist Writers. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm
- John Stuart Mill. (1991). Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Vol. 4. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm
- Wilson, F. (2002, January 03). John Stuart Mill. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mill/