John Stuart Mill’s Philosophy and Impact on Liberalism

John Stuart Mill

(20 May 1806 – 7 May 1873), an English philosopher, political economist, Member of Parliament. He is also seen as one of the important figures in liberalism. His philosophy shaped liberalism the way we see it today. His main influence was Jeremy Bentham. He studied Bentham’s philosophy from a very young age and came up with his own version of utilitarianism that became his most popular\controversial philosophy.

Mill’s Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism generally is the sum of pleasures over pains. In utilitarianism, pleasure and pain are what control people, they are the motivation of life, and most importantly the basis of morality. Good actions are those that result in pleasure or prevent pain; bad actions are those that cause pain, or prevent pleasure. If we put actions on the scale of value and morality, we need to look at 1) If it causes pleasure or pain. 2) quantity, not only personal, but the utility of the group altogether. So, the more pleasure and people benefit, the better, valuable, and moral the action is. And the more pain and the more people it harms, how bad and immoral it is.

It is fundamental in utilitarianism that what matters is the result or effect of the actions, not the intention.

Many thinkers think of this school of thought to be of huge consequences, because it denies all motivations and values of actions other than pleasures. Which makes humans no better than animals. If we speak of quantities, then an individual might find a physical pleasure such as laying down more pleasurable than intellectual achievements. Does that actually make it better? If we follow the measurement mentioned above, which is believed by, then yes, but Mill begs to differ. He added an additional tool of measurement, which is the quality of the pleasure. Mill divided pleasures into high and low pleasures. The higher pleasures being those that manifest the elevated capacities of human intellect and creativity. The lower pleasures as pleasures caused by the exercise of our lower capacities. What is good about differentiating between pleasures is that it shuts down the criticism about utilitarianism being animal-like. However, this way, Mill’s statements about utility being the only motive and quality of pleasures are inconsistent. On what basis did Mill assume that higher pleasures are better than lower pleasures? If it is not the quantity nor the duration of pleasure, then Mill is introducing a standard other than pleasure. Maybe intellect as a motive in itself.

Personal Liberty

Mill’s belief is that people are inherently free. People have the right to think, speak, and act, however they want, as long as it does not hurt anyone, without pressure or coercion of others. These actions are described by Mill as self-regarding.

Mill’s belief s that the government must be a neutral institution that does not have a religion or a moral system. Because it is simply not the job of government to teach people morals or religious beliefs, therefore personal liberty should not be restricted by religion or moral laws. It is absolutely up to the people how they determine the values, principles, and religion to. He refuses the idea of a government interfering in self-regarding actions like fathers do with their children. This type of governmental system is called patriarchalism. The only thing that makes it okay to interfere is to protect people from harm, which is referred to as “Harm principal. Mill is very precise when he says harm. He means actual physical harm that does not include getting criticism, feeling disrespected or offended.

It means people are free to harm themselves by taking drugs or driving under the influence in an isolated place, or people can drink their soul away and nobody has the right to interfere because, according to Mill, it is my concern and nobody else’s.

Mill’s Idea on Freedom of Thought and Expression

Mill emphasizes that people must be granted the freedom to think and express their thoughts freely, no matter if these thoughts are true or not. He sees silencing people as unjust under all circumstances. Even if the majority of people agreed with the ruler to silence a certain thought, it still does not give them the right to silence even one person who wants to express a different idea. His argument is if the ruler has the power to silence one person, then they will silence all people if they could and misusing such a power results in huge damage, so the solution Mill introduces is to restrict the power of the ruler in a way they cannot silence anyone to begin with, no matter how much the idea silenced is wrong and the idea enforced by the ruler is right. Mill defends this idea by presenting two scenarios. The first is, if the idea of being silent is true—in this case, suppressing the idea is naturally unjust because it deprives people from evolving and learning. The second scenario is, if the idea being silenced is wrong, then it is still unjust because it deprives people from getting their of misconceptions corrected, widening their horizons, and discovering new perspectives.

Moreover, when rulers silent people they put themselves in a position where they are the standard right and wrong. As a matter of fact, rulers do not have absolute knowledge or absolute certainty. Even in the brightest cases, the ruler cannot be perfect, but by silencing people and only hearing support they eliminate the chance of hearing a different, valuable idea.

Subjection of Women

The term subjection of women refers to “the systematic treatment of women by social, political, and economic institutions. Because society enforces laws limiting the educational, occupational, economic, and legal status and options of women as a group,” Mill addresses the struggle of women and the fact that they are not treated equally or fairly by society, law or even literature. He criticized the romanticism literature movement for enforcing the demeaning views of women.

Mill saw oppression of women to be wrong in itself, but he also presented additional reasons to emphasis the importance of ending women’s oppression. Women having equal rights as men will allow them to take part in the development and progress of society. Holding back half of society’s potential unnecessarily is holding back humankind intellectually. This is under the assumption that women and men have equal abilities, which we do not have a reason to think otherwise, but then, even if women were inferior to men in intellectual and physical abilities, you are still unnecessarily depriving society from benefiting from the progress at least a portion of women could have achieved. As allowing women to be a part of progress will help society even if there is only a small number of women, but prohibiting women will not benefit anyone in any way. Let us assume, for the sake of the argument that all women are unfit for the role to help development, abolishing laws that limit women will still not harm anyone, because they will simply not take that role. That happens naturally as people do not need to prohibit people by law to take roles they are unfit for. For instance, thin men are not prohibited by law from being construction workers. In a free environment, a strong man will take that role and the thin man will be a part of a different industry that does not require physical strength, which results in a win-win-win-win situation for the thin man, the strong man, and both of the industries these two men ended up in because of their different ability. If in the end, we agree that there is no harm in granting women equal rights, then it is wrong to prohibit it, according to Mill.

One of the counter-arguments is the claim that treating women unequally and limiting them is “nature.” Mill responds and ridicules that argument in two parts. Firstly, “Was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?”. He spots light on the fact that oppressors are not aware of the injustices they commit. Claiming women’s oppression to be “natural” is a baseless assumption. The fact that women’s oppression is widely practiced around the world and through history makes it “normalized” not natural and does not justify it.

Secondly, most people do not even use “nature” to be a standard for what is right and wrong. People like to claim to be social and intellectual, they also have a level of awareness on equality to abolish slavery and demand for equality. The same society somehow draws the line on women’s rights. You cannot but realize the double standards. Using reason and logic to address topics they are concerned about, while using primitive principles against women’s equality demands.

Hegel’s Criticism of Mill’s Concept of Freedom

For Mill, the concept of freedom is simply the lack of obstacles. If no power can force a person to do or not do anything, then she is free. Although he sees the necessity to restrict freedom by not harming others. For Hegel, the concept of freedom is a little bit more complicated.

Hegel has two conditions for freedom:

First condition, subjectiveness. For action to be self-determining. Meaning from within the person.

Second condition, objectiveness. For these actions to be rational according to something that is not oneself.

Hegel believes subjectiveness is not enough. There must be an objective part, a reference people can get back to. Because to Hegel, an individual cannot be his own reference. People can have irrational thoughts, ambitions, or pleasures. Without objectiveness, for a person to commit irrational actions, Hegel does not call it negative freedom like some philosophers do. He does not view it as freedom to begin with. According to Hegel, for a person to be genuinely free, they need to evaluate their thoughts and actions to some reference, and if it turned out to be irrational, then it is not free to attempt it even if they desire to or thought of it as pleasurable.

Nietzsche’s Criticism of Liberalism

Nietzsche criticizes many ideas associated with liberalism. He criticizes the whole idea of demanding democracy and equality, which is a huge part of liberalism, as slave morality. Nietzsche’s view of reality is that the ultimate motivation of people is not happiness or pleasure like Mill claims, but power and domination. For this reason, people seek to dominate themselves and others. Accordingly, that shaped morality traits. People who succeeded in gaining power (master) were superior. Hence, they were seen as good and moral traits were associated with traits they possessed. This can be seen in wealth, physical strength, good health, etc. On the other hand, people who were dominated and inferior to the masters got their traits associated with immorality, for example, poverty, illness, physical weakness. However, later the “slaves” grew resentment towards the “masters”, which made them came up with what he calls “slave morality” that praises weakness under the name of humility, forgiveness, etc. In addition to condemning “the masters” for being evil, arrogant, etc. Thereupon, demanding equality and democracy is an extent to this slave morality fueled by resentment. Nietzsche actively belittled democratic demands by describing them as weak and slave morality.

Furthermore, he criticizes these demands that equality is going to result the unique and superior being put down and flourish. And for those reasons, he views the hierarchal, aristocratic model to be better in comparison to liberalism.

Marx’s Criticism of Liberalism

One of the Marxist criticisms of liberalism is that it does not accomplish equality or freedom as it claims. It only adds flowers to the chains of the modern state. The modern state is capitalist, exploitive for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, it changes human nature from social and caring for one another to selfish and self-centered. In the meantime, liberalism does not fix that problem or even address it, but rather falsely claims freedom and quality can be achieved under capitalism. There is no possible scenario where equality and freedom can be achieved without abolishing capitalism completely. As long as the people’s ’proletariat’ are being exploited, then as a result there cannot be freedom or equality. Freedom and equality can only be achieved by a social revolution involving the transcendence of private property.

Burke Criticism on Liberalism

Burke, who is a conservative, criticizes liberalism comes from a patriot-religious place. The only red line Mill draws regarding freedom is harming others. Burke rejects that idea, he believes more restrictions are needed for the good of the collective, family, society, and nation. And those restrictions should be dictated by the state and religion. For instance, it is not acceptable to congratulate a person who broke into prison for his freedom. Freedom, in this case, is not a good deed because it crosses the law. Besides, when people think about the good of the collective, they are more powerful, and their actions are wiser. But the freedom and individuality Mill calls for will result in division, weakness, and chaos.


In short, the philosophical approach these thinkers take on human motives and goals determine their whole frame of mind on political matters like the role of the state, how much freedom people should have, equality and even morality.

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