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J S Mill: Political Ideas

“If there is anyone, who is liberal, it is Mill.”

Though John Locke is known as father of liberalism as he gives the theory of natural rights. Yet, he has given the elaborate theory only on right to property. Hence he is called as the scholar of ‘possessive individualism.’ It would be wrong to limit liberalism as just the justification of capitalism. Liberalism is not just about right to property, it is about freedom of speech and expression, freedom to form association, freedom from customs, traditions and so on. It was Mill who was the first person to give the theory of liberty found in liberalism. In his book ON LIBERTY, he has given the extensive idea of liberty.

Mill is also known as the champion of democracy. Mill was also the champion of rights of women. Mill was utilitarian.

Unique aspect of Mill is that he is known as inconsistent thinker.
If he is known as champion of liberty, He is also known as, the prophet of empty liberty.
If Mill is a advocate of democracy, he is also known as reluctant democrat.
Mill is a utilitarian who destroys utilitarianism.

Why he is inconsistent?
He is inconsistent because of the times. He stands at the crossroads of negative and positive liberty. Hence we observe inconsistency.
However, the significance of thinker is evaluated not on the basis of how much logically consistent he is, but how relevant the idea is.

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Revision of utilitarianism by Mill.

Utilitarianism has been the dominant philosophy in Britain in 18th and 19th centuries. It had wide appeal among the common man. Hence it is known as the philosophy of common man.

Why it is a philosophy of common man?

Philosophy/ethics tells what man should do and should not. Common man may not have ability to understand the grand philosophical notions and hence the utilitarian philosophy which is based on the simple concept of pleasure and pain, has an appeal among the common man. According to utilitarian ethics, man should do what gives him pleasure and should avoid what gives him pain. Right and wrong depends on what gives you pleasure/pain.

Utilitarianism was once, very popular but gradually, the criticism started and utilitarianism has been criticized as ‘Pig’s philosophy.’ (Carlyle)
Utilitarian simply emphasized on the satisfaction of appetite. Hence utilitarianism degrades man to the level of pig. The pig is just concerned about the satisfaction of appetite, no concern with quality. Utilitarianism became the basis for the justification of the extreme exploitation of the workers by the capitalists. Since profit is a source of pleasure, there is nothing wrong if person is going for his pleasure, even at the cost of huge distress to the other. Pleasure and pain actually means profit and loss.

Mill considered Bentham as his master and so he thought, it is his duty to defend utilitarianism / Benthamism. However once he tried to defend utilitarianism, he ended destroying the very fundamentals of utilitarianism. That is why Mill is called as ‘Peter’, ‘who denied his master.’

How Mill destroys the foundation of utilitarianism?

If he is influenced by Bentham, he was also influenced by Greek thinkers like Plato and Socrates. Hence he tried to reform utilitarianism by bringing the concepts of idealism. Hence ultimately he destroys utilitarianism.

Salient features of Utilitarianism by Bentham.

Though utilitarianism is prior to Bentham, yet Bentham was the first person to make utilitarianism as the systematic school of thought. Hence utilitarianism became synonymous to Benthamism. The salient features of Utilitarianism given by Bentham are:
1. Principle of utility as a principle of ethics. “Nature has placed man under the governance of the two sovereign masters, pleasure and pain. Not only we do what they dictate, but we ought to do that way.”
2. Pleasure is just a quantitative term, quality is not important. It means there is more pleasure or less pleasure, rather than higher pleasure or lower pleasure. In the words of Bentham, “Pushpin is as good as poetry.” Thus there is no difference in pleasure and happiness.
3. Pleasure is materialistic in origin.
4. Pleasure is understood on the basis of experience rather than sacrifice.
5. He even devised a formula to measure the pleasure known as felicific calculus.
6. Not only pleasures do not differ in quality, persons also do not differ in quality.
7. Bentham also suggested the yardstick for the actions of the state. It means what should be the basis for the policy of the state. And that yardstick is “Greatest happiness of Greatest number.

Greatest Happiness of Greatest Number

For Bentham, Happiness and pleasure is same. Pleasure implies profit. Bentham supports that economic policy which gives maximum profit. According to Bentham if state does not intervene in economy, state give rise to maximization of profit.
Hence he suggested that state’s intervention in economy on behalf of poor to provide them social security may not be the desired policy.
These scholars support laissez faire policy. Bentham believes that the state policy should promote economic growth. When national income increases, poverty can be eradicated by trickle down effect. (neo-liberal and public choice school)
GHGN principle has been criticized by socialist as it gives primacy to the profit over number. It has also been criticized as ‘pig’s philosophy’ which justifies profit maximization at the cost of the dignity of worker.

Mills Revision on Utilitarianism

Mill also accepts that human actions are guided by pleasure. However he makes following changes in Bentham’s concept of pleasure.
a) Pleasure is not just quantitative, it is qualitative also.
b) There is a difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is about satisfaction of body, happiness is satisfaction of soul. Bentham does not recognize happiness.
c) Once pleasure becomes qualitative term, quality cannot be measured and thus it makes felicific calculus redundant.
d) Mill also suggests that not only pleasures differ in quality, persons also differ in quality. Some are men of reason and some are men of appetite.

According to Mill,
“It is better to be a Socrates dis-satisfied than a fool satisfied.”
“It is better to be a man dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”
Thus according to Mill pleasures differ in quality, not only pleasures differ in quality persons also differ in quality, the things which will satisfy a pig, will not satisfy a human being. Similarly the things which give pleasure to the common man, may not satisfy the man of reason like Socrates. Hence ‘push-pin’ is not as good as poetry.  There is difference between man and animal. The actions of man cannot be guided just by appetite.
In the words of J S Mill, “I regard utility as the highest appeal of all human actions, however it is utility in its widest sense. It is based on the understanding of man as a progressive being.” Like Bentham, Mill also regards utility as the ultimate appeal to all human actions or the principle of ethics.
Utility in widest sense means 1. Not just pleasure but happiness. 2. Not just the satisfaction of body but also soul. 3. Not just quantity of pleasure but even quality of pleasure. Man as a progressive person means man different than animal. The basic difference lies in reason.

Conclusion: In order to defend Bentham, Mill ends up in destroying the foundations of Benthamism. Hence it is said that Mill was a Peter, who denied his master. Though Mill is accused of destroying utilitarianism, but he reformed utilitarianism, made it more legitimate. He made utilitarianism more humane.

Mill on Liberty

“If there is anyone, who is liberal, it is Mill.”

Liberty is the core value of liberalism. No other liberal philosopher before Mill has dealt with the issue of liberty in an exhaustive manner.
John Locke did talk about the three natural rights, but he has not given a detailed view on the concept of liberty as found in liberalism. He gave the detailed view of Right to Property. Thus these scholars have reduced liberalism to a philosophical justification of capitalism. Though Locke is known as father of liberalism, yet the best way to describe Locke is the scholar of ‘possessive individualism.’ Liberalism is not just the protection of property, liberalism deals with liberation of man from outdated customs, traditions, protection of man from the arbitrary actions even of state.
Mill is the 1st person to give detailed view of liberal concept of liberty in his book ON LIBERTY.

Importance of Liberty

The purpose of life is happiness. There is no happiness without liberty. Thus liberty is a precondition for utility and has priority over utility.  [Though liberalism started with the justification of liberty, but gradually utility overshadowed liberty.]
In liberalism we see two traditions  1] Tradition of Utility, represented by Bentham. 2] Tradition of Rights and dignity, represented by Immanuel Kant. Mill has brought liberty at the center stage of liberalism.
According to Mill, liberty is important not only for persons or individuals, but also for society. Just like individual needs liberty for development of his personality, state also gets benefit of the liberty of individuals.

“No state becomes great by dwarfing its own people.”

Liberty is a precondition for development. When state denies freedom to its people, it is not giving them opportunity for development.  Ultimately state is harming itself by denying freedom.
We can give the example of China. China may be economically rich, but China cannot be called as  a great nation. It has denied basic liberties to its people. China is like a golden cage. China suffers from ‘pressure cooker syndrome’, it can burst anytime.

How much liberty state should give to its people?

Mill suggests ‘harm principle’. He categorizes human actions into two types. Self regarding and others regarding.
According to him, no interference by the state in Self Regarding actions. It means state should give absolute liberty in this sphere.
Others Regarding Action: State can limit a person in case his actions harm others. [Mills conception of Liberty is negative because he is interpreting state’s intervention as reducing the liberty of man.]
There is inconsistency in Mill. On one hand, he aspires for absolute freedom but on the other hand, he can recognize the problems because of giving absolute freedom.
He is realizing the necessity of state’s intervention. The inconsistency is because of his times, when people understood the limitations of negative liberty but the idea of positive liberty has not been established.
The first person to give the theory of positive liberty is T.H. Green

“The sole purpose for which mankind is warranted to interfere in the life of the other person, it to prevent harm to others. Self harm is not basis to interfere. Over himself and over his body, man is sovereign. It is his choice”

All other restrains are qua-restrains. If state puts restrain for any purpose other than to prevent harm to others, there is no justification, it is restrained for the sake of restrain.
What will be Mill’s position on the issue of state banning smoking? 1. There is no justification for the ban so long, it does not harm others. 2. State may ensure that person is aware of the harm. 3. Hence Mill will support issuing warning on the packets of cigar.
Mill is inconsistent in his views. 1. On one hand, he wants absolute liberty. 2. He realizes the problems because of absolute liberty. 3. He makes artificial separation between self-regarding and other’s regarding actions. 4. Any action of the a individual can be interpreted as others regarding action and so gives huge scope for state’s interference in the life of man.
Mill gives another example which shows the greater inconsistency. According to him, state can prevent a person from crossing a bridge, which is about to fall. If state does not prevent a person, he may loose his life. Mill brings the metaphysical concept of the real will. He says that the real will of the person may not be to kill himself.

Mill as a prophet of empty liberty.

Liberty is not important just for individual but also for state. No state becomes…..
However Mill realizes need of state’s intervention to prevent harm to others. He has given theory of self reg and others reg actions. For this, Ernest Barker calls him prophet of empty liberty on following grounds.
Barker is a positive liberal and he is not satisfied with the description of liberty as the absence of state’s interference. Negative liberty is indefensible. And hence even Mill is not able to defend it.
He brings arbitrary classification of human actions. In the name of others regarding actions, he gives huge scope for state to interfere. He further brings metaphysical notions of real will, when he permits state to intervene in stopping a person from crossing a bridge, which is about to fall.
Though Mill could not defend his theory of liberty, and he is inconsistent yet we cannot deny Mill’s contribution towards the concept of liberty. And it is rightly said that ‘if anybody is liberal, it is Mill.’

Barker also calls Mill as the scholar of abstract individualism.

The way classical liberals describe human nature as extremely individualist, is considered by modern liberals (Supporters of welfare state), and in recent times by communitarians as abstract individualism, which means not a real individual but imagination. Real individual lives in the society, the way Mill describes individual completely free in the realm of self regarding actions is nothing but abstraction.

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Mill on Freedom of Speech and Expression

“All silencing is an assumption of infallibility.”

J S Mill

“If all but one, has a difference of opinion, majority should listen to that person. Just like tyranny of one cannot be accepted on the tyranny of all, similarly tyranny of all cannot be accepted on one person.”

J S Mill

Liberty is necessary for good life or happiness. And out of all liberties the most important is freedom of speech and expression.
It is the most precious gift of God to man. No other species has capacity to communicate with each other through speech. Other species can only make sounds. This is the most distinguishing element between man and animal. We can call it as a human condition.
It implies that, if any state denies this freedom to its citizens, the state is not treating them, even as humans.

How much freedom of speech and expression?

Even in this case, he proposes harm principle. It means so long person’s speech does not result into, any concrete harm to a person who is not extra sensitive, there is no other basis to limit the freedom of speech and expression.

What is the advantage of freedom of speech and expression?

Here we can see the influence of Socrates on Mill. The purpose of life is to lead a good life. In order to lead a good life, we should understand what is truth, which means what is right and wrong. To understand what is right and wrong, we need to examine our beliefs or we need dialectics. There is no use of suppressing the truth, the truth will ultimately emerge. When we suppress the truth, we postpone our attainment of truth. There is no point stopping a person from speaking his mind.

If you allow a person to speak what is advantage?
If he is wrong, he will understand and will keep quiet.
If he is right, then it is not right to suppress him, rather it is in our benefit, that we can reform ourselves.
He even suggests that we should listen to all, even such persons who have been treated as mad or considered as mad by others, because we never know from whom truth will emerge.
Thus for Mill, all silencing the opposition denotes that a person thinks himself as infallible or God.

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What is the purpose of the strong defense to the freedom of speech and expression?

Justification of democracy. It also tells about the essence of democracy – human dignity. Often we misunderstand democracy as the game of number, which makes democracy a tyranny of majority. On the other hand, democracy is not about number, it is about who has the right argument. Majority does not require rights, rights are for the protection of the minority.
Hence J S Mill makes difference between the tyranny and democracy. In tyranny, people do not have rights, whereas in democracy, people enjoy rights. According to him, just like that we will not accept the tyranny of one person on majority, we cannot accept the tyranny of majority over one person.

Mill on Democracy

Mill suggested that democracy is best form of government. Because it is he only form of government which gives protection to the liberty. Democracy is best because only in democracy man can exercise his freedom of speech and expression to its fullest extent which is very important aspect of his personality and a precondition for his development. His views are found in his book THE REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT.

Which democracy is ideal?
Direct Democracy.

Which democracy is the best practicable?
Representative democracy.

Why representative democracy is unavoidable?
Complexities of the modern way of life. Now we live in a nation state, rather than city state. In modern life, every profession has become specialized.

Though he is an advocate of democracy, CL Wayper calls Mill a reluctant Democrat.

He is reluctant to introduce democracy anywhere. In the words of Mill, “Benevolent despotism is good for barbarians.” According to him, democracy or self-government is not advisable for the people living in colonies. Democracy can be introduced only where people are civilized. India and china may be once great civilizations, but not at present. For introduction of democracy it is necessary that society is democratic. Democracy has not been a free gift, people have struggled for ages and hence it cannot be distributed as a free gift.
He is reluctant democrat because he was fearful of democracy turning into the tyranny of majority. During his time, there was demand for right to vote for working classes, he was fearful with respect to the future of democracy when the poor and uneducated will get the major say in formulation of laws. Hence he suggested certain reforms, which can protect democracy from being converted into mobocracy.

What suggestions Mill has made?

In his book ON REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT, he gives following suggestions.
1] Weighted voting. In a situation where all will have one vote, he suggests that those who are educated and posses property, should be given more than one vote. This will increase the weightage of their views on the laws.
2] Plural voting. Right to vote in more than one constituency, wherever man has property.
3] He favored strengthening the powers of house of lords or upper house.
4] Proportional representation. It will ensure the minority, which to have their representation in parliament.
Mill is called as reluctant democrat because, he is fearful of the future of democracy in context of the demands for right to vote by the working classes. In order to protect democracy, he brings Aristocratic elements and thus brings inconsistency.
We can see the influence of Aristotle in the reforms which he has proposed. We can also see the influence of Machiavelli as Machiavelli has suggested republican form of government only where people are virtuous. If we compare Mill with Indian leaders like Gandhi and Nehru, Mill will appear reluctant democrat, Gandhi and Nehru can be called as passionate democrat. According to Pandit Nehru, “If people cannot come to democracy, we can bring democracy to their doorstep.”

The biggest flaw of Mill is that he takes democracy as an end in itself whereas Indian leaders saw democracy as means to an end. The end is empowerment of the people.
If we apply Mill’s theory, Indian democracy was doomed to be failed. However it is the will and commitment of Indian leaders that today India is a vibrant democracy, considered as a miracle, in the west.

Mill has suggested two more reforms: right to vote to women, open ballot.

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Mill on subjection of women.

All forms of slavery have ended but this form of slavery is continuing. Subordination of women is so universal that it appears natural. He was supporter of right to vote to be given to women.
He wanted, women should be allowed to participate in public sphere. There is no benefit confining women within the four walls of family. At times we associate some negative qualities with women, like insecurity, it happens because we confine them within the four walls of family.
There are advantages when women are in public sphere. Men will behave in a more civilized manner, and it will improve their performance.

Test Your Knowledge!

1] J. S. Mill was NOT a
a) Champion of democracy
b) Champion of women’s rights
c) Utilitarian
d) Socialist

Show Answer

Ans: d) Socialist

2] Who is regarded as the father of liberalism?
a) John Locke
b) J S Mill
c) Jeremy Bentham
d) T H Green

Show Answer

Ans: a) John Locke

3] Which of the following is not true about Bentham’s view of utilitarianism?
a) Utility should be the principle of ethics
b) Pleasure is a qualitative term
c) Pleasure can be calculated through felicific calculus
d) The basis of state policy should be “Greatest happiness of greatest number”

Show Answer

Ans: b) Pleasure is a qualitative term

4] What change did J S Mill bring in utilitarianism?
a) He postulated that there is a difference between pleasure and happiness
b) He devised a formula to measure pleasure known as felicific calculus
c) He said that persons do not differ in quality
d) According to him, greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the yardstick of state policy

Show Answer

Ans: a) He postulated that there is a difference between pleasure and happiness

5] J S Mill suggests which principle to determine the scope of state’s intervention in people’s liberty?
a) Maxim principle
b) Envy test
c) Difference principle
d) Harm principle

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Ans: d) Harm principle

6] Who was the first person to give the theory of positive liberty?
a) Lasswell
b) Bentham
c) T H Green
d) Herbert Spencer

Show Answer

Ans: c) T H Green

7] Why was J S Mill inconsistent in his views?
a) Because he wanted to deviate from Bentham’s views
b) Because of his times—he was standing at the crossroads of negative and positive liberty
c) Because he later got influenced by Karl Marx
d) Because women got right to vote during his times

Show Answer

Ans: b) Because he was standing at the crossroads of negative and positive liberty

8] What are the advantages of freedom of speech according to Mill?
a) It helps an individual to know the truth
b) It is vital for the progress of society
c) It contains tyranny of majority
d) All of the above

Show Answer

Ans: d) All of the above

9] What is the most important freedom according to Mill?
a) Freedom of contract
b) Freedom of speech and expression
c) Freedom to move in any part of the country
d) Freedom to form associations

Show Answer

Ans: b) Freedom of speech and expression

10] Why is Mill considered ‘prophet of empty liberalism?
a) In the name of others regarding actions, he gives huge scope for state intervention
b) He gave primacy to equality over liberty
c) He supported stateless society and liberty is not possible without state
d) He gave supremacy to social morality over liberty

Show Answer

Ans: a) In the name of others regarding actions, he gives huge scope for state intervention

11] Why is Mill called a ‘reluctant democrat’?
a) He was always fearful of democracy turning into tyranny
b) According to him, democracy is not suitable for people living in colonies
c) He believed that right to vote to everyone will turn democracy into mobocracy
d) All of the above

Show Answer

Ans: d) All of the above

12] What does plural voting mean?
a) Giving more than one vote to the propetied class
b) Giving more than one vote to the working class
c) Right to vote in more than one constituency wherever man has property
d) Giving representation to minorities according to their population

Show Answer

Ans: c) Right to vote in more than one constituency wherever man has property

13] Which of the following reforms in democracy was suggested by Mill?
a) First past the post system
b) One man, one vote system
c) Secret ballot
d) Weighted voting

Show Answer

Ans: d) Weighted voting

14] What was Mill’s view regarding Indian democracy?
a) He favoured introducing democracy in colonies like India
b) He considered Indian democracy as vibrant and robust
c) He believed that Indian democracy was doomed to fail
d) He believed that Indian democracy would lead to introduction of democracy in other colonies

Show Answer

Ans: c) He believed that Indian democracy was doomed to fail

15] J S Mill is not the author of
a) On Liberty
b) Subjection of Women
c) A Road to Serfdom
d) On Representative Government

Show Answer

Ans: c) A Road to Serfdom

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This website is completely based on Shubhra Ranjan Maam’s lectures.It has exactly the same pattern, same order of quotes and topics, the same modification of original quotes as done by ma’am. They are identical to my notes from Maam’s classes. What a shame, so much for ingenuity.

Mr Blue

Correction suggested:

Actual quote by Mill for Freedom of Speech is –

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

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