John Stuart Mill

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John Stuart Mill about 1870
John Stuart Mill signature.svg
The grave of John Stuart Mill on the Cimetière Saint-Véran in Avignon.

John Stuart Mill (born May 20, 1806 in Pentonville , United Kingdom ; † May 8, 1873 in Avignon , France ) was a British philosopher , politician and economist , one of the most influential liberal thinkers of the 19th century and an early supporter of Malthusian conception and in this context also the emancipation of women. Mill was a follower of utilitarianism , which was developed by Jeremy Bentham , the teacher and friend of his father James Mill , as a practical ethic. His economic works are among the foundations of classical economics , and Mill himself is considered the perfecter of the classical system and at the same time a social reformer.

The term dystopia, which he coined as an alternative to Thomas More 's Utopia , describes a pessimistic future concept in philosophy and literature.


John Stuart Mill was born in England on May 20, 1806, the first of nine children of James Mill and Harriet Murrow . His personal development was largely determined by his father, who was considered a representative of radical utilitarianism / philosophical radicalism and saw the upbringing of the gifted young Mill as a "competition to create a genius". The basis of the philosophical radicalism, which was founded by James Mill and Jeremy Bentham , should be the implementation of a far-reaching reform of society exclusively under rational and empirical aspects; Father Mill wanted to make an exemplary contribution to this by bringing up his son.

At the age of three, John Stuart received his first lessons in Greek, at the age of ten he mastered Latin at university level, and later French and German were added. In his earliest childhood he read the originals of Aesop's fables, then the anabasis of Xenophon , Herodotus , Diogenes Laertios , Lucian of Samosata and Isocrates , and at the age of seven he read Plato's first dialogues . Under the strict supervision of his father, he began studying arithmetic . For recreation, he read Plutarch and Hume's History of Great Britain . When he was eight years old, he began teaching Latin to his younger siblings. At the age of 13 he dealt with political economy, in particular with the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo . At the age of 14 he traveled to Montpellier and studied chemistry, zoology, mathematics, logic and metaphysics there . After he was raised up to the age of fourteen without any contact with his peers, he was given the opportunity to make friends and pursue sporting activities (horse riding, swimming, fencing and sports with a brother of Bentham's (Sir Samuel Bentham ) in France near Toulouse for the first time To dance). At the same time he discovered his passion for botany in the Pyrenees , which he pursued as a hobby until the end of his life. In France, Mill also met representatives of French liberalism and was enthusiastic about the ideals of the revolution of 1789, in the break-up of the rule of the estates (see estates ) he saw a basis for the development of a liberal state. Back in England, he first came into contact with Bentham's writings in 1821 and became a supporter of his principle of utility . In addition, he attended the lectures of Bentham's student John Austin at University College London . A year later he and friends founded the Utilitarian Society , whose members discussed ethical and socio-political issues. Three years later the London Debating Society was founded , in which Mill campaigned for the introduction of a pure democracy and spoke against the "harmful influences of the aristocracy ".

From May 1823, John Stuart Mill worked for the East Indian Trading Company , where he quickly rose to positions of responsibility.

At the age of twenty, John Stuart Mill experienced a mental crisis. In his autobiography Mill recalls the joyless experience and a "state of dejection". This first depression in 1826 caused Mill to begin to critically evaluate his upbringing and the concepts of rationalism and associationism advocated by his father . In James Mill's understanding, useful action was always linked to a gain in pleasure, while suffering and pain were expressions of harmful and useless activities. In view of John Stuart's activities and commitments, there should not have been a depressive crisis, and so he concluded that his father had been wrong in his assumptions. This criticism intensified after the death of James Mill in 1836, who gave John Stuart another severe depression and made him unable to work for several months. As a result of these experiences, the free development and unfolding of the personality (“inner culture of the individual”) gained paramount importance for Mill's political philosophy . At the same time, Mill did not reject the state structure with authoritarian elements, rather he regarded it as absolutely necessary in order to prevent individuals from making mistakes and to strengthen their rights. In contrast, he fought a radical economic liberalism as well as an anti-individualistic socialism . Politically, he spoke out in favor of a minimum social security and a political right of participation for all citizens, but at the same time emphasized the personal responsibility of the individual and drafted a multi-class right to vote based on the level of education (in order to avoid rule by the uneducated mob).

As early as 1830, Mill met the person who had the most impact on him after his father: Harriet Taylor . The then twenty-two-year-old married woman fell in love with Mill, who was two years older than him, and only subsequently became his “soul mate” and lover, although there was no sexual contact. In 1851, after her husband's death in 1849, Harriet Taylor became Mill's wife. As a “radical left-wing intellectual”, Harriet was a committed advocate for women's rights and had a decisive influence on Mill's thoughts and works (which he expressly emphasized in his publications On Freedom , Reflections on Representative Government and Utilitarianism ).

In 1856 Mill was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in December 1864 as an Honorary Fellow in the Royal Society of Edinburgh . When the East Indian Society was nationalized in December 1858, he held the position of President of the Audit Office and earned £ 2,000 a year. A short time later he retired from his profession with a generous pension of 1500 pounds and concentrated entirely on his studies. Only a few months after Mill's retirement in the winter of 1858/1859, Harriet Taylor died of tuberculosis in France and was buried in Avignon .

Seven years later, despite his refusal to campaign, Mill entered parliament for the Whigs (the Liberal Party). Through his personal commitment and his pragmatic, open politics, he quickly earned a great deal of respect from his colleagues, but earned massive opposition for his positions on divorce law. In accordance with his philosophy, he campaigned for expanded electoral law and social reforms during his term of office and achieved a surprise success with his commitment to the realization of women's rights through the introduction of the right to vote for women in July 1866 (almost a third of the parliamentarians present voted in favor of Mill's proposal out). However, Mill's work was rated inadequate in his constituency, and the reformer's renewed refusal to fund his own campaign led to his being voted out of office in 1868. Mill's statement was: "I was kicked out."

After losing his mandate, Mill finally retired to Avignon, where he edited his autobiography and works by his father. He died on May 8, 1873 of a rose wound and was buried in his wife's marble grave. His last words are: "I've done my job."

Understanding of the state

Although Mill, as a liberal, is latently critical of the state and sees it only as a transitional phenomenon on the way to a free, equal society without leadership structures, he assesses his tasks more comprehensively than many of his liberal contemporaries. The laissez-faire idea, which only grants the state the right to create stable economic framework conditions (e.g. through defense institutions, a stable legal system, a single currency, etc.), is an active state that is responsible for the development of its citizens opposite. According to Mill, the overriding principle must be that the state (and society) may only restrict the freedom of the individual if this is done for the purpose of self-protection or to protect other members. This is the case, for example, when preparation for a crime is taking place or accidents can be avoided through government intervention.

He therefore also grants the state economic activities or at least a strict regulatory policy in the area of ​​gas and water supply and in railway construction, where it is important to prevent the formation of monopolies and thus an abuse of economic power. Care for the poor is also a state task, as long as it doesn't stifle initiative.

Mill is stricter on questions of education policy . He speaks out vigorously against a public education monopoly in which the state exerts influence on curricula and learning content. At the same time, he sees a comprehensive education as the basis for attaining personal freedom and comprehensive (“high-quality”) happiness. Only enlightened citizens could help shape the progress of a society, and better education also enables the lower classes to act independently, which is why Mill rates school (and further) training as extremely important for every state. According to his will, the government should therefore ensure solid elementary education and oblige all citizens to acquire education (for children) or at least motivate them (for adults). The practical implementation of the training should, however, be left to private or independent educational institutions, above all to ensure diversity of opinion and to prevent conformity.

Despite his fear of “ tyranny of the majority ”, reinforced by the works of Tocqueville , Mill regards a representative democracy in which all people regardless of their status or origin can participate in the political decision-making process as temporarily the best form of government. In order to minimize the dangers that result from the fallibility of democratic majorities, however, he does not advocate general and equal, but rather a multi- class right to vote based on the education acquired. Since the mass of a state is merely a “collective mediocrity” that tends to suppress significant individual personalities (he cites Socrates , Galileo Galilei and Jesus of Nazareth as examples ), and that as a rule not according to their real, but only according to theirs Apparent and short-term interest (which is also controlled by a short-term gain in pleasure), is of particular importance for Mill in a democratic state intellectual elites. Only these educated personalities should be eligible and help the uneducated masses to educate themselves and make wise decisions.

Even in the principle of proportional representation (which includes women), educated people (and “the likely educated haves”) have a special role: They should receive multiple votes and thus avoid the oppression of an educated minority. This idea, the defense of freedom, is central to Mill in several areas. It (freedom) must also be defended against democracy and even the individual himself. Rights such as personal freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, assembly and freedom of association are, in Mill's view, indispensable and cannot be overridden by voluntary renunciation by an individual or by majority vote.

Mill's concept of freedom

John Stuart Mill (photograph from 1865)

For John Stuart Mill, freedom is the “first and strongest wish of human nature” and it is what enables the individual to fully develop his abilities, his mind and his morals . All state and social action must accordingly be geared towards granting the individual free development, while his freedom, as Mill formulates it in a principle known as the " freedom principle", may be restricted under one condition: to himself or to another person to protect. (Quote: "... that the only reason for which mankind, individually or united, is authorized to interfere in the freedom of action of one of its members: to protect itself. That the only purpose for which one can use coercion against the will of a member civilized society may lawfully exercise: to prevent harm to others. ”Interventions by the state or society, on the other hand, are aimed at forcing the individual into behavior which they believe is better or smarter or makes the individual happier according to Mill unlawful and must be avoided at all costs. Because "over himself, over his own body and mind" each individual is a sovereign ruler.

As Mill himself states, this “very simple principle” requires some additions and restrictions. On the one hand, the sentence is only to be applied to "mature" people, both children and the mentally ill are excluded from it, and on the other hand, even in a backward society (a barbarism ), one cannot assume that it can develop itself, which means a Despotism is a legitimate form of government here. Freedom, according to Mill, “cannot be applied at a stage of development at which humanity is not yet able to discuss it freely and on an equal footing”. Furthermore, situations are quite conceivable in which state actors could exert pressure on the individual for the benefit of others or for the benefit of the entire state. B. to prevent false statements in court, to secure national defense or to maintain an infrastructure. However, wherever only the interests of the individual are affected or where their actions do not unduly restrict or harass other members of society, neither the state nor society has a right to impose guidelines on the individual or to force certain behavior.

According to Mill, this freedom encompasses a whole range of areas of private and public life. These are:

  1. the freedom of conscience, i.e. the freedom of thinking and feeling and the independence of personal opinion and convictions (as well as the right to speak and publish, which is almost inseparable from it),
  2. the free choice of lifestyle including a free choice of education, teaching content, taste and life planning as well
  3. Freedom of association for any social, political, economic or private purpose (provided that it does not harm others and that the association is voluntary).

About freedom of thought and discussion

Freedom of the press and freedom of expression were, at least according to Mills judgment, so pronounced in the UK of his time that he no longer feared massive restrictions or their withdrawal. However, he noted a major exception here, namely the fact that restrictions on freedom of the press by the state can still be determined if this is done at the request of the population or in the event of a violation of moral principles. Mill may have influenced his own experiences at least in part, as he was sentenced as a young adult to a fourteen-day prison term for distributing “obscene literature” (a guide to contraception ).

It is precisely here, in the influence of the people, that Mill sees a particular danger. Since society has almost unlimited possibilities for sanctions (e.g. in the form of social ostracism and psychological pressure), it exercises even greater power than governments of earlier times. However, for several reasons it has just as little the right to suppress the opinion of an individual as the latter, conversely, has the right to impose his will on society:

  • If the suppressed opinion were true, society would be deprived of an opportunity for further development.
  • Only in the discussion is it possible to develop a certain truth from experiences and theses , and even if the suppressed opinion is wrong, it can contribute to an even better and deeper understanding of the truth through falsification .

According to Mill, the fact that a new or unconventional opinion is correct can practically always occur, regardless of how profound the knowledge of those who wanted to suppress the (new) opinion. And although everyone is in principle aware of their own fallibility, discussions are always dominated by the conviction that they are taking the right position in the current situation. This is particularly true when one represents the opinion of a predominant part of a society, i.e. when referring to generally recognized values ​​and moral concepts or widely accepted knowledge. There are enough historical examples in which entire epochs erred in their factual knowledge (e.g. before Galileo Galileo's astronomical discoveries) or in which outstanding personalities were either silenced by a misguided majority (e.g. Socrates, who was and immorality condemned to death, or Jesus of Nazareth , who was crucified because of his teachings) or went astray (Mill is talking about the Roman Emperor Marc Aurel , who ordered the persecution of Christians despite high moral standards and a faultless life). The reply of some of his contemporaries that the substance and truthfulness of new theses can only be checked by fire test (sometimes in the truest sense of the word), Mill therefore firmly rejects. In the history of religion one can see that new (and "correct") interpretations and teachings, if not suppressed forever, could easily be thrown back for centuries, and that even the Reformation so advocated by the English people, which was influenced by anti - Catholicism , was at least one Broke out twenty times before Luther and suffocated each time. Rather, a society that should not only concentrate on undisputed and thus harmless topics needs extensive freedom from both political and social constraints. Otherwise there would be the danger that free spirits would become dumbfounded and great thinkers would become intimidated haders with their fate.

For the second case he considered, in which the new opinion was wrong, Mill states that even this, in the interests of the truth , must be clarified through a dialogue and not through a ban on discussion . Otherwise the truth threatens to degenerate into a dogma that can no longer be rigorously justified and thus can no longer be effectively defended against divergent positions (i.e. wrong views) in discussions. It is therefore important to teach everyone to check assertions and also traditional knowledge for their truthfulness.

On the limits of freedom of expression

Mill aged, copy of a portrait by George Frederic Watts

According to Mill, the right to free discussion also includes the right to express and publish one's opinions. However, he himself acknowledges that there must be certain limits here. While he does not want to see measures against unfair discussion practices (such as the suppression of facts, falsification of evidence, roughness and personal attacks) prohibited, “no one can claim that actions are as free as opinions.” He therefore also confesses the right to opponents of an expression of opinion a reasonable alternative and defines that this should not be pursued by the provocateur with his harassment. "The freedom of the individual," says Mill, "must not develop into a nuisance for others."

According to Mill, “all acts of whatever kind that cause harm to others without a just cause” must also be prohibited. This includes, among other things, calls for violence or those to disturb public order, which would most likely cause direct damage to other individuals and their property (Mill mentions the inciting of a mob as an example). For Mill, justice emerges from the possibility of individualism for all, and individual rights apply only “within the limits drawn by the rights and interests of others”. The persecution of a single declared non-Christian by a Christian majority is then condemned.

For the free development of the personality

Apart from the restrictions just mentioned, Mill advocates the right to unhindered and free development of one's personality and (according to his utilitarian ethics) to pursue the greatest possible individual (and general) happiness. This makes sense for several reasons, because on the one hand, individuality is not only "something intrinsically valuable", but:

  • All could potentially learn from original characters who introduced new customs and "better tastes and purposes in human life",
  • everything that is good is the result of original creativity,
  • Only the development of their own individuality enables each individual to lead the most productive and successful life for them, and finally
  • human progress is only possible in resistance to the "tyranny of habit".

If, on the other hand, only equality is sought in a society, there is a threat of decline or at least stagnation, because with the trend towards uniformity, which is also becoming increasingly evident in the West, the ability to achieve scientific or social breakthroughs is shrinking.

On the limits of freedom of development and the criminal issue

According to Mill, the individual can and should be allowed to develop his personality as freely as possible. The exception to this is his actions, provided that they affect or affect others at the same time. Mill sees people as a community, because everyone belongs to some community and benefits from it. The fact that one lives in a society makes it “absolutely an obligation for everyone to adhere to a certain line of behavior towards others.” First of all, this includes the obligation not to harm the interests of others through one's own actions. In addition, Mill considers it permissible to require any member of the society to contribute to the good of society. Where an individual refuses to do this, it is the right of society to enforce it.

Mill hopes that this will enable each individual to play an active role in society and on an interpersonal level. He only wants to see these acts freed from state restrictions and requirements and instead prefers methods of social control. Mills instruments are z. B. Warnings, advice and, in extreme cases, rejection or contempt by society. Any piece of legislation should also take into account that penalties are more likely to “generate rebels” and that the damage that arises from an action is often more effective in protecting against imitation than preventive prohibitions.

State intervention is only justified when others are violated in their rights by the behavior of the individual ( Harm Principle ). As an example, Mill cites the cases of a drinking father who can no longer support his family, and a debtor who, due to ostentation and wastefulness, fails to pay his debts.

Basic philosophical and social understanding

To utilitarianism

The Utilitarianism is an on Jeremy Bentham and James Mill declining (John Stuart Mill's father) ethics, which then assesses an act as morally and morally good if it is useful. John Stuart Mill, who further developed the concept of Bentham and James Mill after their death, defined that a morality exists when actions tend to promote happiness, while they are morally wrong when they lead to suffering.

According to utilitarian theory, all human beings strive to gain pleasure and avoid displeasure. Utilitarianism was criticized by contemporaries primarily because it placed the striving for pleasure at the center of human activity and thus left no room for nobler goals and a higher purpose (e.g. divine dispositions) (“pig philosophy”). The term "pleasure" (pleasure) but refers in Bentham and James Mill not necessarily in a direct sense perception and stimulation (physical pleasure and sensuality) but primarily as John Stuart Mill pointed out, in a spiritual fulfillment and "joy" (happiness ) . Thus a striving for pleasure, which according to Mill has different qualities (the simple striving for happiness of a pig or that of a fool is easier to find than that of a Socrates), also the striving for a higher level of development and "utilitarianism [could] be its goal can only be achieved through general training and cultivation of a noble character ”.

Mill divided people into two categories. The first are people with "higher abilities", which is related to the spiritual potential. They know both sides of happiness and can therefore never be satisfied, since they always strive for the perfect, although they know that this can never be achieved. People with “low abilities” cannot really get a good idea of ​​“true” happiness and can therefore be satisfied more quickly.


Bertha Newcombe : Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies submit the first petition for women's suffrage to John Stuart Mill in 1860 (Newcombe's picture from 1910)

Unusually for his time and likely influenced by his future wife, Harriet Taylor Mill , Mill held feminist views. In 1865 he was elected to parliament as a representative of the Society for Women's Suffrage. In his work The Subjection of Women , published in 1869, Mill does not accept any of the distinctions established at the time in the nature and behavior of women and men as natural, since most of them are a product of upbringing and social structures. He was also of the opinion that an egalitarian structure of society contributed to the benefit of all, whereas the different treatment of women and men produced strife. "All selfish tendencies, self-deification and unrighteous self-preference with which humanity is afflicted have their origin in the present relationship between man and woman". He also calls for women's suffrage as well as a right to divorce . He was also one of the first to investigate the oppression of women in social science.

His essay The Subjection of Women from 1869 was translated into German by Jenny Hirsch in the same year under the title Die Hörigkeit der Frau, where it was intensively received by the women's movement and widely discussed in public.

Economic growth and steady state

In Principles of Political Economy (Principles of Political Economy) Mill describes his steady state. He assumes that once the growth goal (a life of prosperity for all) has been achieved, a period of standstill must come. For him, however, this stationary economic condition does not mean that there is no intellectual, cultural and scientific progress and that there is also a shortage of goods. There is a standstill only with regard to the increase in capital and population. It is a state of "no one is poor, no one wishes to be richer, and no one has reason to fear that they will be pushed back by the efforts of others who are pushing themselves forward." Mill calls the pursuit of growth an addiction. He assumes that social, cultural and moral advances would be all the greater if people renounced this addiction. Employment can also take place in Mills' steady state, "only with the difference that the industrial improvements instead of merely serving to increase wealth would bring about their original effect, namely to shorten labor ".

Karl Marx, with his law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, took up these considerations critically .


Essays on economics and society , 1967

Secondary literature

Web links

Commons : John Stuart Mill  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files
Wikisource: John Stuart Mill  - Sources and full texts (English)
Wikisource: John Stuart Mill  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. Ursula Ferdinand: Neomalthusianismus and Frauenfrage. In: Verqueere Science? On the relationship between sexology and the sex reform movement, past and present. Münster 2005, p. 269.
  2. ^ Fellows Directory. Biographical Index: Former RSE Fellows 1783–2002. (PDF file) Royal Society of Edinburgh, accessed March 21, 2020 .
  3. On Mill's death and the consequences, see David Stack: The Death of John Stuart Mill . In: The Historical Journal . tape 54 , no. 1 , 2011, p. 167-190 , doi : 10.1017 / S0018246X10000610 .
  4. ^ Science ORF. Retrieved August 6, 2011.
  5. AC Grayling: Freedom We Mean. 2008, p. 283.
  6. ^ The Subjection of Women. from: , accessed January 7, 2016.
  7. Helene Lange, Gertrud Bäumer: Handbook of the women's movement. Moeser, Berlin 1901, p. 67.
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on June 1, 2006 .