JOHN STUART MILL
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), one of the most important British philosophers of the nineteenth century, was born in London and educated by his father, James Mill, a first-rate philosopher in his own right, learning Greek at the age of three and Latin at the age of eight. By the time he was fourteen he had received a thorough classic education at home. He began work as a clerk for the East India Company at the age of seventeen and eventually became a director of the company. Influenced by the work of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), he embraced utilitarianism and ardently worked for social reform. However, a crisis of meaning occurred in his twenty-second year. Mill describes it in his Autobiography. One day in 1826 he experienced a “dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to,” when the following question occurred to him:
Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opin-
ions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would
this be a great joy and happiness to you? An irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered,
“No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed
fell down. All my happiness was to have been founded in the continual pursuit of this end. The
end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed
to have nothing left to live for.
Mill went through a period of deep depression lasting several months. Eventually, he was restored to full emotional health and pursued his tasks with renewed vigor.
When he was twenty-five, Mill became close friends with Harriet Taylor, a married woman. Their mutual devotion and intimacy, though apparently Platonic, caused a scandal in a society where the only approved intimacy between the opposite sexes was familial, either as married couples or brother-sister. After Harriet's husband died, Mill married her (1851). Harriet's ideas changed Mill's and Mill regarded her as the most profound mind he had ever known. He claims that much of the credit for his work On Liberty (1859) goes to her. His arguments in The Subjection of Women (1861) show her influence.
Mill was a prolific writer. His A System of Logic (1848) is one of the most original works on inductive logic ever written. His Utilitarianism (1861) (see below) is the classic work on the topic. Mill was elected to Parliament in 1865. A man with an independent and penetrating mind, he fought for woman's suffrage, the rights of blacks in Jamaica, Irish land reform, the retention of capital punishment, and weighted votes for the better informed over the less educated (“It is not useful, but hurtful, that the constitution of the country should declare ignorance to be entitled to as much political power as knowledge”).
Our first selection is his classic work Utilitarianism. Mill defends utilitarianism, a form of consequentialist ethics, against more rule-bound deontological systems, the sort of sys