John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control

By Joseph Hamburger | Go to book overview
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Chapter Three

I was brought up from the first without any religious belief, in the ordinary meaning of the term. I am thus one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it. (John Stuart Mill)

REGENERATION was to be preceded by destruction. Beliefs surviving from the past that were obstacles to the emergence of a new moral order were to be eliminated. Progress required has– tening this demise of the old morality, which, beyond the circles of the most advanced and emancipated thinkers, still enjoyed the support of most people. “The old opinions in religion, morals, and politics are so much discredited in the more intellectual minds” however, “they have still life enough in them to be a powerful obstacle to the growing up of any better opinions on those subjects.”1 Mill therefore mounted an attack on these old opinions, especially those about religion and custom. He carried out the negative, destructive part of his strategy for moral reform by seeking to cast doubt on these two pillars of existing moral opinion and belief, and On Liberty was an important instrument for the achievement of this goal.

The distinguishing feature of the old morality, according to Mill, was selfishness. Criticisms of it and egotism became a recurring theme in his thinking during the early 1850s. It appeared in his diary as disapproval of vanity for being “a moral defect; a form of selfishness; a dwelling on, and caring about, self and what belongs to it, beyond the just measure.”2 It was reflected in the softening of his criticisms of socialism in the third edition (1852) of his Political Economy, and especially in the chapters greatly influenced by Harriet, “Of the Stationary State” and “On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes.” In the first of these he implicitly condemned self–seeking by criticizing “the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind” and in describing the northern and middle

Autobiography, CW, 1, 245, 247.
Diary, 25 January [1854], CW, 27 646


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