Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

John Stuart Mill's Theory of Justice

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

John Stuart Mill's Theory of Justice

Article excerpt

Abstract John Stuart Mill has traditionally been portrayed as self-contradictory and failing to construct a unified social theory. Recent scholarship, however, has challenged this view, finding Mill's work to be creatively synthetic in bridging the antinomies inherent in liberal democratic thought. This revisionist interpretation of Mill is advanced by an understanding of his theory of justice and its role in shaping his policy positions on issues such as welfare, education, voting rights, property rights, taxation, government intervention, and the future of capitalism.

Keywords: capitalism, ethics, equality, justice, liberty, rights, security, socialism, taxation, utilitarianism


Prior to the 1980s, John Stuart Mill's contributions to social theory were viewed as limited advances in the fields of logic, ethics, economics and political theory. Nearly all interpreters agreed that Mill failed to construct a comprehensive theoretical system applicable to any one, let alone all, of the aforementioned disciplines. A brief survey of the literature confirms this point as the charge of "muddleheadedness and inconsistency" appears repeatedly. Mill's inadequacies have been attributed to an "identity crisis" induced by the child-rearing techniques of his father and Jeremy Bentham (Britton 1953, Borchard 1957, Mazlish 1975, Halliday 1976). An alternative explanation suggests that Mill was intellectually seduced by the strong-willed Harriet Taylor and, as a result, attempted to incorporate ideas incompatible with his own principles (Himmelfarb 1974). Less generous critics simply question the adequacy of Mill's intellect; "He was often bewildered by the intricacies of his own thought, unaware of the implications of what he had said and of what still remained to be proved" (Plamenatz 1958: 122). His theories "were always inadequate to the load that he made them carry" (Sabine 1961: 714). He attempted to encompass and synthesize diametrically opposing viewpoints (Anschutz 1963), and thus there could be no "way of patching up [his] system which will make it both systematic and persuasive" (Ryan 1970: xx).

Mill's reputation suffered a similar fate in the hands of historians of economic thought. His "economic theory lacks the logical rigour and his social philosophy the unflinching consistency which are the outstanding characteristics of the 'system-builders' " (Roll 1992: 322). Moreover, he is unoriginal; "apart from certain elaborations of the theory of foreign trade, it is doubtful whether Mill added much, or anything, to the body of economic doctrine" (Gray 1931:279). Schumpeter was able to muster only faint praise for Mill's "stimulating discrepancies of doctrine" (1963: 450).

Some writers who defend the consistency of Mill's writings do so by suppressing important facets of his thought. Ignoring Mill's trenchant defense of liberty and individuality, Cowling claims that Mill's "liberalism was a dogmatic, religious one," with "more than a touch of something resembling moral totalitarianism" (Cowling 1963: xii-xiii). McCloskey makes the same charge that "Mill was seriously exposed to the danger of becoming . . . a moral totalitarian" (1971: 97). At the opposite extreme, Mill is accused of ignoring the role of moral authority and relying on a "voluntaristic Utopianism" in which the autonomous choices of rational individuals are the sole source of social progress (Gray 1989: 288, Chlor 1985).

However, during the past thirty years, a revisionist body of Mill scholarship has persuasively argued for a comprehensive unity in Mill's thought that situates him solidly within the liberal democratic tradition. The pioneering figure in this movement is John Robson, the general editor of the thirty-three volumes of Mill's collected works, who finds "a unity underlying Mill's mature thought, a unity both of purpose and method, hidden often in a welter of detail, seldom explicitly formulated, but always present" (Robson 1968: ix). …

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