Mill was a British philosopher, political and economic theorist, and social reformer born in London in 1806. He is best known for his work On Liberty, where he argues that people should be allowed to do whatever they want so long as they don’t cause harm to anyone else (known as the harm principle). He believed people should be protected from those who want to tell them what to do, what he calls the “tyranny of the majority.” Mill believed that society’s goal should be to bring about the “greatest good for the greatest number of people.” For this reason, he supported equality and freedom of speech, spoke out against slavery, and fought for the rights of women. Being the first man to put forth philosophical arguments as to why women are not inferior to men in his work The Subjection of Women, he gained the nickname “The Feminist Philosopher.”
Mill recognized that in any free society there is a delicate balance between the need to govern and the desire to protect the liberties of the individual. In On Liberty, Mill strives to show how this balance can be achieved. First, Mill believes that the government of a free society must represents the interests of its people. If the ruler does not care about what the people want, then the society becomes a tyranny. In order to represent the people, the people must know what they want. For this reason, Mill was a strong supporter of the freedom of speech. Mill believed that people need to get together and discuss what’s going on in order to decide what should be done.
Believing that people cannot be free if they are censored, likewise Mill believed that people should be able to do whatever they want so long as they aren’t harming anyone else. This is known as the “harm principle.” Mill did not like the idea that a group of people could tell others what to do in terms of things like what to believe in or what to wear. These sorts of cultural decisions he believed everyone should be able to make for themselves, and that society should therefore protect the individual against this “tyranny of the majority.” By being as free as possible, Mill believed people could develop their individual creative talents and that this would benefit society as a whole.
Before Mill, many philosophers had argued that man has a set of “natural rights” which society should therefore strive to protect. For example, John Locke claimed man has the inalienable right to “life, liberty and property,” which inspired both the French and American Revolutions. Mill did not believe that it was necessary to postulate any “natural” or “inalienable” rights of man in order to create a society that would protect individual liberties. Instead, following the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, Mill argued that society should strive to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” (this position is known as utilitarianism). Like Bentham, Mill believes that pain is to be avoided while pleasures are sought after.
Although both Mill and Bentham were utilitarian, Mill disagreed with Bentham that all forms of pleasure are the same. Rather, Mill explains that some pleasures are better than others. Specifically, moral and intellectual virtues bring greater pleasure to the individual than those that are purely sensual. In Mill’s words, “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” For this reason, Mill emphasized the importance of education as well as freedom so that people can cultivate their higher virtues and ultimately give back to society. In this way, society can continue to make progress.
The fact that at this time women were not treated equally Mill saw as a huge impediment to society’s ability to make progress. In addition to not being able to join the workforce, the marital laws reduced women to a state of “slavery.” First, they were unable to own property. Second, they did not have custody over their children. Third, they could not file for divorce, even if mistreated sexually or physically. Women were stuck in this position, as Victorian England still maintained they should be the “angel in the house.” Mill argued that no man would willingly enter into such a situation, and that it was completely unfair and without any good reason.
In The Subjection of Women, Mill argues that women are not inferior to men and therefore they should be treated equally under the law. Mill recognized that his fellow Englishmen would protest that women are “naturally” inferior to men, and for this reason it’s acceptable for them to be dominated by their husbands. Mill explains that we don’t actually know what a woman’s true nature is because we haven’t seen what a woman would like in a free society. In addition to his writings, he also fought for women’s rights as a member of the British Parliament. In his personal life, he drafted a declaration whereby he forfeited all the “rights” he was given over his wife according to British law. Although feminist thought had been around in England in radical circles since Mary Wollstonecraft’s work Vindication of the Rights of Man came out at the end of the 18th century, Mill was the first male philosopher to argue in support of this cause.
As both a theorist as well as an active social reformer, Mill strived to improve British society in any way possible. In addition to defending the rights of women, he also spoke out against slavery. As an economist, he recognized that if populations continued to increase, it would start to effect people’s quality of life. For this reason, he encouraged the use of birth control. He also recognized that more people equals greater destruction of the environment, and so he asked people to think about how society could live sustainably. Influenced by Adam Smith, Mill’s Principles of Political Economy was one of the widest read works of economic theory.
As a philosopher, economist, and social reformer Mill strived to protect individual liberties and make society a better place to live. Although he did not influence the creation of the American Bill of Rights, he supported many of the same liberal values such as the importance of freedom of speech and representative government in a free society. In support of freedom and equality for all, this “Feminist Philosopher” lived and fought for his ideals while making his mark on history.