An empiricist, John Stuart Mill subscribed to the notion that all knowledge is gained through experience and that innate ideas and moral precepts do not exist.

A Liberal Advocate

Mill advocated Utilitarianism in ethics. He was of the view that we should each act to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Yet he was championing individual's rights, calling for more power and freedom for women. Mill argues that in the past, the danger had been that monarchs held power at the expense of the common people and the struggle was one of gaining liberty by limiting such governmental power. But now that power has largely passed into the hands of the people at large, through democratic forms of government. Indtead, the danger now is that the majority denies liberty to individuals, whether explicitly through laws, or subtly through morals and public opinion.

A strong proponent of liberalism, Mill's believed that

To Mill, a man may do anything he wishes, if he does not injure his fellowmen while doing so. In such and instance, the government has no right to interfere, not even for his own good. The primary function of government as seen by Mill therefore, was to protect the people from force or fraud, that is defence in war, safety in peace against violence, and security against cheating.

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or to forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because in the opinions of others to do so would be wise or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. (On Liberty, Ch. 1)

His articles on Bentham and on Coleridge, published in 1838 and 1840 respectively, disclosed his modified philosophical outlook and new mental independence which are key to understanding Mill's own thought. He regards Bentham as a constructive genius who had first brought light and system into formally chaotic areas. Mill assumes that to understand the deeper and subtler aspects of life, one should not go to other writers of the empirical tradition, but to thinkers of an entirely different school. Mill's ideas were influenced by the writings of Coleridge and from his association with others who had been influenced by Coleridge. However, this did not bring about any fundamental change in his philosophical standpoint. It was in fact his later illness that changed his philosophical mindset.

Mill's Critics

However, not everyone shared his convictions. Sir Karl Popper claims that human beings are individuals and a collection of them is but just that, a collection of individuals; and the collection will not take on a different life of its own. Society is not an independent creature with a separate set of governing laws. Popper thought Mill wrong to treat collections of people as if these collections were physical or biological bodies, such that scientific methods might be employed to predict future events.

Another thinker was of the view that Mill treated his assertions as if they have scientific authority and have been demonstrated, when they have not been at all. He claims that Mill's fundamental principles have neither proof nor philosophical authority, but are commitments to action, the outcome of assertions to claim knowledge of the nature of the world and the direction men's duty ought to take within it.

Bibliography and Web Resources


Victorian Overview J S Mill Victorian Philosophy Political History

Last modified 6 November 2000