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March 1998

Mill is a bit of a problem. He appeared to be well meaning and ‘good’. But his attitude to India was questionable – very Victorian. He was very intellectual, but like his God son, Bertrand Russell, wrote clearly so as to be understood by all. His theory is very deceptive in that it reads well and seems to make perfect sense. But cast a critical eye across ‘On Liberty’ and it’s inconsistency becomes clearly apparent.

Discuss the criticism that John Stuart Mill’s theory of liberty is inconsistent with his utilitarian premises.

John Stuart Mill was raised under the strict guidance of his father, James Mill, and his close associate Jeremy Bentham. His extraordinary upbringing has been well documented,(1) as has his father’s devotional friendship with Bentham. Seen as a central figure of utilitarianism, Bentham’s Fragment of Government (1776) and Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) are regarded as classic texts of the theory. Bentham met James Mill in 1809 and together they campaigned for the introduction of utilitarian principles and radical reform in the areas of law, politics and social affairs. They had little doubt of the righteousness of their cause and they saw opportunity in the young John Stuart Mill, whom they "trained as a disciple and prophet of their own ideas."(2)

Bentham defined the fundamental axiom of utilitarianism to be "the greatest happiness of the greatest number"(3) and attacked existing modes of government and legislation for not achieving, or even attempting, this objective. Under utilitarianism, happiness is seen as a good and an end in itself; each individual should attempt to maximise his own happiness whilst, simultaneously, ensuring the promotion of happiness for all others. Obviously there will be times when an individual’s efforts to maximise his own efforts conflict with the attempts of others, but this is where proposed utilitarian legislation reform was intended to remedy the situation. Bentham stressed that whilst happiness and the desire for pleasure is a good, (indeed the ultimate good) that each individual wishes to attain, its antithesis is pain and punishment. The purpose of laws should be to punish those whose actions reduce general utility, thereby ensuring that the public morality is upheld. The desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain are, under Bentham, the basic motivations of human behaviour, causal facts that can not be disputed but can be employed constructively. The principle of utility is the sole standard of moral conduct and concerning man-made institutions, the primary method of evaluation.

Utilitarianism initially appears to be a straightforward theory based upon common-sense. Plamenatz states that "There is scarcely a writer on moral or political theory who is free from every taint of utilitarianism."(4) However, there are a number of problems, not least in the absence of a consistent definition to the term ‘utility’. If it is defined as the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain, as Bentham indicates, then even more definitions are needed to explain these terms, for each individual has their own personal conception of pleasure and pain. Bentham was not preoccupied with the form of pleasure an individual chose to partake in;(5) he was only concerned if a general reduction in overall utility resulted. He could not however, so easily dismiss criticism raised with regard to calculating the amount of utility raised by the actions, either of an individual or an institution. Bentham did consider the possibility of calculating utility in monetary terms, but, unsatisfied with his conjecture, soon abandoned it. This is one of numerous problems raised concerning the theory. Its only significance in this essay however, is to show that Bentham was aware that Utilitarianism was not as infallible as he would like to have portrayed it. He nevertheless continued to promote the theory as a universal science, even travelling the world to advise foreign governments on utilitarian reform. Bentham could appear, in some ways, to have viewed himself as a Platonic Philosopher-King and it was probably in this spirit that he embarked upon a Utilitarian experiment in education, with his associate James Mill.

John Stuart Mill’s intensive education and early indoctrination was intended to provide him with "a model Utilitarian personality, ideally equipped to promote the general happiness."(6) However, at the age of twenty, he sustained a nervous breakdown followed by a long-suffering depression. The Utilitarian experiment in education which he had endured could thus be seen as a failure. Nevertheless, Mill’s loyalty and respect for his father, together with his early indoctrination, meant that he was never able to completely free himself of the ideology. His method of thought often contrasted with classical Utilitarian theory and his attempts to reconcile these divergences created notable inconsistencies within his works. In his essay On Liberty, Mill reaffirms his Utilitarian premises in the statement "I regard Utility as the ultimate appeal to all ethical questions."(7) However this is followed, in the next chapter, by a strong defence of liberty; "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the opinion, would be justified in silencing mankind."(8) Isiah Berlin illustrates Mill’s dilemma of attempting to combine individual liberty with Utilitarian principles by suggesting that the burning of witches did, in its day, promote a great deal of happiness to the majority. These sacrifices could be justified by the Utilitarian doctrine, "yet nothing could go more violently against all that he (Mill) believed."(9) Although Mill defined himself as a Utilitarian, his passion was pulled towards liberty, for which he created a far more powerful and convincing argument.

Mill strongly believed that individual liberty should be, and needed to be protected from society: This included the liberty of conscience, thought and feeling, the liberty of tastes and pursuits and the freedom to unite; "No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole respected, is free…and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified."(10) Once again, Mill seems to reject his Utilitarian background by stressing that "Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest."(11) The implication of a complete rejection of Bentham’s hedonistic values is continued, for ‘suffering each other’ and toleration are recurring themes throughout On Liberty. Muslims, Mill suggests, must tolerate non-Muslims eating pork; the Spanish must tolerate non-Catholics living in Spain; and the Puritans must tolerate the public and private amusements of their fellow citizens. "Neither the intensity of the distress, nor the number of people who share it seems to affect the conclusion that it is illegitimate for the majority to impose its values on the rest of society."(12) Indeed, the strength of Mill’s conviction in protecting individual liberties is clearly expressed through his message to "intrusive pious members of society to mind their own business"(13) and if further assurance is needed, he cites "the remarkable phenomenon of Mormonism,"(14) a religion he clearly finds odious, yet cannot justify any attempt, other than verbal persuasion, to interfere with an individual’s liberty to be a Mormon.

Despite a conscious decision to avoid using the idea of ‘rights’ to defend liberty, the rhetoric of Mill’s argument appears as a strong vindication of rights in all but name. His reluctance had been influenced by Bentham’s view of rights as unscientific "nonsense on stilts",(15) consequently his defence of liberty is based upon the belief that mankind can only develop and flourish if ‘great’ individuals are allowed to put forward their ideas without fear of persecution either from the state or from society, in the search for truth. For Mill, this was an ongoing progressive expedition that could never be fully realised, although the potential for greater things was always a possibility. As any known truth may eventually be proven false, Mill encouraged arduous debate on all topics, for the dual purpose of establishing new truths and reaffirming previous held truths. He used the very selective examples of Socrates and Christ to "illustrate the mischief of denying a hearing to opinions because we, in our judgement, have condemned them."(16) Both of these men were put to death for impiety, for questioning the ‘known truths’ of their time; the loss of these two great thinkers before their time has deprived all future generations. The protection of individual liberty should thus be seen as a method that ultimately produces greater human development for "Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellectuals…who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should…(be) considered irreligious or immoral?"(17) However, this "celebration of the Romantic ideal of ‘self-exploration’"(18) does not conform to Bentham’s harsh scientific criteria of Utilitarianism. Mill’s unwillingness to betray his upbringing can be seen as an attempt to re-define the terminology of Utilitarianism. The hedonistic idea espoused by Bentham was replaced by a Romantic view of liberty, or the unrestricted search for truth and self-development. The greatest happiness principle was still valid, but its meaning radically altered.

Mill believed that human development must, by definition, improve mankind, allowing each individual to fulfil his potential, and in so doing benefit society as a whole. But "there are as many possible centres of improvement as there are individuals."(19) Bentham "had laid it down that each man is the best judge of his own happiness."(20) Similarly, Mill believed each man to the best judge of his own development. Individuals require "different conditions for their own spiritual development,"(21) conditions that can only be met if individual liberty is preserved from social and legal coercion. If man, without fear of retribution, is given the opportunity to form his own opinions and to live in his own way, then all his distinctive "human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference are exercised"(22) and developed. For Mill, the exercise of these faculties could achieve greater utility for all, as, when opinions are freely exchanged, new truths new ideas and theories are established which may improve the quality of life. These theories, providing they cause no harm to others, should be proved practically"(23) and scientifically by experimentation. Mill did admit that "the majority being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they are now, cannot comprehend why those ways should not be good enough for everybody."(24) However, if an ‘experiment in living’ proved beneficial when freely adopted by a number of the unsatisfied minority, then the overall utility of society can be said to have increased.

This redefinition of utility has been made necessary in order to accommodate Mill’s theory of liberty. However, it represents, against his intent, a break from Utilitarianism, although Mill did nevertheless continue to promote Utilitarianism when discussing the authority of the state. The freedom of opinions may cause distress, but in an atmosphere of debate, opinions can bring no physical harm to any individual. Freedom of action is, however, a different matter and Mill asserts that state "power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, (if it) is to prevent harm to others."(25) There are two different types of action: self-regarding actions that only affect the individual actor and so should not be subject to external interference; and other-regarding actions, affecting at least one other person, thus under certain circumstances, external interference is justified. The former action, Mill regarded as sovereign to the individual, whilst the latter, he judged on Utilitarian grounds. As C.L. Ten suggests, "Mill restricts the interference with the conduct of individuals to cases where there is no harm to others, and his concept of harm seems to resemble his father’s and Bentham’s notion of injury."(26)

Mill clearly defined how he interpreted the notion of liberty in the third chapter: first by reaffirming the freedom of thought and discussion, already established in chapter two; then by explaining to what extent "the freedom of the individual must be…limited; he must not make a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclinations and judgement in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practise at his own cost."(27) Whether an action affects another is not the issue; it is how the other individual is affected that concerned Mill. If an individual’s action have merely caused contempt, indifference, or feelings of disgust in another, yet no-one but the actor is harmed, then the action can be classified as a self-regarding action. It therefore follows that no-body, according to Mill, has any justification in restraining the individual, although they do have every right to explain to the actor vocally why they disapprove of his behaviour.

Furthermore, if by his action, does harm to, or restricts the actions of another person then there may be justification in enforcing some sort of punishment upon the offending individual. When an individual drinks to excess he may damage his own health; nevertheless his action has not caused harm to anyone except himself. He can be warned of the health risks and perhaps ridiculed for his actions, but any form of punishment would be unjustifiable "as the inconvenience is one which society can bear, for the greater good of human freedom."(28) If the individual in question was then to drive his car home, he would be guilty of a social offence, as "Whenever…there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to the individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law."(29) He must be suitably punished, as his actions have "infringed the rules necessary for the protection of his fellow-creatures."(30) This example suggests that individual liberty can only be justifiably restricted in protecting members of society from being harmed, but this does not mean that interference is always justified when harm is caused by another’s actions. In the last chapter of On Liberty, Mill suggests that an individual’s actions can, in some cases, legitimately harm others, this harm being unavoidable. In situations where there are limited resources, competition is unavoidable and Mill cites the overcrowded profession and competitive examination as clear examples that reveal how the successful "benefit from the loss of others."(31) But, as this form of harm is inescapable, society should not, and indeed cannot justly, create laws to protect those harmed in these situations.

Mill’s rationalism regarding the legal protection of individuals and society from the harmful actions of others is clearly based upon classical utilitarianism. Punishment can only be enforced if its function is to prevent further harm "since utility includes not solely the pursuit of happiness, but the prevention or mitigation of unhappiness."(32) Also, Mill shares with Bentham "the view that penalties, in the form of legal punishments or moral sanctions, should not be imposed on conduct that causes no injury."(33) Evidently, the limits that Mill sets to the authority of society over the individual’s other-regarding actions conform to his utilitarian training, although Bentham would have disagreed with Mill’s arguments concerning self-regarding actions. Bentham had proposed that every form of pain, and this must logically include self-inflicted pain, directly acted against utility, whereas Mill argued that the principle of liberty was of greater benefit than the immediate utility produced by interference. The approach to reform was also distinctly divergent in that Bentham wanted "to arrange social institutions (so) that the interest man has in the pursuit of his own pleasure meshes harmoniously with the interests of other men." (34) Mill, in contrast, felt that although pleasure was a good, it wasn’t enough. Man should aim at achieving perfection, and social institutions should be reformed to encourage each man’s attempt, via his own chosen route, to fulfil this ambition without harming others. Pleasure may create moments of happiness but liberty, the freedom to choose, leads to utility. It can be argued that Mill’s defence of liberty is a modification, or progression, of utilitarianism; that he simply introduced a new element into the philosophy, for ultimately both Mill and Bentham wanted to achieve ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ If this is the case, then the differences between them can be explained as differences in method and application. However, the introduction of Romantic Idealism into the theory was too ambitious, for while they both produced consequentialist arguments and shared views on the character and purpose of deterrent legislation, their differences are too fundamental to be considered as complementary.






  1. Stuart Mill – AUTOBIOGRAPHY (Penguin Books, 1989) gives the most detailed and fascinating account of the young Mill’s intensive education.
  2. Mary Warnock – Introduction to John Stuart Mill – UTILITARIANISM (Collins / Fontana, 1962) p8
  3. Jeremy Bentham – A FRAGMENT OF GOVERNMENT (Cambridge University Press, 1990) p3
  4. John Plamenatz – THE ENGLISH UTILITARIANS (Basil Blackwell, 1966) p1
  5. In discussion with James Mill, Bentham allegedly stated that if quantity of pleasure was proved equal, then pushpin was as good as poetry.
  6. John Gray – JOHN STUART MILL: THE CRISIS OF LIBERALISM, printed in Brian Redhead – PLATO TO NATO (BBC Books, 1990) p150
  7. J.S. Mill – ON LIBERTY AND OTHER WRITINGS (Cambridge University Press, 1992) p14
  8. op. cit. p20
  9. Isiah Berlin – JOHN STUART MILL AND THE ENDS OF LIFE, printed in ON LIBERTY IN FOCUS (Routledge, 1991) p148
  10. J.S. Mill – op. cit. p16
  11. J.S. Mill – op. cit. p16
  12. C.L. Ten – MILL’S DEFENCE OF LIBERTY, printed in ON LIBERTY IN FOCUS (Routledge, 1991) p230
  13. J.S. Mill – op. cit. p87
  14. J.S. Mill – op. cit. p91
  15. See John Dunn – WESTERN POLITICAL THEORY IN THE FACE OF THE FUTURE (Cambridge University Press, 1993) p54 n58
  16. J.S. Mill – op. cit. p26
  17. J.S. Mill – op. cit. p35
  18. Stefan Collini – Introduction to J.S. Mill – op. cit. pXVII
  19. op. cit. p70
  20. Isiah Berlin – op. cit.
  21. J.S. Mill – op.cit. p68
  22. J.S. Mill – op.cit. p59
  23. J.S. Mill – op.cit. p57
  24. J.S. Mill – op.cit. p57
  25. J.S. Mill – op.cit. p13
  26. C.L. Ten – op. cit. p230
  27. J.S. Mill – op.cit. p56
  28. J.S. Mill – op.cit. p82
  29. J.S. Mill – op.cit. p82
  30. J.S. Mill – op.cit. p79
  31. J.S. Mill – op.cit. p95
  32. A.D. Lindsay – Introduction to J.S. Mill – UTILITARIANISM (Dent & Son, 1960) pXI
  33. C.L. Ten – op. cit. p230
  34. John Gray – op. cit. p160






Jeremy Bentham


(Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Maurice Cowling


(Cambridge University Press, 1990)

John Dunn


(Cambridge University Press, 1993)

D.J. Manning


(J.M. Dent & Sons, 1976)

James Mill

Edited by Terence Ball


(Cambridge University Press, 1992)

John Stuart Mill

Edited by Mary Warnock


(Collins / Fontana, 1962)


Introduced by A.D. Lindsay

(Dent & Son, 1960)


Edited by Stefan Collini

(Cambridge University Press, 1992)


(Penguin Books, 1989)

John Stuart Mill et al.


(Routeledge, 1991)

John Plamenatz


(Blackwell, 1966)

Brian Redhead et al.


(BBC Books, 1990)

Michael Sandel et al.


(Blackwell, 1984)

C.L. Ten


(Clarendon, 1980)

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