HUMA 1825 Note 14
John Stuart Mill
- Think liberty from the state’s ability to intrude in a subject’s liberty
- What are the parameters of state interference? What is the value of liberty?
What does Mill mean by liberty and why does he value freedom of expression
and freedom of speech
o He’s a utilitarian which means he’s not going to defend liberty,
expression or speech via a moral theory
o Liberty is not a good onto itself; speech is not a good onto itself, etc.
These things are valuable by virtue of their consequences
What’s interesting is that Mill reforms a version of
utilitarianism that we looked at earlier in the course
He introduces a more ancient concept of human nature
- When he talks of liberty/speech/expression what he’s presenting is a vision
of human nature that has capacities to develop, learn, and progress
- What threatens those capacities?
o One: it’s the state. Specifically, the ability of elite groups (small
minorities) imposing their will upon the individual.
o Two: the ability of the majority to legislate morality. This amounts to
Mill as the threat of conformity: the dolling of creativity
Why is creativity important? Mill says that it and the free range
of discussion amounts to enlightenment: the development in
the sciences, philosophy, and the notion of public policy.
- Therefore, the threat to individual liberty is two fold: the use of state power
to forward the interests of special interests or minority elite groups at the
expense of the individual. Also, because of the expanding enterprise of
democracy, the ability of the masses to utilize the state as an instrument of
- Thesis of today’s lecture:
o When discussing liberty for Mill, to defend liberty is to defend the
o Consider the historical development to liberal democracy
Mill’s Reform of Utilitarianism
- Consider early utilitarianism (Bentham and James Mill)
o They attempted to put liberalism (legislation and the way the laws
were administered) on a more scientific and rational basis.
o Their theory is founded on the notion of consequences
Something is good and worth pursuing if its consequence is
happiness or pleasure.
o Bentham and Mill Sr. used the theory of utilitarianism to defend the
use value of liberty, freedom, and legal rights.
o They put aside the question of morality of these things, ideas, and
practices. o They argued that people should be free to live as they please. There is
however one qualification: you are free so long as you are not
interfering with the liberty of others.
Therefore, liberty is good because of its consequences (effects)
It is useful because it increases general happiness.
o This concept is tricky because what we have to unpack is what the
utilitarians mean by “happiness”.
For Bentham and Mill Sr. happiness is not telos, not the pursuit
of the moral good, instead it is such: it is the excess quantity of
pleasure over pain.
This means that whatever gives you pleasure is as
valuable as whatever gives someone else pleasure.
There is no inherent hierarchy of pleasure. One
pleasure is as good as the other
As humans, we all pursue pleasure and we avoid pain.
- There is a general proposition: the only legitimate standard of what was good
for any society is this: the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
- This isn’t a moral vision of a utopian society; it’s a practical vision of taking
people as they are, not as they ought to be.
o The idea here is that the state cannot legitimately impose upon you
some vision of the good.
- Mill Sr. and Bentham wanted to create a science of human motivation (once
we understood this, then we can create policies and regulations that fit this
o What is the force responsible for how we behave? The answer is the
pursuit of pleasure.
o What vision of human nature are the utilitarians forwarding?
People are rational, autonomous creatures that seek to
The implication is that pleasure, not morality, is the only
standard by which we can evaluate behaviour.
- They were attempting to separate the notion of law and morality:
o For Bentham the Judicial systems were barbaric.
o Therefore, the history of correction discusses the history of general
If you are caught stealing something, the act isn’t immoral.
They act is your miscalculation of the criminal act
The rational choice if to cut your hands of
o Therefore, if you enjoy stealing, then maybe the
only way to offset that pleasure and motivation
would be to give you greater pain than pleasure.
- The sole objective of the law in its administration and legislation is to
increase pleasure and to prevent pain. o Law must advance the greatest good of the greatest number in order
to advance general happiness and facilitate a society that is, at the
very least, well ordered
Leaving people to do as they please in the law silence: to
compete in the marketplace, to pursue private pleasures, etc.
- The point is: all other views of state interference, specifically moral
justifications, are unacceptable.
- John Stuart Mill: he maintains the essential tenants, he argues against state
interference and individual liberty with a minor distinction:
o He believes that Bentham and Mill Sr. had a very limited notion of
human nature and what we’re capable of doing
o The early utilitarian concept of happiness reduced the human
By nutshelling us all as greedy, vain
o He suggested that there are some pleasures that are superior to other
pleasures. Not all pleasures are the same.
For him, some pleasures contribute to happiness in ways that
cannot be measures
He split pleasure into two groups:
Lower pleasures: This is what the early utilitarians
were concerned with
o Any pursuit that provides you with immediate
o This is associated with short-term pleasures
o Consider Aristotle.
Lower pleasures feed appetite
Higher pleasures speak about what drives
They account for advances in
philosophy, science, etc.
o Therefore, the higher pleasures are our long-
o At the end of the day, Mill is a utilitarian, so he cannot envision a
government imposing on you.
He’s holding out for the possibility that with enough time and
education that the higher pleasures are worthy of pursuing
In the absence of social engineering all that Mill can do is argue
against coercion (using the state to legislate a dull vision of
morality, to stifle the individual)
He wants to protect the individual by protecting the state
He wants to protect the state against those who would
use it for oppression
o He wants to make sure that people have the power to discuss things
that are disgusting, unpopular or unwanted Unless your speech are causing direct (causal connection
established) the state has no justification in limiting expression
(it’s his master thesis)
Humans have capacities beyond their bodily urges.
- Mill suggests that sometimes we are not the best judges of our own long-
o Outside of establishing a political program that will persuade people
in a long-term goal?
We must protect the individual from conformity.
- How do we do this?
o We have to keep common interests, common values and common
morality outside of legislation.
This isn’t that controversial, but if we look at history what Mill
is talking about is the tension between liberalism (priority of
individual) and democracy (the expanding enterprise of the
ability of the majority to legislate in their interest)
o He’s worried about that democracy in itself is expanding (more people
have the right to determine themselves through legislations, elections,
o What’s interesting is that Mill sees this as inevitable (it has to happen)
The great majority of people are of a particular class (newly-
minted working class) whose lives are miserable
The state h