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Understanding John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill

Understanding John Stuart Mill is the fifth book in a series of philosophy study guides on the classics of philosophy. 


The series is designed for beginning and intermediate philosophy students who would like more depth than they would ordinarily get from "Notes" books that only give outlines of the philosopher's thoughts and theories. At the same time, the Smart Student's books do not delve so deeply and critically into the philosopher's ideas that they would only be accessible to graduate students and professors.

Understanding John Stuart Mill is a study guide that focuses on both content and philosophical method in Mill's famous Utilitarianism and in his later but equally famous On Liberty.  Each chapter breaks down the arguments of the philosopher into understandable parts, showing how the philosopher reaches his conclusions and how he defends against possible objections.  Each chapter concludes with a set of questions for thought and discussion. 


Some of the questions are on topics that provide an excellent starting point for term papers.  References to other books about the philosopher or the topic can be found at the end of the chapter, in footnotes, textboxes or at the end of the book.

Here is a sample of what you will find in the John Stuart Mill study guide:

In her introduction to the 1978 Hackett edition of On Liberty, Elizabeth Rappaport wrote that the procedure used by Mill to respond to criticisms of the first version of his harm-to-others principle is “a model of open philosophical inquiry.”  She goes further and says that the entire essay “can be regarded a textbook on how to conduct philosophical inquiry as Mill conceived it, a test that teaches by example, as much as it is a treatise on liberty” (xvi).


Let’s look at the examples and see what there is to learn about philosophical method.

The first version of Mills harm-to-others principle says that “the only conduct of anyone … which merely concerns himself, his independence is, or right, absolute.  Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (9). 

Mill immediately sees a problem with this: “whatever affects himself may affect others through himself” (11).  Except for hermits and people who live alone on small distant islands, almost everything we do when we emerge from our house or apartment and mingle in society will affect or concern others in some way.  There is no bright line that separates other-regarding and self-regarding conduct.

The method Mill uses to criticize his own theory is the method of counterexample (supra, 5.4).  If one person physically assaults another, this is a clear case of other-regarding conduct.  If the same person wears a T-shirt with the words “F*ck You” emblazoned on it, this also may be classified as other-regarding if others find this message to be offensive, thereby blurring the line between self-regarding and other-regarding conduct. 

Mill must find a way to provide a plausible repair to the harm-to-others principle.  The aim is to create a bright line that will allow those who use the principle to make clear determinations about harms society ought to protect its members against and harms that society ought to tolerate (Rapaport, xvii).

Mill’s solution is to revise the harm-to-others principle by narrowing the scope of the word “harm,” in accord with the dictates of the utilitarian principle. He does this by declaring that the only harms (concerns, interests) that society ought to protect us against are those that violate our rights (8.1.1, supra) Thus, in the T-shirt case, if someone today sees the shirt and says that she finds the words on the shirt to be “offensive,” she cannot claim that her rights have been violated.  There is no right (in twenty-first century America) not to have one’s sensibilities about decency offended by the public display of certain words, nor ought there to be a legitimate claim or obligation which the T-shirt wearer is bound to honor.

Assuming that we now know how to distinguish harm to others from harm to self, another objection to it is from those who argue that “society has an obligation in some instances to prevent people from harming themselves.”  The examples they offered are requirements to wear seatbelts when driving an automobile, to wear certified helmets when riding a motorcycle, to obtain certification to use and purchase certain poisons, or to use certain explosives (like dynamite), to obtain a doctor’s prescription to purchase certain pharmaceuticals, and not to use heroin and other listed addictive drugs on pain of fines or incarceration.

In most of these examples there is no “distinct and assignable person” who can plausibly declare that their rights have been violated by someone’s failure to do what is required (8.1.1 supra).  You have not violated my right not to be harmed if you fail to wear your seatbelt. You might have put yourself in danger, but I cannot show that you have an obligation to me unless I am a dependent family member, or you have some other distinct and assignable obligation to others that would require you to wear a seatbelt.

There is one proviso that Mill makes about the use of dynamite, poisons and (we can assume) would also make for potentially harmful drugs (e.g. opioids).  It is legitimate to require certification or require a prescription because no one would voluntarily injure or harm themselves by using or ingesting these things.  We can guarantee that the use will be voluntary by labelling the explosive and the poison, requiring an official certificate for their use, and (in the case of pharmaceuticals) have a physician explain the safe use of the drug.

But if we are assured that individuals are aware of the risks they are taking, and are not violating the rights of others, then Mill would argue that society has no business in prohibiting their self-regarding conduct.  If asked why society ought not to interfere, Mill would give his standard reply.  First, there is no certain truth to which all should adhere, especially in ethics or political theory.

Mankind are not infallible; that their truths for the most part, are only half-truths; that unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable and diversity not an evil, but a good…

Second, happiness can only be achieved through self-development and self-realization. 

As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect, there should be different opinions… [T]here should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved physically, when anyone thinks fit to try them.  It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others individuality should assert itself. (54).






Learn more about John Stuart Mill in my book  Understanding John Stuart Mill: The Smart Student’s Guide to Utilitarianism and On Liberty.

[Get your copy now.  Click on the book cover image above.]

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