We Need Their Voices Today! (11) John Stuart Mill
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 4 Sep 2017
This is a collection of biographical sketches showing people whose wise voices from the past can help to guide us today. All of the women and men, brief glimpses of whose lives and ideas are portrayed here, gave a high place to compassion. None of them was a slave to greed. We need their voices today!
[Note from TMS editor: It will be posted one biographical sketch per week]
He was not allowed to have a childhood
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) showed his genius at an early age, and his father, the Utilitarian philosopher and political economist James Mill, immediately began to groom him to replace Jeremy Bentham as the leader of the Utilitarian movement. From the age of 3 onwards, Mill was deliberately kept away from children of his own age and made to spend all his waking hours in study. Play was not allowed, since it would break the habit of continual diligence.
At the age of three, Mill was taught Greek. By the time he reached eight, he had read Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon’s Anabasis, and all the works of Herodotus. He was also acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes La\”ertius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato, in their original language. Furthermore, he had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic, physics and astronomy.
When he was twelve, Mill began a thorough study of the scholastic logic, at the same time reading Aristotle’s logical treatises in the original language. At thirteen, he was introduced to political economy and studied the classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo. In fact Ricardo, who was a close friend of his father, used to invite the young Mill to his house for a walk in order to talk about political economy.
At the age of fourteen, Mill spent a year in France, where he attended the winter courses on chemistry, zoology, logic of the Faculte des Sciences, as well as taking a course of the higher mathematics. He also met the economist Jean-Baptiste Say, a friend of his father, and the political philosopher Henri Saint-Simon.
Limits to growth
John Stuart Mill pioneered the concept of a steady.state economy. He realized that on a finite earth, neither the population nor the economy of humans can continue to grow forever. In 1848 (when there were just over one billion people in the world), he described the optimal global population in the following words:
“The density of population necessary to enable mankind to obtain, in the greatest degree, all the advantages of cooperation and social intercourse, has, in the most populous countries, been attained. A population may be too crowded, although all be amply supplied with food and raiment.
“… Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture plowed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not better or happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.”
Contributions to Utilitarian theory
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) had written that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. Mill refined this basic principle of Utilitarianism by pointing out the difference between higher pleasures, for example moral or intellectual pleasures, and lower ones, such as pleasures of the flesh. Mill remarked that “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.”
Ideas on economics and on individual liberty
According to David Ricardo’s “Iron Law of Wages”, laborors must always live on the exact borderline between starvation and survival. Wages, Ricardo argued, are determined by the laws of supply and demand. If wages increase above the starvation level, more children of workers survive, the supply of workers increases, and the wages fall once more.
Mill rebelled against Ricardo’s dismal “Iron Law” by pointing out that although the means of production might be regulated by the necessities of economics, social conscience can determine the way in which the goods are distributed. (Later Mahatma Gandhi extended this idea by showing that social conscience can also play a role in the way that goods are produced).
John Stuart Mill also contributed importantly to the idea of individual liberty as opposed to unlimited control by the state or by social opinion. He is the author of the following influential principle:
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Opposition to slavery
Regarding slavery, Mill wrote:
“This absolutely extreme case of the law of force, condemned by those who can tolerate almost every other form of arbitrary power, and which, of all others, presents features the most revolting to the feeling of all who look at it from an impartial position, was the law of civilized and Christian England within the memory of persons now living: and in one half of Angle-Saxon America three or four years ago, not only did slavery exist, but the slave trade, and the breeding of slaves expressly for it, was a general practice between slave states. Yet not only was there a greater strength of sentiment against it, but, in England at least, a less amount either of feeling or of interest in favour of it, than of any other of the customary abuses of force: for its motive was the love of gain, unmixed and undisguised: and those who profited by it were a very small numerical fraction of the country, while the natural feeling of all who were not personally interested in it, was unmitigated abhorrence.”
Member of Parliament and advocate of for votes for women
During the years between 1865 and 1868, John Stuart Mill served simultaneously as a Member of Parliament and as Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews. In Parliament, Mill was the first person to call for votes for women.
His motion was defeated, but it set an important precedent. Mills may have been influenced by his wife, Harriet Taylor Mills, who was a brilliant person in her own right.
Together with his wife and stepdaughter, Mills composed a book entitled “The Subjugation of Women”, which was completed in 1861. It contains a passage arguing that “the legal subordination of one sex to another is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a system of perfect equality, admitting no power and privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.”
“In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”
“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. 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.”
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
“It still remains unrecognized, that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent.”
“It is not because men’s desires are strong that they act ill; it is because their consciences are weak”
“Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service. We should be grateful to him for attacking most unsparingly our most cherished opinions.”
“Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object.”
“Whatever we may think or affect to think of the present age, we cannot get out of it; we must suffer with its sufferings, and enjoy with its enjoyments; we must share in its lot, and, to be either useful or at ease, we must even partake its character.”
“However, positive anyone’s persuasion may be, not only of the faculty but of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of opinion, yet if, in pursuance of that private judgement, though backed by the public judgement of his country or contemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defense, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal.”
“What is called the Law of Nations is not properly law, but a part of ethics: a set of moral rules, accepted as authoritative by civilized states.”
“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 power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
John Stuart Mill, economist with a social and ecological conscience, defender of individual liberty, pioneering advocate of the rights of women, we need your voice today!
11 John Stuart Mill
12 Henry David Thoreau
13 Count Leo Tolstoy
14 Mahatma Gandhi
15 Martin Luther King
16 Wilfred Owen
17 Albert Einstein
18 Edna St. Vincent Millay
19 Bertha von Suttner
20 George Orwell
21 Helen Keller
22 We need their voices, and yours!
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf).
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Sep 2017.
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