John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and The Subjection of Women (Michaelmas 2019)

Lecture I. Introductory

1. Lecture schedule

Lecture II. Harm
Lecture III. Speech
Lecture IV. Genius
Lecture V. Progress
Lecture VI. Nature
Lecture VII. Slavery
Lecture VIII. Family

2. The history of philosophy

– History of philosophy vs history of science vs history of art

– Philosophy and progress; assimilating insights?

– Distraction from contemporary endeavours?

– History of philosophy as history vs history of philosophy as philosophy: ‘what did it mean’ vs ‘what does it mean to us?’

– Reasons to do the history of philosophy:
            Antiquarian: ‘these books are interesting, fun, weird…’
            Inspiration: ‘we may get interesting ideas from reading these books’
            Heritage: ‘these are the Great Books of our civilization’
            Genealogy: ‘these books produced us’
            Defamiliarisation: ‘we may learn something about ourselves from reading books that don’t just reflect our own assumptions back to us’

– Three approaches to the history of philosophy

            Rational reconstruction
            Intellectual biography

3. Mill and the history of philosophy

– Mill as canonical figure in history of empiricism, utilitarianism, liberalism

On Liberty and The Subjection of Women as inaugural texts in two traditions; influence on subsequent philosophy, political thought and politics

– Texts lend themselves to all three approaches:

            Rational reconstruction: ‘What argument is Mill making in this passage? Is it sound?’

            Contextualism: ‘What did Mill’s remarks mean in their time? What was he trying to do?’

            Intellectual biography: ‘How did Mill’s thought develop through his life, and why?’

4. Mill’s life and work

– Childhood, education, breakdown (influences: James Mill, Jeremy Bentham)

– Romance, romanticism

– Politics, campaigning

– Mill as pamphleteer-philosopher (cf. Plato’s dialogues, Descartes meditations): Mill not writing for posterity, at least in his political writings (cf System of Logic), but for 19th-century contemporaries. Not enough to attend to the logic of his arguments; we must also be sensitive to Mill’s rhetoric (pathos + logos).

Lecture II. Harm

1. Setting the scene

– Liberty: political, not metaphysical (cf Berlin on ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberty: Mill a paradigm case of a negative theorist of liberty, i.e. liberty as the absence of (state) constraint)

– The liberty of the individual: Mill’s brief history

            Stage I. From state of nature to the state; the state as the chief threat to liberty
            Stage II. Towards republican liberty: liberty as right to political participation
            Stage III. Liberty in advanced industrial societies: threat from majority opinion

– Mill’s rhetorical strategy: myth-making; appeal to self-conceptions; conveying urgency

2. The Harm Principle

T1        The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That 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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or 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 some one else. [John Stuart Mill, J. S. Mill: On Liberty and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 13]

3. Liberty and utility

T2        It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorise the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. [On Liberty, 14]

– Two approaches to arguing for the Harm Principle, roughly characterised:

            Abstract right: Harm Principle justified because all alternatives would violate absolute and irreducible rights of the individual to complete non-interference in self-regarding matters.

            Utilitarian: Harm Principle justified because a society governed by it will better realise utility, i.e. happiness (including both ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures)

– Mill an indirect utilitarian; can admit rights if treated as derivative; cf paradox of hedonism

– An exercise in rational reconstruction: how to get from the basic utilitarian claim to the Harm Principle? Mill didn’t set out an explicit argument with premises leading up to a conclusion. (Can you?)

4. Questions for Mill

– Can we draw a sharp line between self- and other-regarding actions? (Need we?)

– Can a utilitarian really defend absolute principles? Isn’t the virtue of utilitarianism its flexibility?

– Can a utilitarian consistently oppose paternalism? Doesn’t that lower the overall happiness?

– Is (Mill’s formulation of) the Harm Principle racist?

5. Reading for next week

Chapter II of On Liberty; Dan Halliday & Helen McCabe, ‘John Stuart Mill on Free Speech’, in Coady & Chase (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Applied Epistemology (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019), 71–87. [URL] [Contact lecturer for PDF if needed]

Lecture III. Speech

1. Recap

– Mill’s On Liberty defence of a ‘very simple’ principle: coercion of individuals justified only when their actions are likely to cause harm to others. Excluded: coercion on grounds of mere offence; coercion on paternalistic grounds.

–Harm Principle reads like principle of absolute right. Mill insists its basis is utilitarian: ‘utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being’ [???] Principle also empiricist: case for it can’t be made a priori but by induction from historical observation.

2. Rational reconstruction I

P1. Advanced societies should be governed by the principle that maximises long-term general happiness. [Follows from basic utilitarian principle applied at a macro level]

P2. The Harm Principle [alone] maximises long-term general happiness. [Justified by experience; humans as ‘progressive beings’]

C. Advanced societies should be governed by the Harm Principle. [Follows from P1 and P2]


  • Is utilitarianism true in general? Can it be applied to societies as well as individuals?
  • Why think the Harm Principle likelier to maximise happiness than one that allows (some) paternalistic interference? (Examples?)

3. Rational reconstruction II

Bottom line: There should be no (coercive) attempt ‘to control the expression of opinion’.

For any opinion, p:

P1. Either: (1) p is true, or (2) p is false, or (3) p is partially true. [Plausibly exhaustive]

P2. If p is true, then it should not be suppressed. [Value of truth; fallibility of humans; revisability of all beliefs in light of new observations; debatability of harmfulness of true beliefs]

P3. If p is false, then it should [still] not be suppressed. [Assertion of falsehood conducive to discovering truth; encourages debate and self-consciousness of grounds of true opinions; prevents reduction to truth to ‘dead dogma’]

P4. If p is partially true, then it should [still] not be suppressed. [Need to determine which part is true]

C. Therefore, p should never be suppressed.

4. Questions for Mill

– Why the focus on truth? How does this argument apply to the censorship of visual art, music, poetry?

– Re: P2: Are all truths valuable (= happiness-maximising)? What about offensive truths?

– Re: P3: Isn’t this naïve? Is this always true? (If not, under what conditions is it true?)

Case studies: Hate speech; pornography; race science; propaganda

5. Reading for next week

Chapter III of On Liberty; Isaiah Berlin, ‘John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life’

Lecture IV. Genius

1. Recap

– Mill asserts a ‘Harm Principle’ placing strict limits on the legitimacy of interference with individuals’ actions, when harmless to anyone except themselves, whether by institutions or other individuals; rejects paternalism; distinguishes the genuinely harmful from the merely offensive

Argument for the Harm Principle essentially utilitarian in form

– Corollary of Harm Principle: almost no restrictions on ‘thought and discussion’

Additional argument: True, partially true, and false claims all have a role in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, essential to human flourishing; therefore, no (non-harmful) speech must be banned

2. Limits of Mill’s arguments

– Outline; needs to be filled in based on experience

– Vague boundaries: harm vs offence (e.g. racist slurs)

– Subtle distinctions: speech that causes harm vs speech that constitutes harm (e.g. violent pornography?)

Cynical speech: propaganda; advertising; ‘deep fakes’. Not easy to guess what Mill might have said.

– Unclear application to non-speech and non-propositional forms of expression, e.g. visual art, music

3. Why individuality?

– Recall: ‘… utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.’

– Mill in Utilitarianism: pleasures differ in quantity and quality; ‘higher’ and ‘lower pleasures’

–  Criteria for higher pleasures: ‘If one of the two [pleasures] is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it […] and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account’

Clarification: ‘Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus …’ But: why not?

– Human beings as having (unique?) capacity for culture (= ‘extra-genetic inheritance’); cultural evolution = greater (and higher-quality) happiness

– Mechanism of culture evolution? Mill’s answer: Genius, eccentricity, dissent, non-conformity

– Threats to evolution: Coercion, forced conformism, social pressure…

4. Arguments for individuality/eccentricity

Argument from progress. Progress is good. Progress requires innovation. Innovation requires innovators. Innovators can only exist (or, are most likely to emerge) in an atmosphere of freedom. Freedom requires respect for individuality.

Argument from experience. Countries that tolerate individuality are happier than those who stifle it. Therefore, we should encourage (and not stifle) individuality. (Cf. cautionary case of 19th-c China)

Argument from knowledge. Knowledge grows through experiments (inc ‘experiments of living’). A more knowledgeable society is a happier society. Experiments in living require an atmosphere of tolerance for individual experimenters, even if they are regarded as ‘eccentrics’.

– Argument from the value of choice. Individual happiness requires the development of the most distinctive human faculties. Choice is one of the most distinctive human faculties. The faculty of choice is best developed in an atmosphere of freedom.

Lecture V. Progress

1. Question

What role does the idea of progress play in the argument of […] The Subjection of Women? (2018)

Short answer sketch: Progress narrative as part of vindicatory and subversive genealogies

Longer answer sketch: Legal status of women aberrations in history of socio-political change away from hierarchy towards liberty and equality; Mill’s proposals as more in keeping with spirit of those changes

2. Genealogy

Definition: ‘A genealogy is a narrative that tries to explain a cultural phenomenon by describing a way in which it came about, or could have come about, or might be imagined to have come about.’ [Bernard Williams, Truth & Truthfulness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 20]

Types of genealogy: ‘[Subversive genealogies give] an account of the history of certain attitudes, beliefs or practices that their proponent cannot accept without damage to his esteem for, and certitude in, the attitudes, beliefs or practices themselves. […] Some genealogies, by contrast, are vindicatory: the story they tell us is in one way or another a recommendation of what it is they tell us the history of.’ [Edward Craig, ‘Genealogies and the State of Nature,’ in Bernard Williams, ed. Alan Thomas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 182–3; emphases added]


I. Genetic fallacy: ‘The mere fact that a belief or practice (philosophy included) has a contingent origin does not entail that it is false or unjustified; to think otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy. [Amia Srinivasan, ‘The Archimedean Urge,’ Philosophical Perspectives 29, no. 1 (2015): 326; see also:

Reply: (1) Mill not just saying that status quo contingent; rather, exposing its pudenda origo (2) Exposing contingency of something that presents itself as necessary does undermine justification

II. Whiggishness: ‘[The [“Whig” interpretation of history is] the tendency in many historians […] to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.’ [Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1931), v]

Reply: (1) Mill not glorifying present; (2) Mill’s general, ahistorical, ethical theory based in principles with a claim to be timelessly true; (3) burden on critics who allege Mill only extrapolating from present

III. Historicism and racism: ‘Consider the classic liberal but historicist essays by John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty” and “On Representative Government,” both of which proclaimed self- rule as the highest form of government and yet argued against giving Indians or Africans self-rule on grounds that were indeed historicist. According to Mill, Indians or Africans were not yet civilized enough to rule themselves. Some historical time of development and civilization (colonial rule and education, to be precise) had to elapse before they could be considered prepared for such a task. Mill’s historicist argument thus consigned Indians, Africans, and other “rude” nations to an imaginary waiting room of history. In doing so, it converted history itself into a version of this waiting room. We were all headed for the same destination, Mill averred, but some people were to arrive earlier than others. That was what historicist consciousness was: a recommendation to the colonized to wait. Acquiring a historical consciousness, acquiring the public spirit that Mill thought absolutely necessary for the art of self-government, was also to learn this art of waiting. This waiting was the realization of the “not yet” of historicism. [Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 8]

Reply: (1) What’s wrong with historicism? (2) Can’t historicism and racism be decoupled?