Monday, 19 March 2012 08:16

John Stuart Mill: Men of Ideas

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John Stuart Mill (1806-1893) was an English utilitarian thinker and prolific writer on assorted subjects, including representative democracy. We have reviewed utilitarianism while talking about Jeremy Bentham and will look at John Stuart Mill mainly in regard to his writing on representative government, though he obviously wrote extensively on utilitarianism. His book, On Liberty, is considered a classic on utilitarian approach to governance and democracy.

John’s father, James Mill, apparently, subjected him to rigorous early childhood education, so that by age three he was reading and at an age most children were playing with other children he had mastered Latin, Greek and other arcane subjects. Apparently, John had genius level IQ and demonstrated that intellect in his many writings. His autobiography is considered a classic of such writings.  But we are not here to talk about the man’s life but what he did. As far as we are considered he did a lot to further the course of liberty.

At the time John Stuart Mill was writing, England and much of the West had finally offered the vote to the masses (men, not yet to women). Before him the vote was for the landed gentry. Now just about all English men could vote.

What does this mean in a situation where many men were illiterate? For voting to be useful exercise of democratic rights in influencing public policy making it requires understanding the issues one is voting on. To have such understanding one must have the ability to read. John Stuart Mill while lauding the giving of the vote to the masses, called for public education that enables citizens to learn how to read and write. Mill advocated education for both men and women and further advocated equality of the two genders; he wanted women given the vote, too.

In the English world we have representative democracy. Here the people elect their representatives who then proceed to make laws on their behalf. How independent should representatives be, should they adhere strictly to their understanding of what their constituents want or should they vote their understanding of what is appropriate on any Bill in Parliament, vote their so-called conscience?

This subject elicited quite a bit of debate and eventually two schools emerged, one led by Edmund Burke, a Conservative, and the other led by John Stuart Mill, a Liberal. The conservatives generally distrust the masses and often believe that the masses ought to be led and told what to do rather than tell their leaders what to do. In this light Burke seem to suggest that the representative ought to ascertain what correct behavior is and vote accordingly and try explaining to his constituents what he did and if they do not like it vote him out of office but that he should not permit the uneducated whims of the masses to sway his vote. This view obviously is undemocratic.

John Stuart Mill, actuated by utilitarianism, came down on understanding the people’s desires, what gave them pleasure, and going along with it if the representative is representing their wishes. To do otherwise would be to be a dictator.

However, having said that much Mill was aware that the masses can be much uninformed on public policy matters. As he saw it, mass education on public policy issues is one way to clarify the fog that clouds the minds of the electorate on some issues.

Where Mill made his most outstanding mark was on the debate on majority versus minority issues. If strict democracy is followed clearly the wishes of the majority would prevail in making public policies. On the other hand, the majority may not be well informed on certain issues.

Consider slavery. The majority of Americans were in support of slavery. If the majority made the laws they would probably support the continuation of slavery. So what to do?

Mill was opposed to slavery and supported the Union forces fighting the pro-slavery Confederate forces. In situations where the issue is liberty or lack thereof there would be no compromise.  Ordinarily, legislation requires parties giving something to gain something, bargaining and compromising. But on matters concerning Liberty this ordinary legislative logrolling is not to be tolerated. On Liberty compromise is not possible.

Mill was quite clear on his stance for human equality.  Some things are worth fighting and dying for. Liberty is one of those things that men ought to be willing to fight and die for. Indeed, if a man is not willing to fight and die for liberty he is not ready for democracy. Liberty requires eternal vigilance to protect it, for there is no shortage of folk wanting to take it away from the people.

One of the finest passages in On Liberty is Mill’s impassioned defense of Free Speech. One may not like what you have to say but you must have the right to say it. Free speech is the basis for intellectual growth, Mill believes, and under no circumstances must censorship be tolerated. We learn from even the vilest opinions.

Mill was an excellent writer and wrote on many subjects, including economics. He was considered something of an economist…remember that he wrote at an age when economics had not become specialized and any one could call himself an economist by expressing seeming educated view on matters economics….his Principles of Political Economy was once a standard textbook on economics, supplementing Adam Smith’s and David Ricardo’s works. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that Mill’s ideas on economics are not salient enough to warrant taking them seriously.

Mill is remembered for offering educated opinions on the topics at hand during his life time and for writing useful books on utilitarianism and representative democracy.


John Stuart Mill, Autobiography (1873)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176