Nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mills was inarguably one of the most influential thinkers of his time. His discourses and contributions to topics like utilitarianism, liberty, and economic and political policies are still widely accepted today. However, Mill was not only a great thinker of his time, but a prominent activist as well. He was a vocal supporter for issues such as abolition of slavery when the topic was reaching a boiling point and other issues like women’s rights and environmental conservation long before these topics were in the public eye.

While the debates surrounding abolition and slaves rights were starting to heat up around the mid-1800s, Mill and another critical thinker of his era, Thomas Carlyle, began to engage in a series of debates, called “The Negro Question”, surrounding the issue of slavery. Carylyle argued that work in itself was a virtue, regardless of any pain associated with it, and thus a just action. Mill on the other hand, took the utilitarian view that happiness is the minimization of pain and since slavery would minimize the pain involved with forced labor, that abolition would be the just action.  While Carlyle argued inferiority and economic necessity to keep slavery, Mill’s utilitarian and human rights based viewpoint focused on the greater good, that is the removal of pain oh creation of happiness, as the basis for abolition.

Mill’s activism wasn’t limited to only current issues of his era. He was a forward thinker who often look into issues that had not yet gotten the mass public attention that abolition of slavery had. One of these forward thinking ideas was women’s liberation and equality. In a 1869 article titled, “The Subjection of Women“, again took the utilitarian view to argue for increased women’s rights. Among his points, Mill argued that equality for women would create the greatest good for the greatest amount of people because the more people there are on equal footing, the more competition there would be and society would benefit from the product of that competition. Mill’s advocacy was not only in his words, but his actions, as evidenced by co-writing this piece with his wife.

John Stuart Mill’s idea’s were very progressive, as seen with his utilitarian views still being studied and accepted in some circles today. However, Mill was not only progressive in thought, but in action, as he was an active proponent of many issues both of his time and for generations to come.

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5 responses »

  1. Claire McCardell says:

    It’s interesting to look back on issues that we now often take for granted such as slavery and women’s rights. I’ve personally only thought of them from a humanitarian perspective and the immorality of such institutions, but Mill’s utilitarian approach to abolishing slavery and inequality against women is something I’ve never considered. In terms of minimizing “pain” for the overall society, abolishing slavery would be absolutely necessary. Also, I disagree with Carylye’s claim of economic necessity because opening the labor force and removing forced labor would promote competition and motivation to succeed and therefore produce better results. Forced labor has no incentive to go above and beyond the call of duty and no room for promotion, thus creating satisfactory work as opposed to superior work with the incentives for growth and promotion. The free labor economy promotes competition and opportunities to advance one’s position, and as Mill mention in his argument for the equality of women, the greater the competition, the greater the end product. It’s an interesting take to these traditionally humanitarian topics, and has provided further evidence to support equality and free labor economics.

  2. Jordi says:

    I had forgotten about some of his activism. Cool that you brought it up. What was the source for all this goodness? Can you add it back in? And maybe a nice quote of his?

    Why did you pick this topic? Did you already know about Mills?

    • mwh011 says:

      I had studied Mill a little bit in some of my other classes and his piece with “The Negro Question” had come up before, so I knew a little bit about his activism. Most of the additional information I got from starting at Wikipedia, and then going from there. I found a couple of cool articles about the debates between Carlyle and Mill and some about his feminist advocacy, including the fact that his wife’s name is still kept off of “The Subjection of Women” today. The main articles I used are linked in the article.

  3. Jordi says:

    Also, one point about utilitarianism…

    As he used to argue against slavery and for women’s equality, I can see more readily that it is not enough to have a mechanism or process for accounting of harms and benefits. TO use it, one also has to have two sets of decision criteria. First, what gets counted? Look at Carlyle’s defense: pain doesn’t count. When we look at Enron, for example, is it a benefit or a harm that they helped create financial innovations? That they helped advance deregulation of utility markets?

    Second, what are the criteria for assessing all those costs and benefits? Is it greatest good for greatest number? How does THAT get determined?

  4. […] in the World of Education) The Mostly Likely To Be Seen On the History Channel goes to Kate and Mark (C. Wright Mills: A Man Ahead of his Time and John Stuart Mill) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike […]

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