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.