UTILITARIANISM • ON LIBERTY
John Stuart Mill (1808-1873) was a torch-bearer for liberal thought in the 19th century: liberty of the individual, freedom of speech, a champion for women’s suffrage in Parliament. A remarkable man – he learnt Greek aged three, and by eight had read Herodotus, Xenophon and Plato – he campaigned all his life for a just society. These two essays are his key works. In Utilitarianism (1863), Mill observes that ‘the principle of utility’ (by which he meant ‘the greatest-happiness principle’) should be the basis of an ethical life. Mill expands on this view in five chapters, and deals with difficulties and criticisms, including the balance of individual versus general happiness. In On Liberty (published in 1859 and written with his wife Harriet Taylor who died a year earlier), Mill applies his long-held views on ‘the greatest-happiness principle’ to the society and the state. He discusses the necessary balances between authority and liberty: the individual must have freedom – but within a ‘utilitarian’ compass. Yet he acknowledges that some variants on the ‘greatest-happiness principle’ are inevitable when applied to society, including the ‘tyranny of the majority’, and that, in certain societies, rule by command may benefit the majority. Both of these have, as we can see, a 21st century resonance. Nevertheless, he puts his confidence in the fundamental importance of individual liberty, so long as it does not harm others. Though these two important documents have had their critics over the years, they remain key liberal statements which should be read and absorbed in our world today.
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