On Liberty and Utilitarianism
By John Stuart Mill
(Bantam Classics, Mass Market Paperback, 9780553214147, 272pp.)
Publication Date: January 1993
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Together these two essays mark the philosophic cornerstone of democratic morality and represent a thought-provoking search for the true balance between the rights of the individual and the power of the state. Thoroughly schooled in the principles of the utilitarian movement founded by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill nevertheless brings his own unique intellectual energy to issues such as individual freedom, equality, authority, happiness, justice, and virtue.
On Liberty is Mill’s famous examination of the nature of individuality and its crucial role in any social system that expects to remain creative and vital. Utilitarianism brilliantly expounds a pragmatic ethic based on one controversial proposition: actions are right only if they promote the common good and wrong if they do not. While much of Mill’s thinking was eventually adopted by socialists, it is in today’s democratic societies—with their troubling issues of crime, freedom of speech, and the boundaries of personal liberty—that his work resounds most powerfully.
John Stuart Mill was a child of radicalism, born in 1806 into a rarefied realm of philosophic discourse. His father, who with Jeremy Bentham was a founding member of the utilitarian movement, was responsible for his son’s education and saw to it that he was trained in the classics at an extraordinarily early age. In 1823 Mill gave up a career in law to become a clerk at the East India Company, where his father worked. Like his father, he rose to the position of chief examiner, which he held until he retired from the company in 1858.
While still in his teens, Mill began publishing articles and essays in various publications and became an editor of the London and Westminster Review, in 1835. In 1843 he published System of Logic, followed by Principles of Political Economy in 1848. Other important works include On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1863), The Subjection of Women (written 1861, published 1869), and Autobiography (published posthumously in 1873).
Mill married Harriet Hardy Taylor in 1851, and her influence on his thinking and writing has been widely cited. The couple worked together on On Liberty, and the essay is dedicated to her memory–she died in 1858. After serving as a member of Parliament from 1865, to 1868, Mill retired to France and died at Avignon in 1873.
It took scholars several decades before they fully examined John Stuart Mill’s unique and systematic contributions to ethical and logical traditions. For today’s students of economics, philosophy, and politics he remains a vibrant and preeminent figure.