Log In Start studying!

Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill

Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), 19th century England's most impactful philosopher, sought to reconcile the ideas of utilitarianism, liberalism, and romanticism. John Stuart Mill was a prolific writer, having written books such as On Liberty, Utilitarianism, The Subjection of Women, and his autobiography, among others. Mill advocated for women's rights, having witnessed the intellectual might of his wife, and staunchly defended personal liberty in an age in which governments seek jurisdiction over every aspect of social and private life.

John Stuart Mill Biography

John Stuart Mill was born in May 1806 in Middlesex, England, the son of James Mill and Harriet Barrow. The philosopher and economist James Mill wanted to provide his son John with the best possible education. John Stuart Mill proved more than capable of his father's rigorous homeschooling. Mill learned Greek and Latin, calculus, and economics at a young age. Mill read many books of history and philosophy, becoming acquainted with the works of Aesop, Herodotus, Plato, and Diogenes. The intensity of Mill's education was not without its consequences, however.

John Stuart Mill Photograph StudySmarter

Fig. 1 - Portrait of John Stuart Mill.

At the age of twenty, John Stuart Mill experienced an intellectual breakdown. Raised to strictly follow and defend utilitarianism and radicalism, John Stuart Mill realized that his father's theories, the ideas he had been raised to believe, were not wholly adequate. Mill searched for an antidote to his melancholy and found it, of all places, in poetry.

"To maximize utility." Utilitarianism is a philosophical doctrine that weighs all actions as right or wrong based on utility or maximization of happiness for most people.
Deriving from the Latin word radix, meaning "root" or "pertaining to the root," it is a political perspective that seeks to transform society through structural and social changes or reform.
It was an artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. It emphasized imagination, emotion, nature, and the dangers of industrialism, among other ideas.

Mill found new life in the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Goethe. After a life of rigorous education, Mill discovered beauty in feelings and culture and recognized their importance in social reform. This perspective influenced all of Mill's works.

The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice."

–John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

In 1830, John Stuart Mill met his future wife, Harriet Taylor. They married in 1851, two years after the death of Harriet Taylor's husband. Mill accredited much of his work to the influence and work of Harriet Taylor. From 1865 to 1868, Mill served in British Parliament. He died in 1873.

Jeremy Bentham:

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an English philosopher and friend of James Mill. Considered the creator of the utilitarian school of thought, Bentham was a reformer who believed utilitarianism was "the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong." Bentham created a set of seven variables to measure the utility of an action or good:

  1. Intensity
  2. Duration
  3. Certainty
  4. Proximity
  5. Productiveness
  6. Purity
  7. Extent

Bentham had many critics; among them was John Stuart Mill, who sought to improve upon Bentham's ideas for utilitarianism.

John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism

Impressed and educated by his father, John Stuart Mill scrutinized and theorized utilitarianism his whole life. In 1863, John Stuart Mill published his defense of this approach to ethics in his essay Utilitarianism. Instead of the standard arguments his father taught him, Stuart Mill developed his unique perspective based on three central tenets.

John Stuart Mill Utilitarianism Study Smarter

Fig. 2 - Cover of Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill.

John Stuart Mill's Idea of Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill's utilitarian perspectives are:

  • Happiness derived from pleasure uniquely possesses intrinsic value.
  • Happiness counts equally to everyone.
  • When actions promote happiness, they are right. When actions produce unhappiness, they are wrong.

To better understand what John Stuart Mill meant through those three ideas, a better understanding of Mill's definition of happiness is required. In Utilitarianism, Mill described happiness as "the sole end of human action, and the promotion of it the test by which to judge of all human conduct; from whence it necessarily follows that it must be the criterion of morality since a part is included in the whole."

Study and exam tips!

Bogged down by the condensed philosophy? You can find all of John Stuart Mill's works online for free! Alternatively, this article provides a basic primer on some of John Stuart Mill's ideas. During the AP Exam, teachers will not examine you on the precision of your understanding of John Stuart Mill's utilitarian philosophy. Consider instead: Why was John Stuart Mill important? Why were his ideas popular in 19th-century England?

Recognizing the dangers of this definition of happiness being associated with hedonism, Mill differentiates between "higher pleasures" and "lower pleasures," higher pleasures being intellectually stimulating materials, and lower pleasures being sensual pleasures. In a way, this solved some of Mill's issues and opened up new ones. For example, who has the absolute authority to claim what pleasures are higher and lower? The division of pleasures is quite subjective, indicative of Mill's more romantic influences.

Let's categorize these items into higher and lower pleasures from Mill's perspective: painting, poetry, five-star cuisine, and video games.

Think of it like this: humans can only enjoy higher pleasures (as far as we know, a dog derives no enjoyment from poetry). So, painting and poetry are easily categorized as higher pleasures. A dog can enjoy its food as much as we do, so even a five-star cuisine is a lower pleasure (but the line is already becoming thin; food is considered an art form in many cultures).

And what about video games? Categorically speaking, video games can not be enjoyed by animals, so they're a higher pleasure. But would Mill agree with that assertion? Would he place video games as highly as a poem by Shakespeare?


The concept that human behavior is based on the desire for pleasure and indulgence and the decrease of pain.

John Stuart Mill and the Harm Principle

Among his ideas for why people act the way they do, or how they should act, John Stuart Mill was a staunch defender of personal liberty: the freedom to act how you want to act. Personal liberty was not without limitations.

In On Liberty, Mill defines the harm principle as "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." By "harm," Mill is not only meaning physical harm. For example, he considers a failure to fulfill an obligation to someone as harm.

John Stuart Mill Portrait Painting Study Smarter

Fig. 3 - Portrait painting of John Stuart Mill.

John Stuart Mill is mainly concerned with preserving personal liberty from the threats of an authoritarian state or a state of senseless violence and intent. His harm principle tackles both problems, establishing the necessity for freedom within utilitarianism.

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.

–John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

John Stuart Mill and Women's Rights

As a social reformer, John Stuart Mill was a staunch supporter of women's suffrage. From a personal liberty perspective, Mill was critical of the limitations on women's liberty in society. He believed that men and women were equally capable of being virtuous characters and doing good. Extending this mode of thought, Mill saw women's legal inability to vote as an impediment to providing social utility; half the population was affected by laws they had no direct say in.

John Stuart Mill Harriet Taylor Study Smarter

Fig. 4 - Photograph of Harriet Taylor.

John Stuart Mill expressed his views in The Subjection of Women. While his social standpoint on women's suffrage was based on his philosophy, his wife, Harriet Taylor, undoubtedly influenced his perspective on the subject. Mill considered Taylor co-author to some of his works, adoring her for over two decades of his life.

What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others.

–John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women

John Stuart Mill - Key takeaways

  • John Stuart Mill was a prominent 19th-century English philosopher who further developed utilitarianism.
  • Mill received a rigorous education that led to a breakdown at the age of twenty; Romantic poetry saved him from his melancholy.
  • John Stuart Mill's concept of utilitarianism subjectively differentiated between higher and lower pleasures (separate from hedonistic pleasure).
  • The "harm principle" was part of a defense of personal liberty in society, stating that power should only ever be exercised over someone when their actions cause harm to others.
  • John Stuart Mill was a supporter of women's suffrage and an admirer of his wife, Harriet Taylor.

Frequently Asked Questions about John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was not a libertarian. Economically and socially speaking, Mill believed in the power and capabilities of society, not just the individual. 

John Stuart Mill was a supporter of women's suffrage in the 19th century and an admirer of his wife Harriet Taylor. His support for social and political change regarding women's status in society marks him as an English feminist. 

John Stuart Mill's primary philosophy was utilitarianism, integrated with his ideas of liberalism. 

John Stuart Mill was an influential 19th-century English philosopher. His ideas developed upon many philosophical predecessors and expanded upon them. All of his ideas were aimed at providing positive social reform in society; many of his ideas are discussed to this day, informing individual mindsets and government policies alike. 

John Stuart Mill developed the concept of utilitarianism. While he did not invent the idea of utilitarianism, he was taught the philosophy and developed upon it throughout his life, believing that it could provide positive social change. 

Final John Stuart Mill Quiz

John Stuart Mill Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What country was John Stuart Mill born in? 

Show answer



Show question


What best characterizes John Stuart Mill's youth?

Show answer


John Stuart Mill was put through rigorous education by his father James Mill. 

Show question


How did a 20 year old John Stuart Mill escape the melancholy of his mental crisis? 

Show answer


By reading romantic poetry 

Show question


Define utilitarianism 

Show answer


To maximize utility; a philosophical doctrine that weighs all actions as right or wrong based on utility or maximization of happiness for the majority of people. 

Show question


Define radicalism.

Show answer


Deriving from the Latin word radix, meaning "root" or "pertaining to the root"; a political perspective that seeks to transform society through structural and social changes or reform.  

Show question


Define romanticism. 

Show answer


Artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that placed importance on imagination, emotion, nature, and the dangers of industrialism, among other ideas. 

Show question


What was not a tenet of John Stuart Mill's idea of utilitarianism? 

Show answer


Everyone pursues self-indulgent pleasure without consideration for society around them, as it is their right to do. 

Show question


Define hedonism.

Show answer


The concept that human behavior is based on the desire for pleasure and indulgence and the decrease of pain.  

Show question


What is the harm principle? 

Show answer


The idea that a person's life and actions can only be intervened upon if they are causing harm to others. 

Show question


What was John Stuart Mill's opinion on women? 

Show answer


John Stuart Mill was a supporter of women's suffrage in England and an admirer of his wife Harriet Taylor. 

Show question


of the users don't pass the John Stuart Mill quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.


Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.


Create and find flashcards in record time.


Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.


Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.


Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Get FREE ACCESS to all of our study material, tailor-made!

Over 10 million students from across the world are already learning smarter.

Get Started for Free