John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was an influential philosopher, economist, politician, and senior official in the East India Company. A controversial figure in 19th-century Britain, he advocated the use of classical economic theory, philosophical thought, and social awareness in political decision-making and legislation. Many of his views, including those on the legal status of women and on slavery, were quite liberal for the day.

Mill combined economics with philosophy. He believed in a moral theory called utilitarianism—that actions that lead to people's happiness are right and that those that lead to suffering are wrong. Among economists, he's best-known for his 1848 work, Principles of Political Economy, which became a leading economic textbook for decades after its publication. Other significant books include On LibertyA System of LogicThe Subjection of Women, and Utilitarianism.

Key Takeaways

  • John Stuart Mill (1806-1973) was an influential British philosopher and economist who also served as a Member of Parliament (MP) and worked for the East India Company.
  • A liberal classical economist, Mill was an advocate of individual rights, progressive social policies, and utilitarianism (which promotes actions that do "the greatest good for the greatest number").
  • Mill believed that economic theory and philosophy, along with social awareness, should play a role in politics nad shape public policy.
  • Mill's best-known works include Principles of Political Economy, Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and The Subjection of Women.

Early Life and Education

John Stuart Mill was born in 1806 in London, the eldest son of the British historian, economist, and philosopher James Mill. He grew up in a strict household under a firm father and was required to learn history, Greek, Latin, mathematics, and economic theory at a very young age.

Much of John Stuart Mill's beliefs, thoughts, and influential works can be attributed to his upbringing and the ideology taught to him by James Mill. His father became acquainted with the leading political theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1808, and together they started a political movement that embraced philosophical radicalism and utilitarianism, which advocates "the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people." It was during this time that the young Mill was indoctrinated with the economic theory, political thinking, and social beliefs that would shape his later work.

It was actually this exact upbringing that gave him his foundation and also brought about a mental breakdown—and later, a mental breakthrough. Mill attributed prolonged periods of depression, sadness, and even suicidal thoughts to the overbearing nature of his father and the radical system in which he was raised. The mental lapse forced him to re-examine theories he had previously accepted as true. Through this self-reflection, he began to make changes to Bentham's utilitarian ideology to make it more positive, adopting the revised theory as his own system of belief.

Mill spent most of his working life with the East India Company: He joined it at age 16 and was employed there for 38 years. During 1865–68, he served as a Member of Parliament (MP), representing the City of Westminster.

Notable Accomplishments

Mill's Ideology

John Stuart Mill is considered one of the most influential British thought leaders on political discourse, including epistemology, economics, ethics, metaphysics, social and political philosophy, and other concentrations.

He used his numerous articles, essays, and books to compare the legal status of women at the time to the legal status of slaves, to promote radical empiricism as a function of mathematics, and to pioneer the harm principle—the idea that political power should only be wielded over a member of an organization when that power is used to prevent harm to that member.

While a passionate believer in freedom and individual rights, as an economist Mill was not a consistent advocate of a laissez-faire system: He did favor taxes and government oversight, such as workplace regulations and limits to workers' hours. His later writings suggest a shift away from classic economics' belief in the free marketplace and capitalism towards socialism, or at least a mixed economy.

Elaborating on the theories of early economists David Ricardo and Adam Smith, Mills helped develop such economic concepts as opportunity cost, economies of scale, and comparative advantage in trade.

Published Works

In order of publication, Mill's best-known works include:

A System of Logic (1843), which outlines the methods of science and how they can be applied to social mechanics.

Principles of Political Economy (1848), which combines the disciplines of philosophy and economics and advocates that population limits and slowed economic growth would be beneficial to the environment and increase public goods.

On Liberty (1859), which addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual, introducing the harm principle and defending free speech.

Utilitarianism (1863), which expounds on Bentham's original philosophy, using it as the foundation of morals—rejecting the idea that it promotes narrow self-interest, and arguing it aims for the betterment of society as a whole.

The Subjection of Women (1869), which makes the case for women’s suffrage and gender equality.

Three Essays on Religion (1874), which critiques traditional, religious orthodoxy and advocates a more liberal "religion of humanity" (published posthumously).

Autobiography (1874), which was written the year he died and published posthumously.

The utilitarian creed, "which accepts as the foundation of morals utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure."

—John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

Personal Life

The love of Mill's life was Harriet Hardy Taylor. After two decades of a close friendship (when she was wife to another man), they married in 1851. An intelligent, liberal thinker and writer in her own right, Taylor inspired much of Mill's work—he openly acknowledges her influence in The Subjection of Women—and she may well have edited or co-written some of his pieces. Certainly, she helped turn Mill’s attention to the progressive ideals which she was passionate about: socialism, women’s rights, individual liberty, and a “utopian” view of humanity’s improvability.

What Are John Stuart Mill's Most Important Works?

John Stuart Mill's most important works include Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1861), and The Subjection of Women (1869).

What Is John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism Philosophy?

Expanding on philosopher Jeremy Bentham's original doctrine, John Stuart's Mill's utilitarianism has three basic tenets:

  • Pleasure or happiness is the only thing that has true, intrinsic value.
  • Actions are right insofar as they promote happiness; wrong insofar as they produce unhappiness.
  • Everyone's happiness counts equally.

Mill espoused these theories in his 1861 essay, Utilitarianism.

What Were John Stuart Mill's Economic Beliefs?

John Stuart Mill espoused his economic theories in Principles of Political Economy (a 19th-century term, equivalent to our contemporary "macroeconomics"); first published in 1848, it went through several editions as he developed and refined his ideas. For Mill, economics is closely tied to social philosophy and politics: Wealth is the natural end product of labor, but the distribution of wealth is determined by the decisions and the will of actual people (albeit an elite class of educated people). As a result, human laws and institutions can and should determine how wealth is distributed.

Mill did believe in the superiority of socialism, in which economic production would be driven by worker-owned cooperatives. But he also believed in free enterprise, competition, and individual initiative. Governments had a responsibility to maintain these things, as well as to prevent monopolies, look after the poor, and provide an education for young people.

The Bottom Line

John Stuart Mill was a politician and philosopher, economist, and corporate executive, who remains of lasting interest as a liberal thinker—an advocate of the individual's rights and pursuit of happiness—and an ethical theorist. In essence, Mill believed that economic theory and philosophy were needed, along with social awareness, in politics in order to make better decisions for the good of the people. Several of his books, including Principles of Political Economy, Utilitarianism, and A System of Logic led him to become one of the most important—if somewhat controversial—public figures in 19th-century British politics and economics.