John Stuart Mill’s Social Philosophy

John Stuart Mill's Social Philosophy

The broad outline of Mill's social philosophy reflects the intellectual forces that influenced his life. With his unique open-mindedness, he was able to break away from the strict classical liberalism inculcated in his youth and to try to fuse theory and policy in an eclectic blend of liberalism and social reform. His view of the role of government in society is not dogmatic, and although his essay On Liberty takes a strong liberal position, when he turned to policy issues he acknowledged many exceptions to that position. Much more than Smith and Ricardo, he recognized that the working of market forces did not necessarily bring about a harmonious economic and social order, and he was particularly aware of the conflict between the landlords and the society as well as the inequities of the existing order in income distribution.

Although he was influenced by the Utopian socialists and by his wife, he could not accept uncritically their major argument: that many of the faults of contem­porary society were a result of the institutions either of private property or of competition. Mill was concerned about the quality of life, and he found much in a materialistic, growth-oriented economy that turned people from self-fulfill­ment and improvement to baser pursuits. He accepted the Ricardian analysis of the long-run tendency of the economy to produce a stationary state, but with his optimistic humanism he foresaw a new, better society no longer oriented toward strictly materialistic pursuits, not the gloomy world of Ricardo.