The Richest Diversity

Aaron Wolff, University of Pennsylvania

In both On Liberty and On the Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill rests his arguments on the principle of utility, the idea of the human being as a progressive being, and the value of human freedom for the development of the human individual. He uses these ideas to limit coercive restrictions to only the actions of individuals that cause harm to other individuals. The discrepancies between the two books derive from the different subject matter rather than from any change in Mill’s basic principles or view of human nature.

Mill’s fundamental value judgments in both On Liberty and On the Subjection of Women are essentially the same. In both books, he relies on the principle of utility. In On Liberty, he dismisses any argument relying on “the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility” (14). Similarly, in On the Subjection of Women, he answers a possible question (“not of less importance than those already discussed”) about what might be the advantage to society from granting women the same rights and freedoms enjoyed by men. He asks rhetorically “why disturb [mankind’s] minds, and attempt to make a social revolution in the name of an abstract right?” (195). This implies that, in Mill’s opinion, an abstract right is not an appropriate basis for a social revolution. He spends the rest of the chapter demonstrating the significant utility of ending women’s subjection to men.

In On Liberty, Mill explains that he means utility “in the largest sense,” based on “the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” (14). This view of man (and woman) as a “progressive being” is central to Mill’s argument in On Liberty. This is explicit in his arguments for the utility of freedom of speech. Mill insists that, due to human fallibility, people cannot be sure that their views are correct or that the views they excoriate are absolutely false. If they suppress views they disapprove of, they might suppress views of immense utility that are either true or contain important elements of truth. He cites the historical examples of Socrates and Jesus (27), two examples sure to resonate with his audience, to exemplify the way people can suppress the views they most badly need to hear. The suppression of speech limits the human potential for progress. Similarly, Mill insists that the subjection of women stands in the way of progress. He argues in detail that what he sees as the lack of great female artists and thinkers is easily explained by their social circumstances. Woman lack the requisite education necessary to make serious advancements in the arts and sciences and the constant domestic demands on their time deprive them of the opportunity to hone their talents. Half of humanity, Mill says, who could have made wide­ranging contributions to culture, never had the opportunity to do so (184­-189). Mill contends that opening professions to women would result in “doubling the mass of mental faculties available to the higher service of humanity” (199). Humanity could reap many other benefits from ending the subjection of women, according to Mill, including an end to the corrupting influence on men of their undeserved mastery over women (196). Women would develop less petty concerns, ceasing to exert a negative influence on men by suppressing their husbands’ attempts to deviate from societal norms (201-­205). It would lead to improvements in the quality of married life (207­-211). Most obviously, it would end the great suffering of women deprived of the freedom to make the most of their lives (211-­217).

In both On Liberty and On the Subjection of Women, Mill uses the same principle to determine in what situations coercive legislation is appropriate. Mill thinks the interests of man as a progressive being “authorise the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each which concern the interests of other people” (14). Mill claims that society can limit individual action only if someone is directly harmed by a person’s action or inaction, though he thinks, for obvious reasons, that society must be significantly less ready to punish someone for action than to punish him for inaction (14). The importance of this limiting principle of coercive action derives, at least in part, from the importance of freedom for the development of human beings in all their “individual vigour and manifold diversity” (58, quoting Wilhelm Von Humboldt). People are different and, therefore, they need different things. Each individual is best placed to decide what is best for him. This same principle and rationale appear in On the Subjection of Women. Mill insists that one of the great progressive ideas is that law should not determine anyone’s place in the social order. “The modern conviction” is that the individual is best suited to determine his place based on his own discretion and free competition will ensure that the people best suited to various positions usually achieve them (135). Similarly, no laws need govern the division of labor within the family (164­-165). In both these instances, Mill claims law should not determine women’s roles. To do so would be inconsistent with the principles for legitimate coercion outlines in On Liberty. He even explicitly restates the principle in the closing line of On the Subjection of Women, writing that “every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow creatures, (otherwise than by making them responsible for any evil actually caused by it), dries up pro tanto the principle fountain of human happiness” (217).

There are some different emphases in the two books. In On Liberty, Mill focuses on the threat to freedom posed by the tyranny of the majority. In On the Subjection of Women, he spends a lot of time criticizing marriage and women’s relationships to men. This is because the greatest threat to the freedom of women, in Mill’s view, is not some hostile majority, but the men with whom they live. This gives his arguments in each of the two books slightly different forms and leads him to cover different subjects in each. For example, he spends more time in the latter book discussing the importance of freedom of occupation and the corrupting nature of the relationship between master and servant (in this case, man and woman). This is because women are barred from many occupations and are trapped in unequal marriages due to unfair property laws and repressive social conventions. He also spends a lot of time discussing the character of women, but this is also due to his subject matter. He says nothing significant that contradicts his argument in On Liberty. There is no change in the underlying ideas and the two books are clearly written in the same spirit. Mill maintains remarkable consistency between the two books, written around ten years apart. Mill saw the principles he developed in On Liberty as having a wide applicability. On the Subjection of Women is the simply the extension of On Liberty’s central ideas to a new area, an area Mill saw as extremely important because it affected half the human race.