14 J.S. Mill and T.H. Green: Reformist Liberals

Dr. Ritu Khosla

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Structure of Module/Syllabus of a Module

1 JS Mill
1.1 Revision of Utilitarian Philosophy
1.2 On Liberty
1.3 Mill on State and Representative Government
1.4 On Rights of Women
1.5 Economic Ideas
2 TH Green
2.1 On Human Nature
2.2 Departure from Utilitarianism
2.3 On Rights
2.4 On Liberty
2.5 On State
2.6 Economic Ideas
3 Exercise to Do
4 References


Towards the close of the 19th century individualism came to be steadily abandoned in favour of increasing state control. This reaction was primarily caused because of the inadequacy of individualism to meet the challenges of problems created by unchecked capitalism. Unplanned production resulting in frequent fluctuations in income and employment, brutal exploitation of teeming millions by a handful of capitalists and massive poverty generated a new wave of veneration for the state among the philosophers and the people alike. In these changing historical circumstances, liberals found it progressively more difficult to maintain the belief that the arrival of industrial capitalism had brought with it general prosperity and liberty for all. This paved way to a new strand of thought in the 19th century namely Reform Liberalism.


The advocates of reform liberalism included late 19th century and early 20th century writers James Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and T.H. Green (1836-1882) L.T. Hobhouse (1864-1929), JA Hobson (1858-1952); mid to late 20th century writers John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) John Rawls (1921-2002) and others. All these writers along with recognizing the importance of individual and his civil liberties; gave equal importance to equality of opportunity and to more equitable allocation of resources.


Reform liberalists believed that humans are rational but not self-sufficient. The ultimate aim of the government is the cultivation of a person and the rights of the individuals are mixed with deliberation of utilities in determining government policy.




JS Mill’s (British philosopher) political ideas at times were quite in consonance with classical liberalism and even at times with libertarianism especially those tilted towards socialism; thus making him stand between classical liberalism and socialism. Such views of Mill make him a reform liberalist. He was opposed to collectivist tendencies and traditions as based on 19th century principles but along with that he laid emphasis on the quality of individual life, safeguarding individuality and talked about causes such as female suffrage and workers cooperatives.


1.1 Revision of Utilitarian Philosophy:


JS Mill advocated the liberal ideas as found in the works of Bentham and James Mill. He called himself utilitarianism but his ideas were reformed as from what was advocated by Bentham. Bentham’s formula only admitted quantitative basis of evaluating pleasure and pain but Mill’s more sympathetic ideas as well as intellect forced him to recognise the flaws of the ‘felicific calculus’ and thus made changes in Bentham’s philosophy. For Mill some pleasures are higher and superior to others even though in terms of pleasure they are equal. While Bentham held the view that quantity of pleasure being equal- ‘pushpin is as good as poetry’; Mill stated that there are qualitative differences in pleasures and thus believed that the greatest happiness does not lie in the continual satisfaction of one desire after another rather it is found in the development of individual. Thus for Mill a happy life is a moral and intellectual life and not merely the one filled with moments of pleasures of senses.


1.2 On Liberty


In On Liberty (1859), Mill’s arguments clearly make him the contributor of modern liberalism. In this work Mill strongly campaigns for individual liberty. He argued that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’. This implies that Mill favoured only minimal restrictions on the individual that too with the purpose to prevent him to harm others. In the words of Mill, “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.”(Hoffman.2007: 42).


The above stated view by Mill paved way to the foundation of his liberty principle/harm principle. This principle, however, is not applicable to those who have not yet developed their mental capacities like children. Further it is not applicable to those living in societies which have not developed cultural and institutional conditions required for the exercise of freedom.


Mill further said, “Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Thus he draws distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions of the individual. ‘Self-regarding’ functions are those over which the individual has absolute freedom and but if his actions in any manner affects others, they become ‘other regarding’ actions and a check can be put on them by state or society. So far as the consequences of an individual’s act affect him only, the government has no right to intervene in his matter. It is not the chore of laws of state or conventions of society to oblige a man to be prudent, temperate or self-respecting. Mill claimed that interference on the part of the state in matters of opinion and moral conduct restrains the innocent forms of enjoyment. Mill also asserted that an opinion which political authority or social convention seeks to discredit often turns out to be true and that, even though events might prove it to be partially or wholly false, society would suffer from suppression of it. (Coker.1966:386).


Mill further defined the sphere of human liberty that includes inward domain of consciousness, freedom of thought and feeling, freedom to form opinion, freedom of taste and pursuits and right of freedom to unite for any purpose which does not harm others. Mill advocated freedom for individuals for their highest and harmonious development of his powers. Thus for Mill liberty was a positive ideal whose end was not the greatest happiness rather development of human personality.


Mill also maintained that individuals are free to hold public opinion. In his words, “if all mankind, minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would no more be justified in silencing that one person, than he if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” Justifying his claim Mill said that if the opinion is true then by suppressing it humanity is deprived of truth and will not progress. Similarly if the opinion is false then humanity loses again, because if the opinion is not true then it will be shown in the similar manner but its expression is useful as it forces us to restate the reasons for our beliefs. Mill thus advocated healthy competition of ideas. He believed that only within a free market of ideas truth could surface as the bad ideas would be replaced by good ones and ignorance will banish.


Mill stood for free debate, contest and argument as all these lead to social progress. He, however, found all this to be threatened by democracy which believes in the notion that majority is always right. Mill opined that even the governments, majorities and social aristocrats are not infallible as even they can be wrong.


Mill’s doctrine of liberty is, however, applicable only to human beings who are mature in their opinion and feelings and not to children or young people below a certain age. He also denied the extension of this doctrine to backward people or races which is not justifiable. Mill goes to the extent of justifying despotism as a form of government for these people. Mill thus by imposing such restrictions of certain categories of people, advocated inequality among men. This is so because some men were likely to emerge as superior to others.


1.3 Mill on State and Representative Government


Another reform made by Mill from the other liberals was with regard to his views on state. While the classical liberalists stood against the interference of state in individual’s life, Mill laid emphasis on the positive character of state. He believed that state interference in some regards is indispensible if the individual wants to develop his personality. He held the opinion that development of individual personality is the goal of the government and for this it performs moral functions. Also the constitution of the state should be made with the aim of stimulate the best intellectual and moral qualities of the citizens. Mill, however, reminds those who are willing to repress individual liberty for the sake of a strong state that the worth of the state is no more than the worth of its individual citizens ( Ebenstein.1970:190).


Further, Mill regarded the state as ‘a product of will rather than of interest’. He advocates that the sentiment of loyalty which prevails among the members of a community can be described in terms of the sentiments generated by past experience that had extended over a long period and not in terms of utility. Mill states that one person ‘with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests’ (Sudha.2009: 63).


Following this Mill advocated that the best form of government would be the one which would promote virtue and intelligence of the people and this is possible under representative government. But the Mill’s notion of representative government was not applicable to the backward or colonial people. In his work Considerations on Representative Government (1859) Mill argues, ‘free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities’ (Hoffman.2006: 277).


Mill warned against leaving the choice of governors in the hands of ignorant people and discriminating masses that would lead to ‘collective mediocrity’. To avoid this he suggested few reforms to have a truly representative government. These include system of proportionate representation to have adequate representation of the minorities in the parliament; educational and property qualifications for the right to vote; and system of plural voting i.e. numerical weightage of votes according to individual’s intelligence and education. Unlike Bentham, Mill rejected the idea of secret voting or voting by ballot and stood for public voting.


1.4 On Rights of Women


Mill also stood for extension of civil rights for all classes including the women. He was unhappy by the inhumane treatment given to women by the government and society. Mill On the Subjection of Women proposed that the society should be organized on the basis of ‘reason’ and not on the grounds of ‘accident of birth’ like sex. Women thus should be entitled to the rights and liberties which men enjoy, especially, right to vote. Mill advocated the cause for women’s rights both inside and outside the parliament.


1.5 Economic Ideas


Another major diversion seen in the ideas of Mill as compared to his fellow liberals was his views on property and wealth. Earlier Mill opposed socialism but later after in-depth study he saw virtues in it and thus started appreciating the same, though he was opposed to extreme form of socialism. Unlike the classical liberals like Adam Smith who advocated laissez faire, Mill in his Chapters on Socialism (1879), condemned the enslavement of majority population to poverty as ‘an evil equal to almost any of those against which mankind may have hitherto struggled’. Under such circumstances, he suggested the adaption or adjustment of ideas of poverty to the improvement human affairs.


Mill also proposed a tax to reinstate slowly to society the values it had created. In his words, “The first step should be a valuation of all land in the country. The present value of land should be exempted from the tax: but after an interval had elapsed, during which society had increased in its population and capital, a rough estimate might be made of the spontaneous increase which had accrued to rent since the valuation was made; and tax should be laid on this increase in value” (Coker. 1966: 92). Presenting such views, Mill sounded more of a socialist but despite of his socialist tendencies he remain attached to individualism and tried to combine political liberalism with economic socialism.


Conclusion: After analysing the ideas of Mill one can conclude that the ideas of Mill were not coherent and consistent as he stood midway in transition of thought. Nevertheless he made a significant contribution to the political thought and left a tremendous impact on the people of his times. His reform proposals made an important contribution to the political thinking. Most importantly, his justification of freedom of thought and expression is one of the finest contributions to the political literature.




TH Green, a nineteenth century political philosopher and social theorist, took a diversion from early liberal thought and through his works and writings inspired many new-generation liberals. His works include Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (1879-80) and Prolegomena to Ethics (1883). As a teacher of philosophy he highlighted the then persistent ethical and political problems of his community through his writings.


2.1 On Human Nature


The ideas of Green have been labelled under the notion of ‘social liberalism’. Unlike the classical liberals he did not consider the individuals as self-seeking creatures, trying to maximise their profits rather Green presented a more optimistic view regarding human nature. He considered human being as a self-conscious creature that makes him different from animals. Individuals have sympathy for one another and thus they are concerned for the welfare and interests of another. Green believed that people are not merely concerned about themselves rather they possess a sense of social responsibility which tie them together. Such a view of human nature by Green makes him a reform liberal.


2.2 Departure from Utilitarianism


Green made a complete departure from utilitarianism. Instead of talking about pleasure and pain view of human nature he argued for individual’s moral development. Green rejected the idea of utilitarians that the moral value of an act can be calculated by its tendency to produce maximum pleasure for the greatest number. Instead Green advocated that the measurement is the tendency is to contribute to perfection of mankind. Though Green accepted that the doctrine of utilitarianism had been of great value in Europe as it improved the standard of social action by insisting on taking into greatest number whose highest good is to be taken into account, but nevertheless Green maintained that the doctrine is theoretically invalid and would lose its practical value if logically carried out. He pointed that deciding action on the basis of calculating pleasure and pain would act as an obstacle in the path of social progress. Whereas if a person is governed by a sense of moral obligation then possibly he would ignore the question of pleasure, for himself or for others, and would seek satisfaction in some art or science that cannot be calculated in terms of pleasure or pain of any number of people.


2.3 On Rights


Further Green denounced the doctrine of natural rights as propounded by social contractualists-the idea that human beings are born with certain inalienable rights. Green denied that there any right prior to or independent of society. For him those rights for man are natural which are essential for the accomplishment of his vocation as a rational and moral being. Rights that crop up due to moral necessity are natural not because they are available in the state of nature but because their need is based on teleology or purpose.


Rights are provided to man so that he may utilize them for social good. In words of Green, ‘Natural rights are rights which should be enjoyed by a normally rational and moral man living in a rationally constituted society. They belong only to men capable of being influenced by the idea of a common good and are effective only in a society whose members recognise a common good as contributing their own ideal good. They are the conditions under which the realization of the moral capacity of a man is made possible’ (Sudha.2009: 149).


Green further stated that as rights are natural in its character so they are recognised by society and these are ‘ideal rights’. Green also makes a mention of ‘actual rights’ which according to him are given by the state. But the rights on which Green emphasises are tilted to morality than on laws.


2.4 On Liberty


Green also challenged the negative concept of liberty as propagated by classical liberalists. Green regarded freedom as greatest of all blessings and a necessary condition for the overall growth of individual. It is a condition under which individual is able to know his potential, gain skills and knowledge. But his concept of liberty was not negative that stands for leaving individual alone, contentment of one’s own desires or acting as per one’s own wish. In place of negative freedom, Green proposed positive freedom which he defines as ‘the capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying in common with others’. Green believed that every man aims at self-perfection which is only possible if he contributes to the welfare of others. Furthermore such self-perfection can only be attained in society. Also in a society freedom expands when its members develop their power by contributing to social good. Thus freedom for Green is positive power to do what is to be done.


The above view by Green also implies that social disadvantage, social evils and inequalities can act as a threat to the freedom of the individual. This in turn demands an enabling role of the state to play in order to expand the freedom of people. Thus the minimal state as propounded by the classical liberals was replaced by an active state performing more social and economic responsibilities.


2.5 On state


Just like Hegel, Green considered state as a divine idea and the embodiment of divine spirit. But deviating from Hegel, he did not assign state a purpose of its own. While making state as a source of rights, Green permitted individual to disobey state. Green says that one will never have the ‘right to resist’ but one may be ‘right in resisting’ (Abbas.2012: 115). Such a resistance will be right if the prevalent circumstances are not leading to moral development of individuals.


Green altogether rejected the night-watchman role of state. Moving one step ahead of Mill, Green advocated that the role of state is to create such an environment in which approximate equality can be generated under which all individuals would enjoy opportunity to health, labour and education. They would have freedom to choose and develop themselves as per their desire.


2.6 Economic ideas


Green was also against the unchecked policy of laissez faire as propounded by classical liberals as it enhanced poverty and injustice in the state. Green believed that there can be circumstances in which individuals cannot choose reasonable ends without state interference, to create an environment in which they could have their moral and intellectual development. Unlike the early liberals who believed that government could enhance individual liberty by removing restrictions on freedom of contract; Green believed that government was enhancing individual liberty through the collectivist legislation of his day by adding restrictions upon freedom of contract.


Green’s views on property are also significant. He neither fully supported private property nor criticised it. Thus his position was neither of an individualist nor of a socialist. He defended private property on the basis that it is vital for the development of individual’s personality. He defined property as the sum of instruments required for the free-play of self realising principle in man and contribution to the common good (Sharma.1974: 157).


Another implication from the above position of Green is that he defends inequality of property. This is so because if property is required for individual’s own good and for the social good then it means that property ought to be unequal. Further if man is free to think and work for his wellbeing then it becomes difficult for him to limit his desire as he might be guided by his future wellbeing and of his coming generations.


Mill, however, did not give unlimited right to acquisition of property. He condemned it on the ground that such a system permits few rich people to prosper at the expense of others. On the basis of this argument, he condemned the British system of landed property that was based on family settlements.


Conclusion: The above views TH Green no doubt showed a revision of classical liberalism but he did not altogether abandon the core belief of liberalism. Though Green justified manifold political regulation on economic activities of individual but his doctrine was not socialistic as he respected private property and regarded it as natural instrument for realisation of human capacity; and also as indispensable means of ‘free life’. Furthermore, he believed that freedom could be attained if people acted morally but state can’t force its people to be morally good rather it can just create such an environment wherein people were able to make moral decisions.


However, there is no denial of fact that Green was an advocate of a positive and welfare state by advocating the moral principles. Green gave a call for a number of reforms in Britain with respect to education, health and labour. He along with his followers also promoted many government policies in United Kingdom that includes development of public education, including adult education; development of social and community work like settlement houses in East London. These new liberals also tried to arouse conscience of upper classes in Britain and thus paved way for slow elimination of residues of colonialism.



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