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Defining the social sciences as encompassing “mental or cultural sciences that deal with the activities of the individual as a member or group” (“Social Science,” MerriamWebster’s Medical Dictionary 2007) provides space for interpreting which subjects are appropriate for social scientific inquiry. However, in the case of John Stuart Mill, the British economist, moral and political philosopher, and administrator, it is difficult to argue that he is not the quintessential social scientist. Additionally he is someone others attempt to emulate in their intellectual work and philosophical beliefs.
During the early nineteenth century, Mill sought philosophical enlightenment, focusing on the common person. His investigations of moral and ethical thought began early, although they were published later in his life. Some believe that Mill did not fully explore some of his more radical beliefs, yet he left an indelible mark on democracy and law, economic trade, feminism and women’s rights, labor theory, mathematics, political theory, poverty and welfare concerns, psychology, religion and theology, and scientific method and empiricism.
It is clear that Mill influenced African American economists, such as Abram Lincoln Harris Jr. (1899–1963). Harris, who chaired Howard University’s Economics Department (1936–1945) and also served on the University of Chicago faculty (1946–1963), began as a Marxist but was influenced during the Great Depression by the moderately socialist—or at the very least liberal— writings of Mill. Harris finds his beliefs at home with Mill because both men believed that “justice would come from a class-based solution generated by social science objectivity and expertise” (Holloway 2002, p. xiv).
Harris suggested that a unified militant worker effort, organized along racial lines, could alleviate African American social and economic inequality. The racially and economically entrenched working class had historical and social reasons for continued divisive operations, but Harris and Sterling Spero, in The Black Worker (1931), argued that the problems were solvable through time and higher academic achievement by the next generation of African Americans. The historical basis for worker problems spawned from slavery and the fact that many African Americans led agrarian lifestyles prior to moving to urban, industrialized areas meant that they were unfamiliar with unions and organized worker movements. In addition the leadership of groups such as the National Urban League proffered an antiunion sentiment that appealed to many African Americans but led to additional racial stratification for the working class. Harris’s book The Negro as Capitalist (1936) launches a savage attack on the impact of African American business people on the African American masses.
As a child John Stuart Mill, who was born in the London suburb of Pentonville, the eldest son of James Mill and Harriet Barrow, flourished and delved into classical writings. He was educated only by his father, who served as a leading member of philosophical radicals strongly linked to the utilitarian teachings of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). Though James Mill served as an East India Company administrator, he used Bentham’s associationalist psychology to educate his eldest son, who knew both Greek and Latin by the time he was eight years old. Learning these languages allowed John Stuart Mill to read most of the classics by the age of fourteen. In addition he had a wide understanding of history, logic, mathematics, and economic theory.
Influenced by his reading of the philosophical radicals, Mill began to think of himself as a person seeking to improve the human condition but at the same time focusing on the interest of the individual. In 1826 Mill suffered a lengthy depression, which perhaps strengthened and elevated his philosophical convictions. He found some solace for his feelings in the poetry of William Wordsworth (1770–1850).
After his recovery, Mill began to question and revise his utilitarian views. Originally he worked from three defining characteristics of Bentham’s teachings: the greatest happiness principle, universal egoism, and the artificial identification of one’s interests with those of others. In 1828 he met Gustave d’Eichtahl (1804–1882), a follower of Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), and began to consider how social and cultural institutions shaped history and overall human development. Influenced by thinkers such as Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), Mill came to believe that British society was on the cusp of an organic period, when society would replace inefficient and bureaucratic institutions with better organizations. He also believed that British society needed him as a catalyst for change; otherwise society would stagnate.
Exploring Wordsworth’s poetry was crucial also in Mill’s relationship with Harriet Taylor (1807–1858), whom he met in 1830. Though Taylor was married at the time, Mill and Taylor formed a close friendship. In 1851, two years after the death of Taylor’s husband, Mill and Taylor married, against the wishes of Mill’s family, especially his father. James Mill supported Epicurean principles but practiced Scots Calvinism. In this sense Mill surpasses his father to have a richer understanding of the role of pleasure in human development and attributes that philosophical growth to Harriet Taylor. She convinced Mill that individuals were not maximizing the benefits in their lives and that a new theory of the human condition was necessary. Taylor died in 1858; however, one can see her influence over Mill’s later works.
Although Mill still believed in utility and positivism, his position on how to present and implement social change differed from that of most of Bentham’s followers. For Mill, new philosophical proclamations that demanded quick modifications must be avoided, and slow, gradual delivery of new thoughts were necessary for acceptance and integration with existing values. Examples of how Mill introduced new ideas slowly come from On Liberty (1859) and The Subjection of Women (1869). In On Liberty, Mill examined government formation and proclaimed that the success of government organization depends on “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interest of man as a progressive being” (Mill 2005 , p. 224). A sharp criticism of government came from Mill in The Subjection of Women, where he stated: “Stupidity is much the same the world over. A stupid person’s notions and feelings may confidently be inferred from those which prevail in the circle by which the person is surrounded. Not so those whose opinions and feelings are emanations from their own nature and faculties” (Mill 2004 , p. 273). Each individual is responsible for his or her own happiness, but government is responsible for helping each person develop a path to happiness. Thus in his fight for suffrage rights for women, Mill felt that the Conservative Party was foolish in not responding to the will of the people in a manner that improved utility.
Mill reached beyond his roots in conventional politics to comment on the connection between logic and economic theory and political and social life. After declining to study at Oxford or Cambridge University, he worked for the British East India Company until 1858, then he was an independent member of Parliament from 1865 to 1868 and served as the lord rector of the University of St. Andrews during the same period. Trade and growth theory received particular attention from Mill, who at an early age had read the complete works of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), David Ricardo (1772–1823), and Adam Smith (1723–1790). Much influenced by Ricardo and his father, Mill investigated taxation, wages and profit, competition, and the division of factors of production. In Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, published in 1869, Mill, accepting the human mind’s importance to good decision making, revised and corrected his father’s work, Analysis of the Phaenomena of the Human Mind (1829). James Mill believed that one derives an idea, no matter how complex, from its associated parts. Mill took his father’s associationism conception one step forward and proposed that when considering pleasure one can have lower levels of pleasure that make up higher levels of pleasure. As a person builds pleasure upon pleasure, a new whole comes into being.
In political economy, researchers attribute social scientific investigative methodology to Mill. In later revisions of his text Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill argued, rather radically, that progressive taxation was bad and akin to stealing, that the wage system needed to be abolished because it lacked equality, and that production was closely linked to social networks, thus making competition difficult. Maximizing human development and pleasure required freedom for the person to grow. Freedom in the economic marketplace, laissez faire economic policies and principles, framed only one part of the picture. Individuals must also have political freedom. His text is still used at Oxford University in the early twentieth century and continues to influence thought. For example, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, and Peter Singer have produced controversial yet honest social commentary similar to Mill’s.
- Mill, John Stuar 1963. Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Ed. John M. Robson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Mill, John Stuar 1998. Utilitarianism. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Mill, John Stuar  1999. Principles of Political Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Mill, John Stuar  2004. The Subjection of Women. Kila, MT: Kessinger.
- Mill, John Stuar  2005. On Liberty. London: Longman.
- Donner, Wendy. John Stuart Mill’s Liberal Feminism. Philosophical Studies 69 (2–3): 155–166.
- Halévy, E La formation du radicalisme philosophique. 3 vols. Paris: F. Alcon, 1904. The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. Trans. Mary Morris. London: Faber and Faber, 1928.
- Hamburger, J 1999. John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Harris, Abram Lincoln, Jr. The Negro as Capitalist: A Study of Banking and Business among American Negroes. New York: Negro University Press.
- Holloway, Jonathan 2002. Confronting the Veil: Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 1919–1994. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Mackie, John 1974. The Cement of the Universe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Sen, Amar 1970. Collective Choice and Social Welfare. San Francisco: Holden-Day.
- Spero, Sterling, and Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. The Black Worker. New York: Columbia University Press.
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