Mill claims that a priori knowledge is impossible because we cannot know. But if the world is fundamentally ideal —if, as Mill seems to claim, our world is the world as conditioned by our mediating senses, because we can know and represent it in no other way—we might wonder why a basic harmony between the architecture of mind and world should not be taken as given, and a priori knowledge not be possible.
One option to resolve this tension, of course, is to follow Kant in distinguishing transcendental and empirical levels of reflection—another is to follow the post-Kantian idealists in attempting to unite and overcome such oppositions wherever they occur.
- John Stuart Mill: Ethics!
- Mill's Utilitarianism.
- Essay on Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill.
Mill, however, never worked through the internal pressures of his own position with sufficient rigour to feel the push within naturalism towards these positions. Whereas theoretical reasoning concerns what there is reason to believe , practical reasoning concerns how there is reason to act. Just as Mill thinks that there is one fundamental principle of theoretical reason—the principle of enumerative induction—so too he thinks that there is one fundamental principle of practical reason. There are not only first principles of Knowledge, but first principles of Conduct. There must be some standard by which to determine the goodness or badness, absolute and comparative, of ends or objects of desire.
And whatever that standard is, there can be but one. The principle of utility is examined in detail in Utilitarianism , during which it is both clarified and defended. The argument takes place by way of three subclaims. Mill argues for:. Mill takes the first subclaim— desirability —to be reasonably uncontentious. Happiness, most will admit, is at least one of the things which is desirable Donner His argument for the claim, however, has become infamous.
The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it. Utilitarianism , X: As such, happiness is shown to be desirable as an end. As was observed above section 2. We do so, Mill claims, by virtue of our nature—and that propensity strikes us as reasonable upon inspection.
That human beings universally do desire happiness, and take it to be reasonable to do so under free consideration, is evidence that happiness is desirable. Such evidence, of course, is defeasible—but real nonetheless. And in the absence of reasons to doubt our universal tendency to desire happiness, we are warranted in taking happiness to be desirable. Many things, of course, are desired merely as means to happiness. Upon inspection, such things do not strike us as ultimately desirable, but merely as useful mechanisms for bringing about that which is ultimately desirable.
Mill recognises, however, that not all desiderata besides happiness are desired merely as means. This does not threaten the claim that happiness is the only thing ultimately desirable, Mill argues, because for such individuals, virtue is desirable because it forms a part of their happiness. Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so […] There was no original desire of it, or motive to it, save its conduciveness to pleasure, and especially to protection from pain. But through the association thus formed, it may be felt a good in itself, and desired as such with as great intensity as any other good.
Utilitarianism X: —6. At this point, they may be desired in themselves—and quite apart from their results. We shall discuss this claim further below section 4. It allows Mill to argue that nothing apart from happiness is ultimately desired. The underlying thought is that the good of a group of people can be no other than the sum of the good of its members.
But the argument goes deeper than this plausible claim, relying on stronger premises. One might well argue, for instance, that to add to the happiness of the already content or the undeserving is not to add to the general good at the same level as adding to the happiness of the discontent or deserving: that the value of happiness is in part determined by where it occurs. Mill does not, however, consider these objections.
It is not, of course, a proof in the traditional sense of being a logical deduction of the principle of utility. X: Being based on critical examination of how we do reason, claims about how we ought to reason—whether practically or theoretically—must remain provisional, and open to ongoing correction by further observations of our reasoning practices.
The content of this claim, however, clearly depends to a great extent upon what is meant by happiness. Mill gives what seems to be a clear and unambiguous statement of his meaning. That statement has seemed to many to commit Mill, at a basic level, to hedonism as an account of happiness and a theory of value—that it is pleasurable sensations that are the ultimately valuable thing.
Mill departs from the Benthamite account, however, which holds that if two experiences contain equal quantities of pleasure, then they are thereby equally valuable. In contrast, Mill argues that. Some pleasures are, by their nature, of a higher quality than others—and as such are to be valued more. If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer.
Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference […] that is the more desirable pleasure. The claim is one purely relating to value ordering—that there can exist experiences h and l , such that h is more valuable than l , despite l containing an equal or greater quantity of pleasure than h. Some commentators Riley have claimed that Mill holds that any quantity of a higher pleasure is more valuable than any quantity of a lower pleasure on the basis of the following passage:.
If one of the two [pleasures] is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it […] and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality.
The claim that it would be rational to sacrifice any amount of a lower pleasure for a minuscule amount of a higher pleasure, though, seems too implausible to attribute to Mill—and in the passage cited, he only registers a sufficient condition for considering one pleasure of a higher quality to another, and not a necessary condition Saunders ; Miller In fact, Mill gives very little indication as to how to weigh quality against quantity of pleasure—he simply does not speak to the specifics of how varying quantities of pleasures at varying qualities are to be reconciled against one another.
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The question remains as to which sorts of pleasures are of higher quality than others. As well as pleasures of the mind, he holds that pleasures gained in activity are of a higher quality than those gained passively Liberty , XVIII: ; cf. Ultimately, however, the quality of any given pleasure must itself be a substantive question, to be addressed by ongoing experimentation and comparison of the preferences of competent judges—those who have experienced, and appreciated, the sorts of pleasure being compared.
The lurking suspicion for many has been that in distinguishing qualities of pleasure, Mill departs from hedonism. If Mill claims that a small amount of pleasure can be more valuable than a high amount , anti-hedonist interpreters suggests, it must be on the grounds of valuing something apart from the pleasurable experience itself—for if Mill valued solely the pleasurable experience , then he would always value more pleasurable experience over less.
Mill must, that is to say, consider high quality pleasures more valuable not on account of their pleasantness, but on some other grounds—i. But this would be to abandon hedonism. While talk of for instance virtue as a part of happiness is certainly intelligible, it is perhaps less obvious that it is compatible with his hedonism. Those who doubt whether Mill remains a hedonist have in general claimed that Mill moves towards a eudaimonistic or perfectionist account of happiness Brink 46ff.
There are occasions when Mill makes claims which lend themselves to such an interpretation. It is certainly true that, in attempting to combine the best of eighteenth-century empiricism and nineteenth-century romanticism, Mill gravitated towards character as the locus of practical theorizing Devigne This, by necessity, involved a change of emphasis in his philosophy. The claim that some qualities of pleasure are more valuable than others need not violate the core claim of hedonism: that pleasurable experiences are the ultimately valuable things. It is perfectly open to the hedonist to claim that different pleasurable experiences are, on the grounds of their phenomenology, of different value.
This too may offer some explanation of what Mill means by claiming that, for instance, virtue can become part of our happiness. They concern, that is to say, what states of affairs are valuable —which outcomes are good. Such axiological claims are, in themselves, silent on the question of our moral obligations. Mill is not a maximizing utilitarian about the moral.
Other, more careful, statements clearly show that this is not his considered position. The maximizing utilitarian believes that we are morally obliged to bring about the most happiness we can—that insofar as we fall short of this mark, we violate our moral obligations. Yet Mill clearly believes that we are not obliged to do all that we can upon pain of moral censure.
There is a standard of altruism to which all should be required to come up, and a degree beyond it which is not obligatory, but meritorious. Auguste Comte and Positivism , X: Mill, that is to say, believes in the existence of a class of supererogatory acts Donner —3. While it might be extremely praiseworthy to do the most good that we can—and while there might be reason to do the most good that we can—failure to do so is not the standard that marks the distinction between acting morally and immorally. Rather, Mill claims, the notion of moral wrong is connected to that of punishment.
I think there is no doubt that this distinction lies at the bottom of the notions of right and wrong; that we call any conduct wrong, or employ, instead, some other term of dislike or disparagement, according as we think that the person ought, or ought not, to be punished for it. We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience. An act is morally wrong, then, if it is blameworthy , i. The question, of course, is what grounds such norms of blame.
Interpreters have in general taken Mill to believe that whether we ought to blame an individual for any given act—and whether, therefore that act is morally wrong—is determined by considerations of utilitarian efficiency.
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An act is wrong, therefore, if it would be productive to overall utility to blame an individual for performing that act—or, under a rule-focused interpretation, if it would be productive to overall utility for there to exist a rule to the effect that individuals performing actions of that sort were subject to blame. The efficiency of such norms of blame will be dependent, in part, on the culture in which they are to operate—on the dispositions of individuals to react to blame and the promise of blame, and on the possibility of inculcating these dispositions in a given group—and, for this reason, the domain of moral duty will vary with time and place Auguste Comte , X: ; Miller A significant remaining question is whether there is a constraint placed on morality by the logic of that emotion: whether, in other words, there are certain actions which, because of the nature of the emotion of blame, cannot be regarded as morally wrong Jacobson Mill writes that.
Bentham , X: Loizides — Moral rules play a role in guiding and evaluating action, to be sure, but so do rules of aesthetics and prudence: these too promote the general happiness, and as such provide reasons for action. There can, of course, be clashes between such rules of morality, prudence, and aesthetics—and, indeed, clashes of rules within those domains. But Mill is unclear as to how often such clashes and exceptions license direct appeal to the principle of utility. To the extent that one ought often to ignore the rules of morality, prudence, and aesthetics, and act simply on the basis of which action is most choice-worthy according to the theory of practical reason overall, Mill is, in the end, pulled towards something which comes to resemble an act-utilitarianism position Turner The nineteenth century was a period coming to terms with the rise of democracy, and this is reflected in the concerns of its social philosophy.
His engagement with the question of how society and its institutions ought to be organized is of course guided by an abstract commitment to general happiness as the measure of the success of all human practice—but it is also deeply attentive to the concrete possibilities and dangers of the newly emerging democratic era, and how they relate to this overarching goal Skorupski Influenced by Tocqueville, Mill held that the great trend of his own period was a falling away of aristocratic mores and a growth of equality.
Wealth, education, status, and therefore power, he held, were amassing with a socially and politically dominant middle class, whose shared commercial traits and interests dictated equality as the emerging rule. Mill believes that this trend presents a chance for the improvement of society—in this sense, he stands as the heir to Bentham and James Mill in trying to drive forward the agenda of modernisation.
But, like many of his nineteenth-century contemporaries—in particular, conservative social critics such as Coleridge and Carlyle—he also sees that the newly emerging order carries with it newly emerging dangers. His aim was therefore to ameliorate the negative effects of the rise of equality, while capitalising on the opportunity it presented for reform. The most pressing need for reform in this situation, Mill thought, was the removal of structures of discrimination and oppression against women. Mill held, on the grounds of associationist psychology, that human character is wholly a product of upbringing.
As such, he was suspicious of the then common claim that women had a different nature from men—and that the sexes were therefore naturally suited for different roles within the family and society more broadly. Subjection , XXI: To the extent that the sexes in general exhibit different character traits, these traits are the product of upbringing into stereotypes, rather the justification for such stereotypes. So too for differences that are claimed to exist naturally between the races, and to justify the authority of one set of individuals over another The Negro Question , XII: With the growth of equality that came with a dominant middle class, Mill held, these forms of oppression stood out all the more clearly, and the time was therefore ripe to dismantle such practices of discrimination.
The denial of the vote harmed the disenfranchised on two grounds. Firstly, their interests—interests which might diverge in significant ways from other groups Autobiography , I: —went unrepresented in Parliament, and were therefore liable to frustration. Secondly, to deny individuals access to political participation was to deny them access to an important aspect of the good and happy life. For these reasons, Mill fought against political discrimination throughout his life, both as a philosopher and a Member of Parliament Kinzer, Robson and Robson ; Varouxakis Barriers to education and the professions, he held, were as much in need of reform as barriers to representation Subjection , XXI: But his most vehement criticisms were made of the institution of marriage, as practiced in his own time.
Marriage—which in this period deprived the wife of property and legal personhood, and forced total obedience to a husband—was, Mill held, akin to slavery Subjection , XXI: Often, he observed, it involved physical violence. But even where this was not the case, the preparation for and participation in such unequal partnerships caused women to develop constrained, artificial, and submissive personalities.
And not only was it degrading for women to be held in such a position of slavery—exercising such domination was debasing to men, corrupting their personalities, too Subjection , XXI: The prevalence of such a vicious power-relationship in a central area of human life cried out for renovation. The only circumstances in which marriage could be a positive institution, adding to human happiness, was one in which men and women were treated with total equality Miller The transformation of society from aristocratic to increasingly democratic forms of organization brought with it opportunities, then.
But it also presented dangers. It meant rule by a social mass which was more powerful, uniform, and omnipresent than the sovereigns of previous eras. The dominance of the majority, Mill held, presented new threats of tyranny over the individual—freedom was no less at risk from a newly empowered many, than from an absolute monarch.
Informal mechanisms of social pressure and expectation could, in mass democratic societies, be all-controlling. Mill worried that the exercise of such powers would lead to stifling conformism in thought, character and action. It was in this context that On Liberty was written Scarre 1—9.
The aim of the argument is announced in the first chapter:. The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle […] That principle is, that 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. It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. It could not be known a priori that we should organize society along liberal principles.
Mill employs different strategies to argue for freedom of thought and discussion, freedom of character, and freedom of action—and although of course such arguments overlap, they must be carefully unpicked if we are to appreciate their strengths and weaknesses.
In this section, we will consider the argument for freedom of speech, turning, in the next section, to his case for freedom of character and action more broadly. The chapter takes the form of a proof from the exhaustion of cases. Mill claims that, for any opinion P which is a candidate for suppression, P must be either: i true, ii false, or iii partially true. True beliefs are in general suppressed because, though they are true, they are thought to be false.
Human beings, though, are not creatures capable of infallible knowledge. As such, discussion must remain open—even on issues which we think securely established. It might be argued, he observes, that certain true beliefs should be suppressed because, although true, they are thought to be harmful. But to argue that we should suppress a view because it is harmful would either be to assume infallibility on its status as harmful, or to allow debate on that question—which in turn must involve debate on the substantive issue itself.
Opinions belonging to case i therefore ought to not to be suppressed. Even when a belief is false, Mill holds, its assertion may still be conducive to securing the truth—and as such, opinions belonging to case ii should not be suppressed. The assertion of false opinions leads to debate—which in turn leads to greater understanding. It is therefore just as important to hear counterarguments to the truth as its re-articulation.
However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth. Such situations make up case iii. Most well-thought-out views—whether conservative or liberal—on such matters contain part of the truth.
Though there may be arguments establishing that forms of communication which do not have truth as their goal—poetry, art, music—should be free from interference, these are not to be found in chapter 2, but later in On Liberty. On the one hand, he argues that it is best for individuals that they are given freedom and space to develop their own character. On the other, he argues that it best for society , too. Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develope itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.
The basic diversity of human beings means it is not productive for there to exist an expectation that all individuals will live in a similar manner. In this sense, the argument is a pragmatic one: that one mode of life is unlikely to fit all individual tastes. But Mill also suggests that it is a central feature of the good life that it be a life chosen for oneself.
It is possible that he might be guided in some good path […] But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it. Along with other thinkers of the period—Arnold, Nietzsche, and Schiller are all useful points of comparison—Mill believes that the great danger of mass-society is self-repression and conformism, leading to the sapping of human energy and creativity.
It is individuals that are well-rounded, authentic and spontaneous, he believes, that are most truly happy. It is also important for society more broadly that individuals be free to develop their own ways of living. And the variety that exists within such a context, Mill thinks, key to maintaining social progress. The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement.
Of course, it may not be prudent to intervene in all cases in which it be legitimate to do so. In this sense, the principle merely states the conditions under which interference is permissible—not the conditions under which it is desirable. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases. Mill readily admits that no conduct is self-regarding in the sense that it affects only the agent themselves.
In the sense Mill intends, then, we harm an individual only when we violate an obligation to that individual. The damage done by the bad example set to others by a drunkard provides no legitimate reason for interference with his conduct; if his drunkenness causes him to violate the obligation to support his family, then that action constitutes a harm and is subject to interference. And yet, of course, Mill holds that individuals are themselves free to form unfavorable opinions about the character of others.
We are free to remonstrate with an individual, to avoid him, and to encourage others to avoid him—that is our right. The dividing line between the legitimate and illegitimate use of our freedom, however, is surely difficult to draw. As we have seen, Mill believes that we can have no genuine knowledge a priori.
One important result of this general claim, Mill holds, is that knowledge—on political and ethical matters, as well as within the physical sciences—is more difficult to acquire than those who appeal directly to intuition or common sense might wish. I yield to no one in the degree of intelligence of which I believe [the people] to be capable. But I do not believe that, along with this intelligence, they will ever have sufficient opportunities of study and experience, to become themselves familiarly conversant with all the inquiries which lead to the truths by which it is good that they should regulate their conduct, and to receive into their own minds the whole of the evidence from which those truths have been collected, and which is necessary for their establishment.
In previous ages, the existence of a leisured and spiritual class meant that it was relatively easy to establish who possessed the intellectual authority to function as leaders in thought and action Spirit of the Age , XXII: —5. Liberty , VIII: Ultimately, Mill remains optimistic about the prospects of the modern individual to successfully autonomously navigate that crowd and identify voices worthy of respect. No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy […] ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided which in their best times they always have done by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.
But Mill also looks to the institution of democracy itself to help solidify the influence of elites. Mill held, as was noted above section 4. Active participation in collective decision making was, Mill held, part of the good and happy life Urbinati He was in favor, therefore, of extending the vote to all those who were not reliant on public support and possessed a basic competency in reading, writing, and arithmetic. A system of plural voting would not only counteract the tendency of democracy to descend into rule by the mob, but would embody and signal the general principle that some opinions are more worthy of attention than others.
It is not useful, but hurtful, that the constitution of the country should declare ignorance to be entitled to as much political power as knowledge. The national institutions should place all things that they are concerned with, before the mind of the citizen in the light in which it is for his good that he should regard them: and as it is for his good that he should think that every one is entitled to some influence, but the better and wiser to more than others. Considerations , XIX: Neither is it an attempt to impose the will of experts on an unwilling majority. At all points, Mill remains committed to the freedom of individuals to hold and express their own opinions, and to the sovereignty of the majority will on public matters.
His sensitivity towards the very real dangers of populism in modern societies is, that is to say, never allowed to overshadow his basic commitment to liberal democracy as the political system most suited to the cultivation of a free, active, and happy citizenry. As can be seen from the Bibliography above, I have learnt much about Mill during the process of co-editing A Companion to Mill —I therefore owe thanks to the contributors to that volume, as well as my co-editor, Dale Miller.
SparkNotes: Utilitarianism: Summary
Life 2. Mill inscribed on her grave that [s]he was the sole earthly delight of those who had the happiness to belong to her. Examination , IX: 68 As logically independent matters of fact, Mill thought there could be no seamless inference from the composition of our mind to how the rest of the world is, or must be. Whewell on Moral Philosophy , X: All genuine knowledge, then, whether theoretical or ethical, must be obtained by observation and experience. Apparently a priori beliefs are subject to a similar undermining analysis. Examination , IX: 82 From this process, we come to form the belief that space is infinite.
But, an association, however close, between two ideas, is not a sufficient ground of belief; it is not evidence that the corresponding facts are united in external nature. Secondary Sources Bain, C. Balaguer, M. Ball, T. Brink, D. Brook, R. Capaldi, N. Clark, S. Cobb, A. Devigne, R. Donner, W.
Ducheyne, S. Eggleston, B. Findlay, G. Fletcher, G. Fumerton, R. Godden, D. Jacobs, S. Jacobson, D. Kinzer, B. Robson, and J. Kitcher, P. Skorupski ed. Kroon, F. Kuhn, T. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Levin, M. Mill on Civilization and Barbarism. London: Routledge. Loizides, A. Plymouth: Lexington Books. Losonsky, M. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Magnus, P.
Macleod, C. Miller eds. Mandelbaum, M. Matz, L. Miller, D. Mill , Cambridge: Polity Press. Moore, G. Mueller, I. Jeremy Bentham was a reformer who applied the test of utility to the law and politics of his day. Legislators must aim at 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number,' and Bentham explained in minute detail how they might achieve it.
John Stuart Mill , whose education at the hands of a Benthamite father had ended in emotional collapse, thought Bentham's ideal of human happiness too narrow and set out to reconcile his utilitarian inheritance with his own passionate commitment to freedom, spontaneity and imagination. In his essays on Bentham and Coleridge, and above all in Utilitarianism , Mill balanced the claims of reason and the imagination, justice and expediency, individuality and social well-being in a system of ethics that is as relevant to today's intellectua and moral dilemmas it was to the nineteenth century's.
Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read. Want to Read saving…. Want to Read Currently Reading Read. Other editions. Enlarge cover. Error rating book. Refresh and try again. Open Preview See a Problem? Details if other :. Thanks for telling us about the problem. Return to Book Page. Jeremy Bentham. Alan Ryan Introduction. Clear, eloquent and profound, Mill's Utilitarianism has had an enormous influence on moral philosophy and is the idea introduction to ethics. Get A Copy. Paperback , Penguin Classics , pages. Published March 26th by Penguin Classics first published More Details Original Title.
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This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Community Reviews. Showing Average rating 3. Rating details. More filters. Sort order. Aug 09, Edward rated it really liked it Shelves: non-fiction , philosophy-psychology-sociology , essays , uk-ireland , own , 4-star , john-stuart-mill. View 1 comment. Dec 22, Darwin8u rated it really liked it Shelves: , Read it again in after reading Dickens' Hard Times just to make sure JSM wasn't as crass as the industrial, totally rationalized society, Utilitarians presented in 'Hard Times'.
He wasn't, and so it is still safe for me to still have some affection for Utilitarianism as an ism.
I remember Read it again in after reading Dickens' Hard Times just to make sure JSM wasn't as crass as the industrial, totally rationalized society, Utilitarians presented in 'Hard Times'. I remember loving the clarity and simplicity of Mill's arguments when I was first exposed to this essay in college, and the central ideas of utilitarianism still resonate with me 15 years later.
Oct 29, Diana rated it liked it Shelves: first-read , read-in , classics-read. I read the letter that Mill wrote on capital punishment for the unit my ethics class did on the death penalty. I was slightly surprised at how the author felt about the death penalty, for it, due to how outspoken and ahead of his time he was on other topics like the suffrage of women. It showed just how much an opinion could differ even on those who could be considered forward thinkers. Nov 10, Adam Borecky rated it it was amazing. Their theses are the same. Another way Mills was way ahead of his time as with the treatment of women.
He was advocating for voting rights and for the rights of women to run for office as early as the s. Jan 07, Awab AlSaati rated it really liked it Shelves: non-fiction. But then comes John Stuart Mill with an exquisite essay on liberty, in which he tackles the concept of human freedom.