Mill, John Stuart (1806–73)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC054-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

7. Freedom and the moral sciences

The sixth and last book of the System of Logic is a classical statement of methodology in the ‘moral’ sciences (that is, the human sciences). Its strength derives partly from the fact that Mill was a philosopher who also practised the whole range of these sciences as they then stood. He was mainly known as a political economist, but had strong interests in psychology and in the nascent science of sociology. He thought as an economist as well as a philosopher about socialism, taxation and systems of property, and he thought in sociological terms about such topics as democracy and the role of moral and intellectual elites. He also took an interest in a variety of psychological topics, including desire, pleasure and will, and the origins of conscience and justice.

The phenomena of mind and society are, in Mill’s view, causal processes. If mind and society are part of the causal order, and causation is regular succession, then the general model of explanation he has proposed, according to which explanation subsumes facts under laws linking them to their causal antecedents, will apply, he thinks, to the moral sciences. It may be hard for moral science to live up to it, in view of the complexity of its data, but the model stands as an ideal. Important issues remain about the character of and relationships between the various moral sciences, and Mill treats these issues in detail. But he does not think that the very idea of a moral science raises new metaphysical or epistemological problems (see Explanation in history and social science §3).

Psychological concepts are intentional and, correspondingly, the moral sciences are interpretative. Can laws of individual behaviour be formulated, as Mill assumed, in this interpretative vocabulary? His analysis of the moral sciences takes their fundamental laws to lie in the domain of psychology. He was familiar with a different view, that of Auguste Comte, who held that the fundamental and irreducible moral science was sociology (a term coined by Comte). There was no deeper moral science, no science of psychology; the next level below sociology was the physical science of biology. Mill rejected that view, but enthusiastically shared Comte’s vision of a historical sociology. Psychology may be the irreducible theoretical basis of the moral sciences; historical sociology is to be, as far as Mill was concerned, their prime exhibit.

Associationism and a Comtean historical sociology are thus the driving ideas in Mill’s logic of the moral sciences. They interlock. Associationism fortifies his belief in the mutability of human nature: different social and historical formations can build radically different patterns of association. The bridge between historical sociology and the invariant laws of associationist psychology can be provided, Mill thinks, by an innovation of his own: a science he calls ‘Ethology’, which will study the different forms of human character in different social formations. He intended to write a treatise on the subject; significantly, he failed.

How, on this naturalistic view of mind and society, can human beings be free? The question mattered deeply to Mill. The conclusion others drew from the doctrine of determinism, namely, that we have (in Mill’s phrase) no ‘power of self-formation’, and hence are not really responsible for our character or our actions, would have destroyed his moral vision. Self-formation is the fulcrum of his ideal of life, and ‘moral freedom’, the ability to bring one’s desires under the control of a steady rational purpose, is a condition of self-formation, of having a character in the full sense (see Free will §§3–4).

Thus Mill had to show how causally conditioned natural objects can also be morally free agents. The sketch of a solution in the System of Logic (Book 6, chapter 2), which Mill thought the best chapter in the book, is brief but penetrating. (There is a longer discussion in An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy, chapter 26.) One of its leading features is a distinction between resistible and irresistible causes; ‘in common use’, only causes which are ‘irresistible’, whose operation is ‘supposed too powerful to be counteracted at all’, are called necessary:

There are physical sequences which we call necessary, as death for want of food or air; there are others which, though as much cases of causation as the former, are not said to be necessary, as death from poison, which an antidote, or the use of the stomach-pump, will sometimes avert...human actions are in this last predicament: they are never (except in some cases of mania) ruled by any one motive with such absolute sway, that there is no room for the influence of another.

(1843: 839)

An action caused by an irresistible motive (a ‘mania’) is plainly not free. This is certainly very pertinent. Yet something is added when we move from the idea of motives being resistible by other motives to the idea of moral freedom, the idea that I have the power to resist motives. It is the ability to recognize and respond to reasons. I act freely if I could have resisted the motive on which I in fact acted, had there been good reason to do so. A motive impairs my moral freedom if it cannot be defeated by a cogent reason for not acting on it. Mill fails to bring this connection between freedom and reason into clear view, but he relies on it in his ethical writings. He takes it that I am more or less free overall, according to the degree to which I can bring my motives under scrutiny and act on the result of that scrutiny. So I can make myself more free, by shaping desires or at least cultivating the strength of will to overcome them.

A person feels morally free who feels that his habits or his temptations are not his masters, but he theirs: who even in yielding to them knows that he could resist...we must feel that our wish, if not strong enough to alter our character, is strong enough to conquer our character when the two are brought into conflict in any particular case of conduct. And hence it is said with truth, that none but a person of confirmed virtue is completely free.

(1843: 841)

The identification of moral freedom with confirmed virtue, and (less explicitly) of confirmed virtue with steady responsiveness to reasons, is present in Mill as in Kant (§11). But Mill does not address crucial questions such as what is it to grasp a reason, or how reason can be efficacious. To vindicate the coherence of his view one would have to show how to answer such questions in a way which is compatible with naturalism. The problem remains central in contemporary philosophy - certainly Mill himself never took full stock of it.

Citing this article:
Skorupski, John. Freedom and the moral sciences. Mill, John Stuart (1806–73), 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC054-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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