Tag Archives: John Stuart Mill

October 30, 1844 (a Wednesday)

Robert Chambers

On this date, George Combe wrote a congratulatory letter that he sent to the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation through the publisher of the book. Combe was a phrenologist, who claimed to be able to read a person’s character from the shape of his skull, and he was delighted that the unknown author shared his belief in the “truth” of phrenology.

Only two weeks earlier, while they were on a Saturday walk, Combe had told his friend, the English journalist Robert Chambers, that he should read the newly published book. Combe already had received one of the first free copies, which he had skimmed and partially read with care. Ironically, Combe had not known on that Saturday walk that he was speaking to the author of Vestiges in person, namely, Robert Chambers! Evidently, Chambers did not reveal his identity to Combe. In fact, Chambers revealed his identity to only seven people during his lifetime.

In his letter, Combe said that on turning the pages of the book, he experienced a sense of “pleasure and instruction” – that it combined “all the sublimity of a grand poem, and the sober earnestness & perspicuity of a rigidly philosophical induction.” His letter compared Vestiges to “a new sun” in the scientific firmament, which “will probably collect around it innumberable facts, until at length it shall develop itself into a Theory as perfect as a planetary system.”

This was the book that brought the notion of transmutation out into the public arena. It attempted to describe the entire evolution of the universe, from planets to people, as being driven by some kind of self developing force which acted according to natural laws.

Readers of Vestiges included Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Benjamin Disraeli, and John Stuart Mill, although not all shared the same opinion of it. The politically liberal medical journal, the Lancet, said it was “like a breath of fresh air to workmen in a crowded factory.” The freethinker Abraham Lincoln read the book straight through (something he rarely did) when he got a copy and “became a warm advocate of the doctrine.” On the other hand, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote one of the most vicious book reviews of all time, describing Vestiges as a “once attractive and still notorious work of fiction” and its author as one of “those who…indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.” Scottish journalist and geologist Hugh Miller even published an entire book, Foot-Prints of the Creator, to discredit Vestiges. Yet Vestiges sold remarkably well, one of the best-sellers of its time.

In his introduction to On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin assumed that his readers were aware of Vestiges, and wrote identifying what he felt was one of its gravest deficiencies with regards to its theory of biological evolution:

The author of the ‘Vestiges of Creation’ would, I presume, say that, after a certain unknown number of generations, some bird had given birth to a woodpecker, and some plant to the mistletoe, and that these had been produced perfect as we now see them; but this assumption seems to me to be no explanation, for it leaves the case of the coadaptations of organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life, untouched and unexplained.

Chambers wrote that “My sincere desire in the composition of the book was to give the true view of the history of nature, with as little disturbance as possible to existing beliefs, whether philosophical or religious.” He wanted to open up the question of evolution by natural law to serious scientific discussion. In a supplement to the Vestiges first published in 1845 and entitled Explanations, he wrote, “I said to myself: Let [Vestiges] go forth to be received as truth, or to provoke others to a controversy which may result in establishing or overthrowing it.”

References:

  • James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2003) pp. 38, 264.
  • William Henry Herndon and Jesse William Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (Belford, Clarke & Company, 1889).
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September 4, 1957 (a Wednesday)

A page from the Wolfeden Report.

A page from the Wolfeden Report.

On this date, the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (better known as the Wolfenden Report, after Lord Wolfenden, the chairman of the committee) was published in Britain. It was significant for recommending that homosexual behavior in private between consenting adults, (i.e., over 21) should be decriminalized. The first printing of 5,000 copies of the 155-page document sold out in a matter of hours, and the report quickly went through numerous reprintings.

Male homosexuality had been illegal in England since the Buggery Act of 1533 (female homosexuality was never specified). The law became much more strict in 1885 with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which made all homosexual acts illegal, even those carried out in private. Perhaps the most famous prosecution was that of the writer Oscar Wilde in 1895.

The number of convictions rose rapidly in the immediate period after World War II as the Home Office pursued prosecution more rigorously. In 1952, there had been 670 prosecutions in England for sodomy; 3,087 prosecutions for attempted sodomy or indecent assault; and 1,686 prosecutions for so-called gross indecency.

At that time, homosexuality was also the subject of sensationalist reporting in the popular press, and there were a number of high profile cases involving public figures. In 1951, the Russian spies Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess, both known to be homosexual, defected to the USSR. Alan Turing, the cryptographer who helped to break the German Enigma code, was victimized for his homosexuality. Charged in 1952 with “gross indecency”, he chose hormone treatment as punishment (the alternative was prison). He also lost his job. His death in June 1954 was treated as suicide. In 1953, newly-knighted Sir John Gielgud was arrested after trying to pick up a man in a public toilet who turned out to be an undercover policeman. He was found guilty of “persistently importuning for immoral purposes.” In 1954, the sensational trial of the Montagu/Pitt-Rivers/Wildeblood case was held, resulting in a peer (Lord Montagu of Beaulieu), his cousin (Michael Pitt-Rivers), and a journalist (Peter Wildeblood) being convicted of having had sexual relations with young working class men. They received sentences ranging from twelve to eighteen months imprisonment.

All of these events and controversies created pressure for a re-evaluation of the criminalization of homosexuality. Two MPs in December 1953 called upon the government to set up a Royal Commission to investigate the law relating to homosexual offenses, leading the Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe, to appoint the Departmental Committee in August 1954.

In addition to Wolfenden, the committee consisted of eleven men and three women, of whom thirteen served for the entire three years of the committee’s deliberations. The committee included, among others, two judges, a Foreign Office official, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, a Conservative MP, a consulting psychiatrist, the vice-president of the City of Glasgow Girl Guides, and a professor of moral theology. It was charged “to consider (a) the law and practice relating to homosexual offences and the treatment of persons convicted of such offences by the courts; and (b) the law and practice relating to offences against the criminal law in connection with prostitution and solicitation for immoral purposes, and to report what changes, if any, are desirable.”

The committee met for the first time on September 15, 1954. Over a period of three years, they interviewed religious leaders, policemen, judges, probation officers, psychiatrists, social workers, and homosexuals. When they issued their report in 1957, all but one of the thirteen members still sitting on the committee agreed that homosexual acts should be decriminalized if they took place in private, with consent, between persons at least 21 years of age and not members of the armed forces or the merchant navy.

The committee condemned homosexuality as immoral and destructive to individuals, but concluded that outlawing homosexuality impinged on civil liberties and that private morality or immorality should not be “the law’s business.” The function of the law, the committee wrote:

…is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others, particularly those who are specially vulnerable…. It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour, further than is necessary to carry out the purposes we have outlined.

_____________________________________________________________

Interview with Sir John Wolfenden in 1967.
_____________________________________________________________

The basis on which the Wolfenden committee made its recommendations was essentially a restatement of the famous “harm principle” of John Stuart Mill, which he stated in his best-known work, On Liberty (1859). Here, Mill’s defense of liberty is as uncompromising as he can make it:

[T]he 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. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.

The sole dissenter from the majority’s recommendation, James Adair, disassociated himself from the Wolfenden Report, declaring that relaxing the law on homosexuality would be regarded by many homosexuals as “licensing licentiousness.”

Interestingly, despite the testimony of numerous psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, the committee refused to classify homosexuality as a mental illness requiring psychiatric intervention. It found that “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects.” It did, however, urge continued research into the causes and potential cures of homosexuality, such as hormone treatments and psychiatric therapy.

The recommendation to decriminalize homosexuality was widely condemned by many religious and political leaders and by a host of newspapers. The committee’s refusal to declare homosexuality a disease provoked the condemnation of psychiatrists. On the other hand, the British Medical Association, the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the National Association of Probation Officers supported the committee’s recommendations. Somewhat surprisingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Fisher, made an eloquent plea on behalf of the recommendations, declaring that:

There is a sacred realm of privacy… into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude. This is a principle of the utmost importance for the preservation of human freedom, self-respect, and responsibility.

The home secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, was deeply disappointed in the Wolfenden Report. He no doubt expected the committee to recommend additional ways of controlling homosexual behavior, rather than decriminalizing it. In any case, he expressed doubt that the general population would support reform and declined to take action to implement the committee’s recommendation, calling instead for “additional study.” In fact, it took a good ten years for the recommendations in the Report to become law with the new Sexual Offences Act in 1967.

References:

August 4, 2010 (a Wednesday)

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

— John Adams, “Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,” December 1770

Zen stones

Scales of Justice

On this date, U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled in Perry v. Schwarzenegger that Proposition 8, the amendment to the California Constitution that banned same-sex civil marriage, was in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling put Walker, a Republican, at the forefront of the gay marriage debate and marked the latest in a long line of high-profile legal decisions for the longtime federal judge. He was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1987, but his nomination was held up for two years in part because of opposition from gay rights activists. (As a lawyer, he had helped the U.S. Olympic Committee sue a gay ex-Olympian who had created the Gay Olympics, an athletic competition.)

Ironically, most major media organizations, from the New York Times and ABC News to the Washington Post and National Public Radio, have lately reported on Judge Walker as gay or had commentators saying it. In fact, he has never confirmed to anyone in the media what sexual orientation he may be. As Michelangelo Signorile recently pointed out in the Huffington Post:

[T]he outrageous hypocrisy here on the part of the corporate media — and one that shows how they are manipulated by the right — is the fact that, even with proof and evidence, news organizations refuse to report on the secretly gay sexual orientation of conservative, anti-gay politicians and public figures when the argument for their exposure is made from the left. [emphasis added]

Lawyer Brian Levine, an attorney who practices civil litigation in San Francisco, wrote an analysis of the Perry ruling in which he said:

Most of the decision (the first 109 pages) is the “factual findings.” This is crucial, and here’s why. On appeal, Judge Walker’s conclusions of law are basically irrelevant. Questions of law are decided fresh on appeal, and the trial court’s thoughts on the law are entitled to no deference. On the other hand, only a trial court can make factual findings. A Court of Appeal must give great deference to the factual findings of the trial court, especially when those findings are based on the credibility of witness testimony. Judge Walker knows this. He knows that his primary role in this case is to weigh the credibility of the evidence that was presented at trial and apply the facts that were proven to the law. But the law — unlike the facts — ultimately will be decided by nine Justices at a higher pay grade. Consequently, we should be grateful to Judge Walker for carefully and diligently going through the facts of the case, creating a detailed and compelling record for the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

So, the trial court’s findings of fact and rulings on credibility are here to stay, no matter whether Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, or Alito approve of same-sex marriage or not. Lawyer Paul Hogarth, an attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, identified several important findings of fact, including:

[Fact #] 27. Marriage between a man and a woman was traditionally organized based on presumptions of a division of labor along gender lines. Men were seen as suited for certain types of work and women for others. Women were seen as suited to raise children and men were seen as suited to provide for the family.

(. . .)

[Fact #] 32. California has eliminated marital obligations based on the gender of the spouse. Regardless of their sex or gender, marital partners share the same obligations to one another and to their dependents. As a result of Proposition 8, California nevertheless requires that a marriage consist of one man and one woman.

Homosexual couples and heterosexual couples are equal.

These two factual findings together lead to the logical conclusion that restricting marriage to heterosexual couples is an archaic concept that relies on a presumption that men and women are different, and somehow both indispensable to form a marriage. The times are changing, and justices in the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) cannot simply “stick their heads in the sand.” Three more factual findings are also noteworthy:

[Fact #] 58. Proposition 8 places the force of law behind stigmas against gays and lesbians, including: gays and lesbians do not have intimate relationships similar to heterosexual couples; gays and lesbians are not as good as heterosexuals; and gay and lesbian relationships do not deserve the full recognition of society.

(. . .)

[Fact #] 67. Proposition 8 singles out gays and lesbians and legitimates their unequal treatment. Proposition 8 perpetuates the stereotype that gays and lesbians are incapable of forming long-term loving relationships and that gays and lesbians are not good parents.

(. . .)

[Fact #] 79. The Proposition 8 campaign relied on fears that children exposed to the concept of same-sex marriage may become gay or lesbian. The reason children need to be protected from same-sex marriage was never articulated in official campaign advertisements. Nevertheless, the advertisements insinuated that learning about same-sex marriage could make a child gay or lesbian and that parents should dread having a gay or lesbian child.

These three factual findings together strongly suggest that Prop 8 was motivated by an irrational fear (animus) toward gays and lesbians. In ruling on Perry, Walker stated:

The evidence at trial regarding the campaign to pass Proposition 8 uncloaks the most likely explanation for its passage: a desire to advance the belief that opposite-sex couples are morally superior to same-sex couples. The campaign relied heavily on negative stereotypes about gays and lesbians and focused on protecting children from inchoate threats vaguely associated with gays and lesbians. . . .

At trial, proponents’ counsel attempted through cross-examination to show that the campaign wanted to protect children from learning about same-sex marriage in school. . . . The evidence shows, however, that Proposition 8 played on a fear that exposure to homosexuality would turn children into homosexuals and that parents should dread having children who are not heterosexual. . . .

The testimony of George Chauncey places the Protect Marriage campaign advertisements in historical context as echoing messages from previous campaigns to enact legal measures to disadvantage gays and lesbians. The Protect Marriage campaign advertisements ensured California voters had these previous fear-inducing messages in mind. The evidence at trial shows those fears to be completely unfounded.

Judge Vaughn R. Walker

Walker correctly recognized that the rhetoric of “defending marriage”, which proponents have always been unable to explain satisfactorily in my view, actually amounts to simply saying that heterosexual couples are morally better than homosexual couples. Note that both Judge Walker in his ruling and David Fleischer in The Prop 8 Report identified the same campaign strategy used by Prop 8 proponents as responsible for the passage of the initiative. Fleischer observed:

Recycling a lie as old as Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in 1977, the anti-gay Yes on 8 campaign whipped up fears about kids to move voters to its side. . . . Yes on 8’s fear-mongering about children was particularly effective because No on 8 waited sixteen of the thirty days remaining until the election was over to directly respond.

Judge Walker’s ruling concluded:

Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians. The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples. . . . Because Proposition 8 disadvantages gays and lesbians without any rational justification, Proposition 8 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

Supporters of same-sex marriage march from San Francisco's Castro neighborhood to celebrate the ruling on Prop 8.

After the ruling was announced, a lawyer on the defense team, Jim Campbell, repeated their familiar but nevertheless misleading refrain:

In America, we should uphold and respect the right of [the] people to make policy changes through the democratic process, especially changes that do nothing more than uphold the definition of marriage that has existed since the founding of this country and beyond.

As a lawyer, Campbell should know better — that the will of the majority is not unlimited. A minority who must depend on the benevolence of those outside of its community is always subject to popular attacks. And as the framers envisioned, the role of the judiciary is to act as “counter-majority” in order to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. I remind Campbell and the rest of his defense team of what Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the most influential Founding Fathers, said in his first Inaugural Address (1801):

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

Likewise, John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859 in his famous essay, On Liberty:

The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. [emphasis in original]

This idea was embedded in a 1943 SCOTUS decision, West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette (319 US 624). Judge Walker quoted in Perry from the opinion written by Justice Robert Jackson 67 years ago:

One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to [a] vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

In the case of West Virginia, the SCOTUS did a rare reversal of itself, acknowledging a mistake it had made in a Jehovah’s Witness case three years earlier. What happened between 1940 and 1943 to Jehovah’s Witnesses gave Judge Walker in 2010 his most potent precedent to show that voter will does not trump the protection of minority rights. Lillian Gobitas was among thousands of Jehovah’s Witness children expelled from public school for not saluting the flag. This religious sect believes that the flag salute is an idolatrous act of worship of a man-made symbol, which is forbidden by their God. Her case, Minersville School District v Gobitis (310 US 586), went to the SCOTUS and a fundamental question was asked: Should a free society force its citizens to engage in patriotic ritual? In 1940, the court answered “Yes.” National unity was at stake. It also said the threat of being expelled from school was a good way to achieve compliance. If anyone felt put out, the court said, he could seek remedy at the ballot box by asking the majority to see it his way.

At the height of World War II, when the U.S. was fighting nationalism in Germany, where Jehovah’s Witnesses were being sent to concentration camps for refusing to do the Nazi salute, the SCOTUS revisited the case. When Justice Jackson got the chance, he tackled the ballot box notion head-on. He wrote that the “very purpose” of the Bill of Rights was to protect some issues from the volatility of politics and “place them beyond the reach of majorities.”

Of course, Walker’s ruling is not the end of Perry v Schwarzenegger; both sides are preparing for an appeal. The appeal would go first to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, then to the SCOTUS if the high court justices agree to review it. And, Prop 8 proponents may ultimately prevail, especially in the SCOTUS as presently constituted. But regardless of the final outcome, even if Prop 8 is ultimately upheld, Judge Walker’s ruling has broken ground in American jurisprudence and I believe his reasoning will someday be affirmed by the nation’s highest court.

July 10, 1802 (a Saturday)

Robert Chambers

On this date, the Scottish author and publisher Robert Chambers was born. He was the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which was released in 1844. Literary anonymity was not uncommon at the time, especially in periodical journalism. However, in the science genre, anonymity was especially rare, due to the fact that science writers typically wanted to take credit for their work in order to claim priority for their findings. Chamber’s identity as the author of Vestiges was not officially revealed to the public until 1884, several years after his death.

During the 1830s, Chambers had become particularly interested in the then rapidly expanding field of geology — he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1840 and elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1844. He had taught himself the basics of geology and botany, and was strongly influenced by Lamarck and Buffon. Chambers’ motivation for writing Vestiges was in part to open up the question of evolution (at that time referred to as “development”) by natural law to serious scientific discussion. In a supplement to the Vestiges first published in 1845, entitled Explanations, he wrote of the Vestiges:

I said to myself: Let this book go forth to be received as truth, or to provoke others to a controversy which may result in establishing or overthrowing it…

Chambers had chosen anonymity in writing Vestges for a very pragmatic reason: he feared, and with reason, that the controversy over the book would hurt his publishing business. Vestiges began with an explanation of the nebular hypothesis of the formation of the Solar System, and went on from there to present a grand picture of the progressive evolution of life on Earth. By implying that God might not actively sustain the natural and social hierarchies, the book threatened the social order and could provide ammunition to Chartists and revolutionaries.

Anglican clergymen/naturalists attacked the book, with the geologist Adam Sedgwick predicting “ruin and confusion in such a creed” which if taken up by the working classes “will undermine the whole moral and social fabric” bringing “discord and deadly mischief in its train.” Physicist Sir David Brewster warned that Vestiges stood a “fair chance of poisoning the fountains of science, and sapping the foundations of religion.” Scottish journalist and geologist Hugh Miller, never a man to avoid an argument, published an entire book, Foot-Prints of the Creator, as a rebuttal to Vestiges. Thomas Henry Huxley penned one of the most venomous book reviews of all time: the book was a “once attractive and still notorious work of fiction” and its author one of “those who…indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.”

In contrast, Vestiges was liked by many Quakers and Unitarians. The Unitarian physiologist William Carpenter called it “a very beautiful and a very interesting book”, and helped Chambers with correcting later editions.

Vestiges was undoubtedly a sensation. It sold remarkably well — over 20,000 copies in a decade — making it one of the best-sellers of its time. Not only many naturalists, like Charles Darwin, but also Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria read it; so did poets like Alfred Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, statesmen like William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, and philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and John Stuart Mill. Chambers’s book contained little that proved of lasting scientific value. However, Vestiges brought widespread discussion of evolution out of the streets and gutter presses and into the drawing rooms of respectable men and women.

May 20, 1806 (a Tuesday)

John Stuart Mill

On this date, John Stuart Mill was born in England. Mill, who met Jeremy Bentham as a young man, became a champion of individual liberty. With Bentham, Mill advanced utilitarianism, a philosophy advocating that the role of government is to create the greatest amount of good with the least evil. Mill, known for his clear writing style and compelling logic, advanced and popularized such ideals as social and sexual equality, the public ownership of national resources, and political liberty. Mill was tutored at a tender age by his father, James Mill, who was an agnostic. Mill could not remember a time when he could not read Greek, writing in his autobiography that he started Greek study by age three. Mill wrote in his Autobiography (1873) that his father “impressed upon me from the first, that the manner in which the world came into existence was a subject on which nothing was known: that the question, ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, because we have no experience or authentic information from which to answer it; and that any answer only throws the difficulty a step further back, since the question immediately presents itself, Who made God?”

Even as a teenager, Mill wrote a defense of skeptic Richard Carlile, jailed for six years for “blasphemous libel.” After a clerkship in India House, Mill became part of the “philosophic Radicals,” and wrote for number of journals. A System of Logic, in two volumes, came out in 1843, followed by Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1863), and The Subjection of Women (1869). The latter book was influenced by his wife Harriet Hardy Taylor, a longtime friend whom Mill married in 1851. “Every established fact which is too bad to admit of any other defense is always presented to us as an injunction of religion,” he noted in this work. In On Liberty, a work dedicated to his wife, who died in 1858, Mill rejected a standard of ethics predicated on obedience, or the crushing of individuality, whether by “enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.” Mill termed Christianity “essentially a doctrine of passive obedience; it inculcates submission to all authorities found established.”

Mill was a member of Parliament from 1865 to 1868, rising to the defense of Charles Bradlaugh, the atheist politician who had to fight for years to be seated in Parliament. Although Mill’s views were unpopular, Gladstone once referred to Mill as “the saint of Rationalism.” Mill’s Reform Bill of 1867, the first attempt to grant the vote to British women, while unsuccessful, ignited the British suffrage movement. Three essays on religion were published posthumously. In them, Mill hints that he had adopted a Deistic belief in what he termed a “limited liability god,” surprising his freethinking friends. But his strong repudiation of miracles and dogma, while outraging the public, was a seminal defense of rationalism. Mill wrote in Utility of Religion, published in 1874, that belief “in the supernatural . . . cannot be considered to be any longer required. . .” Another famous passage by Mills states:

Religiously wrong [is] a motive of legislation which can never be too earnestly protested against. Deorum injuriae Diis curae. Injustices to the gods are the concern of the gods. It remains to be proved that society or any of its officers holds a commission from on high to avenge any supposed offense to Omnipotence which is not also a wrong to our fellow creatures. The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them … A determination not to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it is not permitted by the persecutor’s religion. It is a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless if we leave him unmolested.

The issues Mill dealt with–and did so admirably consistently– are still relevant today. This becomes evident when we feel sure that we can tell where he would have stood on the issues of our day. To borrow the judgement of another great mind and thinker, Isaiah Berlin, Mill’s On Liberty “is still the clearest, most candid, persuasive, and moving exposition of the point of view of those who desire an open and tolerant society.” (Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, p.201).