John Stuart Mill

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source:  Thornapple CSA

My second “food ethics icon” for 2016 is John Stuart Mill. Mill is a pretty interesting figure in his own right and certainly one of the most important individuals of the 19th century. Mill inhabited a rarified intellectual and political environment from his London birth in 1806 to his death from a severe skin infection at Avignon in 1873. He associated with everybody who was anybody in English society and was an influential government advisor, especially in connection with the administration of Britain’s most important colony, India. When I started studying philosophy in the 1970s, Mill was known primarily for two short works: Utilitarianism and On Liberty. Today he is also known as an early advocate of feminism, largely for another short work The Subjection of Women. Mill probably considered all of these to be works of popularization. The first was serialized in Fraser’s Magazine—a publication that near as I can tell would have been something like The Atlantic. Mill thought of the work as a concise exposition of some views advocated by his father, James Mill and other close Mill family friends including Jeremy and Samuel Bentham and Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. It continues to be cited as perhaps the most authoritative (and certainly the most readable) of all works on utilitarian philosophy.

On Liberty was probably more important. It was in fact a collaboration with Mill’s wife, Harriett Taylor Mill (1807-1858). On Liberty is a historically important articulation of liberalism in ethics and political philosophy. In this context, ‘liberalism’ doesn’t mean big government. It’s the idea that individuals should be pretty much free to conduct their private lives according to their own lights. The only justification for interference in one person’s freedom occurs when the exercise of that freedom imposes or threatens harm to someone else. It was a doctrine that cut against the idea of state-sanctioned religions and was in fact intended to limit both the power of government and the influence of busybodies. The Subjection of Women is entirely consistent with this theme, arguing that women have a right to be free architects of their own lives as much as men. I’ve argued that this core liberal idea is so ingrained in the way that we think about inter-personal relationships that it has to be the starting point for any contemporary discussion of food ethics.

When did you make that argument, the attentive blog reader asks? “Well,” the solicitous blog writer answers, “maybe I haven’t actually made it in my blog. But it does show up in my book on food ethics, From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone.” But is that enough to make Mill a food ethics icon, the inquisitive blog reader inquires? “Perhaps not,” the chastened blog writer replies. So here are a couple of other points to consider.

Mill spent much of his professional life as an official of the British East India Company. He gave much thought and extended writing to the question of whether Hindoo (that’s his word) farmers were competent administrators of their own lands. Contrary to what you might think the author of On Liberty might say, he concluded that they were not and relied on a utilitarian argument to establish the right of the British Crown to make key land use decisions.

There’s another thing, too. Mill was an active participant in the debate over the Corn Laws, which placed heavy tariffs on imported grain. The Corn Laws were enormously beneficial to English farmers, and Thomas Malthus was probably the leading advocate for the view that they were needed to insure a fair price for farmers. The farmers themselves were needed for more complex reasons. Mill was among those economists who argued that free trade in grain would bring the price of food down and that this would be beneficial to the poor. Needless to say, Mill and his friends won this argument.

I write this without feeling like I’ve done enough reading on either subject to say much more than these bland generalities. I recommend them as important topics in food ethics that need the attention of future scholars. Still, doesn’t Mill’s role in these two crucial questions qualify him as an underappreciated food ethics icon?

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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