A hanging and flogging sort of liberal. John Stuart Mill's support for the death penalty.
It is not human life only, not human life as such, that ought to be sacred to us, but human feelings.
The next book club is on 22nd October, 19.00 UK time. We are reading John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography. You can find the schedule here.
My final “How to Read a Poem” salon is on 9th November, focussing on Elizabeth Bishop.
The other side of the harm principle
John Stuart Mill is remembered for the harm principle: we should be free to do what we like, so long as we don’t harm others. This idea is foundational to modern liberal thinking and still debated today. But what about the other side of the harm principle? What did Mill believe should happen when someone did cause physical harm to another person? Despite the fact that Mill was a kind and gentle person, who meets every canon of liberal tolerance—Parliamentary reform, women’s equality, concern for the poor, religious toleration, penal reform, the importance of education, an interest in some forms of socialism—he advocated for harsh criminal sentences in a manner that might surprise us.
Mill thought that for “offences, even of an atrocious kind, against the person” the penalty was often “ludicrously inadequate, as to be almost an encouragement to the crime.” He even thought flogging, though generally “most objectionable”, would be a suitable punishment for “crimes of brutality… especially against women.” For crimes of violence, Mill wanted “severe sentences.” Prisons were too comfortable, too easy to escape from. Transportation had become “almost a reward” before it was abolished. And in limited cases, Mill supported the death penalty. John Bright, the Liberal MP, wrote in his diary how “deplorable” this was for a liberal like Mill—“many will be shocked.”
As we shall see, though, Mill’s case for the gallows was entirely consistent with his principles, even if it’s not with what we expect of him.