Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Mill’s Philosophy of Education in the Virtues: Care and Compassion as Essential Aspects of Self-Development

Mill’s liberalism offers a positive model for how liberals can and should put forward an appreciative analysis of traditional women’s care work within the home. Mill’s arguments exhibit obvious respect for women’s care work in the home. This is apparent from his arguments clarifying the value of this work in The Subjection of Women. But the full force of his arguments comes to life when placed in the context of his philosophy of education, specifically his views on the right of all people to participate in an educative process in childhood and adulthood that results in self-development. Mill’s voluminous writings display his fundamental conviction that education in the higher human capacities or the virtues underlies and enables a meaningful and happy life. Thus, it is not surprising to observe the extension and reach of his writings and plans for education in the virtues. It is surely a mainstay of liberalism in all forms that education opens up the prospects for a good, happy, and purposeful life. Where Mill sets himself apart from some other liberals is in his analysis of education in the larger sense, beyond mere schooling, education in the process of selfdevelopment, or in the higher human capacities, or in the virtues. It is this kind of education in particular that equips people to appreciate and value the higher forms of happiness. Mill’s own intellectual curiosity, added to his own life experience, leads him to appreciate the value for a good life of such basic components as sympathetic connections, depth of emotion, deep human ties, strong and loving relationships, and belonging to communities. All these elements are vital components of his philosophy of education and motivate, especially his views on how to cultivate the human excellences in all spheres of life. Mill’s wide-ranging writings on education and self-development canvass the prospects of numerous spheres of human life and activity as potential sites for education in the virtues of self-development. Many spheres of life can offer circumstances for deepening emotions; for expanding compassion, empathy, sympathy, and fellow feeling; and for taking people beyond narrow self-interest and self-absorption (Donner 2011). These are the very capacities that reliably underpin the ability of care workers to stay the course in the face of inevitable obstacles and stresses of care giving, including ones that can seem like overwhelming burdens.

Mill argues in The Subjection of Women that domestic spheres of home and family are prime sites for childhood education in the virtues of care, friendship, and equality. This might intuitively seem to point to plans for educating children in these positive attributes of love and compassion, leading them to develop empathy and sympathy as a basis for treating others kindly and fairly. For caregivers, these attributes are invaluable aids motivating the willingness to make sacrifices that are sometimes needed in caring for dependent vulnerable people. This element is certainly present. What Mill also has in mind is proposing means for undermining the patriarchal family from within by getting in early in the process of childhood education in the virtues. His remarks also point out the importance of training children, especially male children, in these virtues in order to move them beyond becoming little tyrants who embrace the command and obedience patriarchal family. Pointing to both sets of positive and negative prospects and possibilities, Mill says,

If the family in its best forms is, as it is often said to be, a school of sympathy, tenderness, and loving forgetfulness of self, it is still oftener, as respects its chief, a school of wilfulness, overbearingness, unbounded self-indulgence, and a double-dyed and idealized selfishness.

(Mill, CW 21: 283)

Mill’s plans include hopes that loving care work will promote the first and undermine the second of these sets of possibilities.

Mill offers an argument in favor of the value of care work for its salutary effects upon the caregivers as well as its recipients. In Mill’s time, this meant primarily the mothers of the children. Perhaps this point is overlooked or muted because this is taken to be obvious in a time when the ideal for women was to offer a moralizing example, which is not problematic in itself but only is so when taken to excess. In the literature objecting to Mill’s “common arrangement” this model of women as caregivers is often linked to and emphasizes the imbalance in aspects of selfdevelopment (Donner and Fumerton 2009, 57-125). Mill himself seems inclined to view the problem this way, arguing strenuously that women as they were then socialized were deficient in some of the intellectual and public virtues. Their self-development, he says, is out of balance. Indeed, he argues this point about imbalance so strenuously that his expressed underlying appreciation of the care work that women do in the home is dimmed. In The Subjection of Women, Mill is arguing for an expansion of women’s opportunities for liberty of self-development. Since selfdevelopment crucially includes the excellences of care, sympathy, and compassion, it is a misreading to claim that he sees their care work simply or even primarily as a burden or an obstacle. It is more accurate to say that for women in his time and society, he thinks that care was out of balance with other virtues in the cluster of self-development. He says,

If women are better than men in anything, it surely is in individual self-sacrifice for those of their own family. But I lay little stress on this, as long as they are universally taught that they are born and created for self-sacrifice. I believe that equality of rights would abate the exaggerated self-abnegation [emphasis mine] which is the present artificial ideal of feminine character.

(Mill, CW 21: 287)

Mill links this imbalance to the pernicious effects of patriarchy and women’s oppression. So, it can be lost in the shuffle that he does see women’s care work as crucial to cultivating virtues and excellences.

Mill’s philosophy of education in the virtues of self-development is front and center to understanding the value Mill places on women’s work as caregivers in the home. Critics do not always keep this model of holistic balance of the components of self-development in mind. It is perhaps implicitly assumed that if women are compassionate and caring, then this in and of itself and of necessity undermines their development of reason and the public virtues. But it is the imbalance that Mill seeks to overturn. That was the part of women’s oppression that needed challenging. Using the Millian model of self-development as an appropriate balance of the virtues, this loses force and becomes less compelling as an objection. In Mill’s theory of the good, it is a constant that the virtues of selfdevelopment form a holistic cluster. None of them should dominate, and if they are out of balance in any person, female or male, they should be rebalanced. In such cases the person should then be encouraged to engage with and train in the underdeveloped excellences. Mill thus argues in The Subjection of Women that women’s education in his time produced an out-of-balance emphasis on the emotional, at the expense of the rational. This point is well-taken and sound. From here it is a short but illicit step to the view that women’s care work within the home itself is the locus of a problem. But this does not follow and is mistaken. Women’s care for children and dependent and vulnerable persons remains a prime source of the value and meaningfulness of human existence within Mill’s theory.

It would be the parallel to argue that men’s education that cultivates reason, at the expense of the emotions, produces a similar imbalance, which should be redressed by emotional cultivation. Mill himself could attest to the deleterious effects of such a one-sided education. In his own life this led him to a major episode of depression, which in turn motivated him to appreciate the value of internal culture or emotional depth and development. His discussion and dissection of the causes of this depressive episode in the Autobiography are well known and widely discussed as a turning point in his life and in his conceptions of the good and happiness. He says that the “maintenance of a due balance among the faculties, now seemed to me of primary importance. The cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed” (Mill, CW, 1:147). After this period of depression, Mill would never again neglect the importance of “the internal culture of the individual” as the basis of the capacities of caring, benevolence, and compassion and as the proper balance for the capacities of reason and individuality (Mill, CW, 1: 147).

Mill’s Autobiography is the place that commentators turn to first when thinking about the reasons for his focus on the importance of developing the internal cultivation of the emotions. And often the discussion stays focused on the specific proposals for developing emotions that he propounds there. In recovering from his own serious bout of depression (a malady far less well understood in his time than in ours), he contends that his encounters with the poetry of the Romantics, especially Wordsworth, as well as his encounters with the beauty of the natural environment were the key elements of his recovery from depression (Mill, CW,1: 137-155). However, the actual list of Mill’s strategies for cultivating the spectrum of emotion, sympathy, empathy, fellow feeling, compassion, and so on is quite a bit longer. For example, we can point to his systematic and pervasive treatment of the importance of participation in the public political and economic sphere as sites for cultivating and educating people in sympathetic connection and fellow feeling (Donner and Fumerton 2009, 90-105). This moves people away from excessive self-interest and selfabsorption and toward benevolence, solidarity, and social cooperation and community spirit. Mill’s writings on education promote the essential projects of moving beyond narrow self-regard and egoism, of identifying with something larger, of habitually identifying with the suffering of others, and of habitually acting to alleviate the suffering of others.

The role of virtue ethics in Mill’s version of liberalism and utilitarianism is a promising topic calling for further examination. Driver takes up and discusses Mill’s perspective on cultivation of virtue as part of his commitment to moral sentimentalism. Driver says that Mill promoted sympathetic interaction “through both information and imaginative engagement with other possibilities. The exercise of putting oneself in the place of another - be it through history, documentary, or fictional literature, helps individuals position themselves in situations that encourage self-improvement” (Driver 2014, 51). She looks at this as part of Mill’s project of moral education and his analysis of moral progress.

A feeling for one’s fellow creatures can arise through society and cooperation with others, learning to view their ends as making claims on one, and over time this social feeling, which I think of as a kind of benevolence (concern for the well-being of others) “takes on a life of its own.

(Driver 2014, 53)

Driver here foregrounds Mill’s insight that public participation and engagement are educative tools for cultivating sympathy, fellow feeling, empathy and compassion.

Mill’s appreciation of participation in the public domain as an educative tool for cultivating sympathy alongside reason is well documented (Donner 2007, 250-274). In tandem with these arguments about public arenas as sites for self-development, it is natural to understand his high esteem for women’s care work in the home as vehicles and mechanisms for cultivating love and compassion, both in caregivers and care recipients. Caring for dependent and vulnerable others is not simply or primarily a burden, as it is so often treated as being, when it is not entirely ignored. The family has a central place in moral education. Mill adds that his ideal of marriage based on equality is “the only means of rendering the daily life of mankind, in any high sense, a school of moral cultivation” (Mill, CW 21: 287-288). This is the circumstance in which justice will be grounded “on sympathetic association” (Mill, CW 21:288). Mary Lyndon Shanley’s enduring analysis of Mill’s hoped-for model of marriage based on friendship also includes an insightful view of Mill’s repudiation of patriarchal marriage. Shanley says that “Mill’s reconstruction of marriage on the basis of friendship was preceded by one of the most devastating critiques of male domination in marriage in the history of Western philosophy” (Shanley 2005, 165). Shanley follows with her very astute exploration of Mill’s aspiration for an ideal of marriage based on friendship and equality (Shanley 2005,172-177). The values underpinning this model of marriage Mill hopes would diminish and ultimately remove marital slavery and replace it with a domestic and family sphere of “a school of sympathy in equality, of living together in love” (Mill, CW 21: 289). If this model of marriage based on friendship and love would be adopted by the parents, then it would be “a model to the children of the feelings and conduct,” which would become habitual through this process of moral training (Mill CW 21: 289). This is one of the educative tools by which mothers can diminish patriarchal feelings in their sons and move them toward appreciating equality and friendship as models of marriage and family.

In the previous section I laid out Susan Okin’s classic statement of the objection to Mill. I set out some of its weaknesses based on its diminution and undervaluation of care work. Asha Bhandary also objects to Okin’s portrayal of Mill’s perspective. She disagrees with Okin’s analysis, which sees caregiving simply as burdensome. Bhandary also properly praises Mill for his recognition of the social need for care - that it is work that must be done. Bhandary clearly is on track in her recognition of the value of care work and its central place in Mill’s system. She precisely zeroes in on the weakness of Okin’s presentation of Mill. Bhandary says that Okin “argues for the genders to equally share domestic responsibilities through an analysis that theorizes the burdens that accompany care-giving. Her related criticism of Mill implies a negative view of domesticity and care” (Bhandary 2016, 158-159). Bhandary points to Okin’s language of the “tiresome details of domesticity” as signaling an unsympathetic appraisal of care and emotional labor. Bhandary takes issue with this and claims that this is a disproportionately negative picture of care work. Okin ignores the positive elements, for “nowhere in Okin’s corpus is there a sustained treatment of the ways that care-giving can be enriching, meaningful, and a source of value for the care-giver” (Bhandary 2016, 159). Bhandary says that the literature has moved forward. There was perhaps a time when Okin’s analysis filled a need to reorient the discussion.

Although this strain of liberal feminism was a valuable cultural corrective to overly halcyonic visions of maternal bliss despite unsup- portive conditions, a concept of care-giving that solely theorizes its burdens is incomplete and inadequate when it pairs these claims about the financial burdens of familial care-giving with a concept of care as purely burdensome.

(Bhandary 2016, 161)

Bhandary believes that there was some importance to the moment in the feminist literature that solely emphasized the problems of care work, but that moment has now passed. “The burdens of care-giving was needed to counteract an overly sentimentalized concept of care in traditional forms of liberalism that theorized only its motive of love and occluded its labor” (Bhandary 2016, 161). As I have argued, I also see Okin’s treatment of Mill, and her words describing “the tiresome details of domestic life,” as an example of the out-of-balance approach that does not sufficiently appreciate the value of women’s care work in the home and that devalues it.

The fact that emotional care work and responsibilities and practices are often difficult and challenging does not remove them as sources of value. Virtuous living is often challenging. Indeed, the central aspect of education in the virtues for Mill is that the virtues are developed through practice. In the case of the caring virtues, this means the practice of caring for persons, including children. There is a risk that the centrality of love and care work in developing compassion can be lost in the shuffle if we narrow our focus to women’s work as a burden, and an unjust one at that. Since Mill’s moral and political theory regards benevolence and compassion as core virtues, which commentators can overlook, it should be made note of when these virtues are downplayed, perhaps uncharitably. I would like to do more to bring into focus Mill’s perspective that women’s care work in the home is actual work, is an actual occupation, is something to be appreciated and lauded. It should not function mainly as a locus for an objection to his liberal feminism. Mill is sometimes praised, sometimes criticized, for propounding a philosophy that is geared to living a good life, to engaging in the Art of Life (Mill, CW 8: 943-952). His Art of Life is crafted to give guidance to reasonable and well-meaning people navigating the shoals and dilemmas of actual life. In such real life, one of the first things that would come to mind of someone thinking about how to overcome self-absorption and develop and express loving care for others, in particular, dependent and vulnerable others, would be activities and commitments of parenting and caring for children. It is only when it is carried to an out-of-balance extreme of “excessive self-abnegation” (in Mill’s own words) that it becomes a problem. That is perhaps why parenthood is so regularly experienced as an existential shock, and why it is seen as a life changer, when parents must of necessity put the needs of others first and set aside their self-interest and self-absorption.

In the midst of all of the attention given to Mill’s proposed “common arrangement,” it is reasonable to keep asking as discussion evolves whether Mill’s proposal would be evaluated differently, namely, more sympathetically and positively, if the activity of women’s care work in the home were itself more appropriately highly valued. Given the dramatic shift of the last few decades, which has seen women move out of the home and into the public sphere as Mill hoped, it is also reasonable to raise questions about the lack of attention given by critics to a parallel objection. Why is Mill’s “common arrangement” not also more frequently seen to be flawed because it deprives men of opportunities to engage with childcare? Surely if care work in the home to children were appropriately valued, then critics would raise the point that until recently men were deprived of the opportunity to engage in this most valuable and meaningful occupation.

Among the class of the crucial activities and pursuits of the good life, few such pursuits rise to the high value of intimate caring for dependents and vulnerable members of our communities. While this would not remove the objection based on barriers to free choice, or questions about distribution, it would elevate the choice of women’s occupations if those occupations were appropriately valued as essential. In fact, one of Mill’s reasons is precisely to note the essential nature of the care for children in the domestic sphere. In other words, the bite, and sharpness, of the objection posed to Mill’s “common arrangement” itself partly rests upon and crucially depends upon systematic devaluation of care work both in Mill’s time and persisting into the present time.

I conclude that Mill should be appreciated for recognizing that caregiving is a valuable human activity. His liberalism puts liberty and care and compassion on equal footing through his model of balance of the virtues. Although questions remain about the rationale and reasonableness of Mill’s proposals for distributing this work in his own lifetime, yet its value remains intact and undiminished as a supreme component of the good life and the Art of Life. Furthermore, my argument clarifies how Mill’s liberalism and utilitarianism showcase the centrality of liberal education and practices of care and compassion. These are key virtues that are essential to human happiness, well-being, and the good life. These habitual character traits serve to ground stable and reliable care for the vulnerable and dependent people who require it.


1. Earlier versions of this chapter were presented at the ISUS-XIV Conference, Lille Catholic University, Lille, France, July 5, 2016, and the Western Canadian Philosophical Association Conference, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, October 29, 2016.1 thank the audiences at those conference sessions for their questions and comments.


Bhandary, Asha. 2016. “A Millian Concept of Care: What Mill’s Defense of the Common Arrangement Can Teach Us About Care.” Social Theory and Practice 42 (1): 155-182.

Donner, Wendy. 2011. “Morality, Virtue and Aesthetics in Mill’s Art of Life.” In John Stuart Mill and the Art of Life, edited by Ben Eggleston, Dale E. Miller, and David Weinstein, 146-165. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

-. 2007. “John Stuart Mill on Education and Democracy.” In J.S. Mill’s

Political Thought: A Bicentennial Re-Assessment, edited by Nadia Urbinati and Alex Zakaras, 250-274. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

-. 1991. The Liberal Self: John Stuart Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Donner, Wendy, and Richard Fumerton. 2009. Mill. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Note: Donner is the sole author of Part I: “Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy.” Chapters 2-8, 15-143.

Driver, Julia. 2014. “Mill, Moral Sentimentalism, and the Cultivation of Virtue.” In Cultivating Virtue: Perspectives From Philosophy, Theology, and Psychology, edited by Nancy E. Snow, 49-61. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mill, John Stuart. 1963-1991. The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, edited by John M. Robson, 33 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Morales, Maria. 1996. Perfect Equality: John Stuart Mill on Well-Constituted Communities. Lanham, MD: Rowman Sc Littlefield.

Okin, Susan Moller. 1979. “John Stuart Mill, Liberal Feminist.” In Women in Western Political Thought, 197-230. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Shanley, Mary Lyndon. 2005. “Marital Slavery and Friendship: John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women." In Mill’s The Subjection of Women: Critical Essays, edited by Maria Morales, 52-70. Lanham, MD: Rowman Sc Littlefield.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics