Equality as reciprocity: John Stuart Mill's "The Subjection of Women"

Maria Helena Morales, University of Pennsylvania


I put equality at the center of John Stuart Mill's practical philosophy. His principle of "perfect equality" embodies a substantive relational ideal, which I call "equality as reciprocity." This ideal requires removing injustices due to domination and subjection in human associations, including the family. Justice grounded on perfect equality must be the basis of personal, social, and (strictly) political life, because the moral sentiments, chief among human beings' "higher" faculties, find adequate channels only under equality. Genuine happiness, which involves the exercise and development of these faculties, is open only to those who relate as equals. Thus, on my account, equality as reciprocity adds substance to Mill's liberalism. In The Subjection of Women, Mill appealed to his view of human progress to argue for perfect equality. He maintained that this ideal is not appropriate for all times, but required for human improvement and a part of everyone's good under conditions of "modernity." Modern democratic cultures embrace such "progressive" human interests as equal justice, sympathy, and cooperation. Replacing the archaic command and obedience ethic with the nonhierarchical pattern of reciprocity would bring out human beings' "true virtue": living as equals. Inequality, and the exercise of unjust power generally, corrupts everyone's moral character and thwarts human flourishing. All other things equal, egalitarian relations are a critical part of anyone's autonomously chosen plan of life. Given human sociability, any other choice would impoverish a person's life. It is clear from Mill's argument for perfect equality that Mill was not a classical utilitarian. He conceived of utility broadly, as concerning progressive human interests, and argued for educating the "moral part" of human nature through just institutions and social practices. He believed that strengthening equal justice, the chief moral sentiment, is a central requirement of utility, because of the importance of other-regarding sentiments to a good human life. Thus, on my account, Mill's "enlarged" account of utility supports his substantive egalitarianism. His defense of perfect equality is utilitarian only in his idiosyncratic sense.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Womens studies|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Morales, Maria Helena, "Equality as reciprocity: John Stuart Mill's "The Subjection of Women"" (1992). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9227729.