John Stuart Mill believed in the subjugation of individual interests for the sake of society as a whole, but only when necessary. Of course, determining when such subjugation is necessary is not at all simple, and this is the task in which Mill distinguished himself as a philosopher. In his treatise on moral philosophy, "Utilitarianism," Mill proposed the "greatest-happiness principle" a sort of pseudo-mathematical, economic equation to determine the desirability of a particular action. (Mill, 1863, p. 87). This principle holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings, within reason.
Principles of Political Economy
Closely connected with Mill's Utilitarianism were his views on economics, especially political economy. In "Principles of Political Economy and Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy," Mill argued that producers should be able to operate without government interference, which, in modern terms, would associate him with Laissez-Faire economics. (Mill, 1848, p. 103). However, it is important to note that Mill only promoted Laissez-Faire economics to the extent that it cultivated personal development. He explained that personal development required not just not the freedom of the economic market, but also the political freedom of the individual.
In promoting the happiness of all sentient beings, Mill, by extension, promoted the happiness of all individuals constituting that group of all. Essentially, Mill valued, very highly, individual happiness, or, personal development as it was referred to in Political Economy. He believed that the political freedom of the individual was an essential element of personal development. Here, the right of consumers to be warned of potentially harmful products would count as a type of "…political freedom of the individual."
Mill's Utilitarianism would prohibit manufacturer harm to non-human life. Mill's "greatest-happiness principle" specifically mentioned the happiness of "all sentient beings," not just human beings. Thus, Mill's Utilitarian philosophy would take consideration of the happiness of animals and plants. Animal and plant health would most certainly be a necessary element of this happiness.
Mill wrote at a time when the environmental consequences of Industrial Capitalism had not yet been fully discovered. Thus, Mill did not comment specifically on whether protection of the environment was an interest of society as a whole. Nor did Mill did address the responsibility of business-owners to the environment. However, Mill's value on the "happiness of all sentient beings" would seem to include an interest in the environment on which those sentient beings depend for their survival. Thus, Mill's philosophy supports the protection of the environment as an interest of society as a whole.
The Property Rights of Businesses
Generally, Mill believed in Laissez-Faire economics as long as it did not impede the political freedoms of individuals. Thus, Mill's economic philosophy does acknowledge the right of businesses to operate free of government interference. This view would accommodate the right of food manufacturers to sell their food products without having to include expensive, burdensome labels.
Upon closer inspection, however, the warning labels being discussed are not very expensive and, considering the manufacturing technology available today, not particularly burdensome. Thus, the cost of including the labels itself does not have a huge effect on the profits of the food manufacturers. It is likely that the real reason food manufacturers dislike warning labels is that such labels might make the product less attractive, scaring off potential consumers. Lost sales would have a significant effect on profits. However, this effect of labels on profits there would be indirect and, thus, not accommodated by Mill's support of Laissez-Faire economics.
John Stuart Mill's views, especially on moral philosophy and economic philosophy, have been hugely influential in the development of Industrial Capitalism and Western Democratic Government. As markets, and corporations occupying them, become more turbulent, Government intervention has come to be a fact of life. In light of these developments, Mill's thoughts on Government and the individual will continue to inform our thoughts on the rights of individuals and businesses.
Mill, J.S. (1863). Utilitarianism. London: Parker, Son, and Bourn.
Mill, J.S. (1848). Principles of Political Economy and Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown.