The Formation of Character: Mill's "Ethology" Reconsidered

Terence Ball

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


"Character" is today a key concept in conservative discourse and is virtually absent from the language of liberalism. I argue that liberals can, and perhaps ought to, reclaim the concept of character from its near-monopoly by conservatives. One way to do so is to look back to John Stuart Mill's proposed "science" of character-formation, which in his System of Logic (1843) he called "ethology." Although he never wrote a treatise on ethology, his major works can be read as case studies in applied ethology. His Autobiography shows how a single individual, viz. himself, was able to reform a partially deformed character. The Subjection of Women is about the deformation and possible reformation of the characters of half the human race, viz. women. Considerations on Representative Government is concerned with the formation of civic character. And not least, On Liberty is concerned with the conditions conducive to the formation of vital and vigorous individual characters. I conclude by contrasting Mill's conception of character with that of a prominent neoconservative social scientist.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)25-48
Number of pages24
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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