Cultivating Character: John Stuart Mill and the Subject of Rights


  • I would like to thank Tim Kaufman-Osborn, William Sokoloff, and especially Michaele Ferguson for their tremendously helpful and enthusiastic responses to earlier versions of this article. Thanks also to the reviewers at AJPS for their provocative comments.

Karen Zivi is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Southern California, Von KleinSmid Center 327, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0044 (


The antidemocratic tendencies of rights appear to be numerous. As trumps, rights are denounced for shutting down political debate and undermining the common good. As disciplinary, rights are attacked for reinforcing a politics of exclusion. I argue that an appreciation of the democratic potential of rights requires conceiving of them as political claims, as claims that represent a perspective that we seek to persuade others to adopt and through which we can create and contest community and identity. I cull a political conception of rights from the work of John Stuart Mill by rethinking the meaning of and connection between his ontological commitments and his politics. Paying careful attention to his notion of “character” and its cultivation, I argue that Mill embraces a conception of the socially constituted subject who is both disciplined and enabled by rights.