John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On Liberty, published in 1859, holds individual liberty in very high regard. “Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called” (Mill, 71). Eccentricity and freedom of expression are essential characteristics for the citizens of an ideal society, not because Mill sees these traits as natural rights or moral virtues, but because these qualities are integral for creating a dynamic society. Without individualism, a society is doomed to conformity and intellectual stagnation. This idea that a society as a whole will benefit greatly from these things is a utilitarian justification for Mill’s thesis. Within the contents of this essay, Mill outlines a system that entails precisely how and when a government should become involved in the personal lives of its citizens, a principle dubbed by many scholars as his “harm principle.” Although this theory contains many loopholes that could possibly be mistaken for weaknesses, it is my belief that Mill constructs a solid argument in favor of the proliferation of individual expression. His argument is thorough and well executed – he takes the time to carefully examine opposing positions, and even devotes an entire chapter to applications of his theory.
Mill proceeds to discuss many reasons why individuality within a society is so vital. The first is simply because the opinion of the majority may very well be wrong or ill-informed. Mill is the true father of liberal thinking, in that he believes human beings are fallible and are inherently incapable of knowing the best way to lead a “good” life – we are, by no means, omniscient entities. We make mistakes, we act out of self-interest, and we surely do not have the right to judge other another person’s chosen way of life. The second reason is that Mill believes that only through discussion and debate can we form a fully cogent version of our own opinions. He states that lack of dissention is detrimental to both sides of an argument: one side inevitably has their individuality stifled, while the other side is robbed of a chance to broaden their perspective and defend their beliefs against criticism. Nonconformists constantly challenge the status-quo – without these people there would be no one to keep the intellectual balance of ideas in check. When a society is constructed in a way that places restrictions on expressing oneself, that society will eventually stop progressing and they shall begin to resemble one another in customs, beliefs, and moral attitudes, much like the cultures of the Far East. “Genius can only breathe free in an atmosphere of freedom” (72) he states. Mill also notes that being able to express original thoughts plays an integral part in the development of one’s own character: “One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam engine has character” (67).
It is interesting to note the ways in which Mill address the issues of individual liberty in association with the collective majority. One of his main objectives in On Liberty is to balance these two conflicting concerns. His interest is not limited to the government, however – he seeks to implicate all of the members of society in his essay, asserting that the influence of public opinion is far more dangerous to individual liberty than a government could ever be. In order to combat this problem, Mill expresses the need for a system of government that allows for dissention, freedom of expression, and criticism. In doing so, he constructs his “harm principle”, which states that the government may only interfere with the lives of its citizens if their involvement prevents the harming of another member of that society. This power given to the government is somewhat limited, as Mill does not trust the government to step in at the right time or right place: “The strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place” (92).
Mill divides human liberty into three categories: freedom of thought, freedom to pursue one’s own interests and desires, and freedom to assemble with other members of society so long as it does no harm to anyone else. He places no restrictions on the first set of freedoms, but limits the other two slightly: “No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions [Ã¢Â?Â¦] The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people” (62). This breakdown of liberties and Mill’s respect for them signal his desire to promote individuality among the members of his ideal society. He also leaves quite a bit of room for individuals to comment on and critique other people’s ways of life. Mill does not suggest punishing people in a legal sense, but he does outline a somewhat socially-acceptable way to deal with dissent among members of a community: Bob is allowed to express his disapproval of the way Mary is raising her goldfish. Bob cannot coerce Mary to change her behavior, but he is entitled to let Mary know how he feels, and can even go so far as to warn others about Mary’s careless fish-rearing practices. Mill’s construction allows for the freedom to act, but also allows for the freedom to disapprove of these acts. As long as Mary is not treated with anger or resentment by Bob, they are both free to go about their lives.
It is clear within On Liberty that there are many things left unsaid. Mill’s theory deliberately leaves some room to maneuver – he is definitely not someone who believes that truth is completely relative to each individual. He has ideas about truth, the good, and how people should conduct their lives and at times he lets these preferences creep into his argument. He states that since we cannot possibly know the truth, we cannot pass judgment on those people with whom we do not agree. This is because Mill believes that in every idea there might lay some aspect of truth. Mill also convincingly promotes acting out against the status-quo while never actually admitting that the status-quo of his world needs questioning.
I think that Mill begins to let himself slip in Chapter 5 of the essay, when he discusses the practical applications of his principles, letting his own moral judgments sneak into his argument. “There are many acts which [Ã¢Â?Â¦] if done publicly, are a violation of good manners, and coming thus within the category of offenses against others” (109). For example, when discussing compulsory education for children on page 118: “The instrument for enforcing the law could be no other than public examinations, extending to all children, and beginning at an early age” Mill disregards the authority of the parent to raise his or her child as they see fit, and seems to conflict with his previous statements concerning individual liberty. Mill’s moral compass is also evident in his discussion on gambling, when he admits that gambling houses can have limitations imposed on them by the government: “Public gaming houses should not be permitted [Ã¢Â?Â¦] they might be compelled to conduct their operations with a certain degree of secrecy and mystery, so that nobody knows anything about them but those who seek them; and more than this, society ought not to aim at” (110-1). Though it might be something of a stretch to consider gambling a form of education, throughout the entire work Mill has been an advocate of diverse education. To shield the public from such an activity will only keep information from them – something it seems Mill has been intent on preventing up to this point.
This leads us to question of what, exactly, Mill means by individual liberties. Is his theory simply set up in a way that seeks to promote individuality and eccentricity? If so, then his ideas aren’t anything earth-shattering. If, however, he is advocating a complete anarchic breakdown of society, encouraging people to fight against long-standing hegemonic customs, then it is acceptable to question how this collapsed society could be beneficial to humankind. Are there activities and practices that have no value in terms of human development? Unfortunately, Mill leaves these questions unanswered. Regardless, the ideas put forth in his essay On Liberty are not to be taken lightly – nearly all of his points have practical applications in our world today. Despite his minor shortcomings, I feel that Mill does a fantastic job (especially considering the time-period in which this work was written) of outlining why eccentricity and personal expression are so incredibly important in today’s society.
1. Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. J.M. Dent. London. 1993.