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On Liberty

On Individuality

Erica Stonestreet explores a peculiar aspect of On Liberty.

The principles Mill articulates for living together in a well-functioning society in On Liberty rest on a conception of the individual that may be somewhat surprising, given Mill’s explicitly Utilitarian stance. The third chapter, ‘On Individuality, as One of the Elements of Wellbeing’ contains a strikingly virtue-oriented argument (even though it is dressed in Utilitarian trappings). Based on an implicit characterization of human good that is not entirely happiness-based, Mill claims that there is something wrong with less than full participation in one’s life.

In ‘On Individuality’, Mill argues that individual decision and originality are what makes liberty worth having. Thus liberty is to serve individuality, not the other way around. Mill does argue, in good Utilitarian fashion, that individuality promotes the general good; but actually, his main argument is that individuality is not merely an instrumental good (ie a good facilitating happiness), but is a good in itself, because there is intrinsic worth in the individual development of human faculties.

Mill is not against conformity itself; but he is against conformity for no other reason than that you wish to blend in. It’s one thing to adopt customs because after exercising your discrimination you find them suitable: it is another to adopt them out of “ape-like imitation.” The danger Mill sees is that conformity for its own sake leads to an atrophy of the “highest and best” in individuals. Those who do not exercise their discrimination lose it, and become no more than animals. By contrast, the purpose of liberty is allow one to develop one’s faculties.

It’s relatively uncontroversial to claim that it is good to develop one’s faculties – at least, with the qualification that they be exercised in the service of some worthy purpose. Mill’s unique point lies in where he locates the source of this purpose. As the chapter title suggests, the idea is that the self-development that constitutes individuality is an essential element of well-being. Elsewhere, in addressing the ‘swine’ objection to Utilitarianism – the accusation that the pursuit of pleasure is worthy only of beasts, with the implication that pleasure therefore can’t be the ultimate good – Mill argues that humans are capable of appreciating ‘higher goods’ like poetry, music and science. His designation of such pursuits as ‘higher’ already indicates an underlying assumption that there’s something intrinsically valuable about developing (or at least flexing) human capabilities; so if you’re not engaged in shaping your own life, you’re not being fully human. Thus, according to Mill himself, self-development is not only important for the goods it produces, such as the advancement of knowledge or of society, but simply as part of what it is to live well as a human being. This sounds a lot like virtue ethics, and not at all like Utilitarianism.

This point is less surprising if we observe that one of Mill’s sources, Wilhelm von Humboldt, looks explicitly to virtue. Like Mill, Humboldt is ultimately concerned with the design and role of government. Humboldt starts his inquiry in The Sphere and Duties of Government (1792) with an investigation of the worth of the individual, since he takes the point of government to be the protection of individuals’ interests. Humboldt traces this idea back to the ancients, finding there an emphasis on virtue and individuality that the Industrial Revolution threatened. He wrote: “The ancients devoted their attention more exclusively to the harmonious development of the individual man, as man; the moderns are chiefly solicitous about his comfort, his prosperity, his productiveness. The former looked to virtue; the latter seek for happiness.”

The difference between these is subtle; even the ancients related virtue to happiness when they claimed that virtue was essential to happiness, if not fully constitutive of it. But the notion of ‘happiness’ Humboldt complains of is different from the ancient idea of the happiness of human flourishing that comes from virtue. Both Mill and Humboldt are worried about this modern shift in the notion of happiness, a shift that results from displacing the notion of virtue from a good in itself, to being a good instrumental in procuring a more immediate notion of happiness, derived from the enjoyment of fleeting physical and material pleasures attached to comfort, prosperity, and production.

Mill and Humboldt each elaborate the idea that it is not only one’s beliefs , but also one’s feelings, that should be one’s own. The idea is reminiscent of Aristotle’s picture of the virtuous person having well-tuned sentiments that fully belong to him in virtue of conforming to his reason. Sentiment and reason can be powerful forces if developed together. Mill writes that “[a] person whose desires and impulses are his own – are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture – is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character.” If character or individuality is the central intrinsic good, rather than the degenerate notion of material happiness, then the conclusion follows (in Humboldt’s words): “The highest ideal… of the co-existence of human beings, seems to me to consist in a union [of thought and feeling] in which each strives to develop himself from his own inmost nature, and for his own sake.” Essential to such individual development is the making of decisions for yourself. And thus you making decisions for yourself is essential to your truest well-being.

Decide For Yourself

What is it to make a decision for yourself? The difference between making your own decisions and letting them be made for you is much like that between steering a boat and drifting in it. In the latter case, boat and passenger end up where wind and water take them; in the former, you have some say in where the boat ends up. No one can avoid having to respond to the world, of course, and much of the time the decisions we are given to make don’t come about through any doing of our own, and take us places we don’t plan to go, just as the boat’s pilot will sometimes be contending with forces greater than she can control. People often end up living lives they would never have desired or anticipated. This can be by choice – but even then it is by choice given the available alternatives among unexpected obstacles. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between being in some measure of control, and being in none.

Just what is the difference? Well, what’s the difference between steering the boat and merely drifting in it? The obvious answer is a kind of engagement by the pilot. In steering, the pilot has a hand on the tiller and is on the lookout for rocks, waves and weather. She anticipates the way a boat will move as a result of these things, and calculates the moves she needs to make in order to make the ride as comfortable as possible and keep the boat seaworthy. Most of all, there is direction. There is a point to all of this activity, whether it is to end up in a particular place, or simply to survive and reach shore. By contrast, a drifter has no direction and hence no need of activity because it is not particularly foreseeable where she will end up. If the drifting goes on for too long, say, a significant portion of her life, she may lose her skill at steering. This is just Mill’s fear: someone who lets public opinion and the trends of society guide her life fails to exercise the part of her that truly engages with the world, anticipating events and making decisions to guide herself through them. This engaging, decision-making part is the part that makes her an individual, and without exercise it can wither.

Of course, when the water is calm, it can be nice just to drift. Sometimes we need a break from being in control, and sometimes we spend time following our whims and letting the world take us where it will. Mill couldn’t object to vacations, nor afternoons off. But drifting can’t remain a permanent state of affairs; after too much vacation most of us start to get restless and long to go back to a purposeful routine.

This brings to mind the experiment that Mrs March lets her girls conduct for one week in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The four girls complain about their daily chores, and to teach them a lesson about the importance of work, their mother forbids any work for a week. The only activities allowed are leisure pursuits. By the end of the week the house is untidy, the floors are dirty, there are no dishes to use, no food to eat, and the whole family is grouchy. The girls learn the intended lesson – that too much leisure is not good for the soul – and return to their work with renewed vigor.

So while it is sometimes good to take a break from exercising control, there is such a thing as too much apathy. This is plausible to the point of being obvious: it’s perfectly reasonable to think that it’s part of your intrinsic well-being to be engaged with your life and make your own decisions. The point, though, is that Mill’s notion of well-being rests on an understanding of what humans are that doesn’t ultimately look to outcomes to determine its value (as Utilitarianism does). Instead, it looks to character. Being an individual matters, not just because we’re better off in a Utilitarian way when we chart our own courses through life, but because as human beings, we’re better when we do.

© Erica Stonestreet 2009

Erica Stonestreet is an assistant professor at the College of St Benedict / St John’s University in central Minnesota.

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