On Liberty – Chapter 3 Summary – Of Individuality, As one of the Elements of Well-being

In chapter 3, Mill defends individuality as one of the elements of well being.
  1. Acting according to one’s will is as fundamental as saying what one thinks, as long as one does not make himself a nuisance to others.
  2. Mill argues for different experiments in livings because no one is holder of the full truth, mankind is imperfect and have different opinions. He thus values varieties of character letting the choice of the best of them be proven practically. “It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself.
  3. The challenge in maintaining this principle Mill says is the indifference that people have for other’s lives. People don’t really value the free development of individuality, or individual spontaneity.
  4. Mill thus quotes the German Wilhelm Von Humboldt, a strong proponent of liberty and individuality (from his book, The sphere of Duties of Government), an inspiration for Mill’s doctrine of freedom, which he quotes: The end of man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal or immutable dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole”; that, therefore, the object “towards which every human being must ceaselessly direct his efforts, and on which especially those who design to influence their fellow-men must ever keep their eyes, is the individuality of power and development”. That for this there are two requisites, “freedom and variety of situations” and that from the union of these arise “individual vigor and manifold diversity” which combine themselves in “originality”.
  5. Mill doesn’t argue that all that people do is imitate each other, or should not add their own judgement into the good habits they have learned. neither to live as if no one has ever lived before, as if one could not learn from anyone else’s experience. What Mill stresses is that having reached maturity, “it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being to use and interpret experience in his own way”
  6. That customs are made for customary circumstances that might not be fit to one at his point of time and that one would be better off making his own choice rather that following the customs because: “the human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice”
  7. Mill is very critical of those people who let the world do the choosing for them, who only use they “ape-like” faculty of imitation. His whole worth as a human being is much enriched. One would not want to live the life of an automaton.
  8. After focusing on exercising our own understanding, Mill asks whether the same should be done of our desires and impulses. He believes that people look down on people who have them as peril and snare. But “desires and impulses are as much a part of a perfect human being as beliefs and restraints: and strong impulse are only perilous when not properly balanced; when one set of times and inclinations is developed into strength, which others, which ought to co-exist with them, remain weak and inactive”
  9. Mill believe strong impulse and vigor to be a good thing and that they are no natural relation to weak conscience, only more of the “raw material of human nature” and so can be used as much for good than evil. He says “It is through the cultivation of these [love of virtue and sternest control] that society both does its duty and protects its interest.Mill is a proponent of character, shaped by one’s desire and impulses and so encourages them
  10. Mill looks back at the old times where impulses were hard to control, that “law and discipline asserted a power over the whole man and claimed control of all his life in order to control his character”. Mill lament’s that today, people don’t ask them what is good for them, what is highest and best to grow as. They merely ask what is good for my position, what will make me money, what is preferential for my superior. “Even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of, peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes”
  11. Mill’s then attacks this state of affair as being one encourage by the calvinist theory, where the worst that man can do is to have self-will. a culture of obedience and of duty which crushes any human capacity. He asks whether this is not opposite to religious doctrine which, stating that a God is Good and made us with those faculties, would make us then work hard to eliminate their effect. According to Mill, “pagan self-assertion is one of the elements of human worth as well as christian self-denial”.
  12. Mill still thinks he needs to go further to convince those who don’t think self development is important, that if they encourage it, it is still good for them. For it promotes originality which then allows discovery of new truths and falsehoods. That the human nature has a tendency to degenerate into the mechanical unless there were a series of people working originally and preventing beliefs and practices to become mere traditions. “Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom”. He also laments that people don’t take the idea of originality serious enough. “Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of”
  13. In his discussion of character, Mill is invective about English views. He is very negative about how public opinion views odd behavior. He says “the general average of mankind are not only moderate in intellect, but also moderate in inclinations: they have no taste or wish strong enough to incline them to do anything unusual, and they consequently do not understand those who have, and class all such with the wild and intemperate whom they are accustomed to look down upon”.
  14. He talks about the despotism of custom, which “proscribes singularity, but it does not preclude change, provided all change together .
  15. It is the fate of nations to become stagnate when they don’t encourage originality. Mills points to china, where fine tradition has kept the people in well being but however, for the past thousand of years have not improved much. Europe he thinks has so far escaped the fate of the chinese because of the plurality of paths that nations have taken but this might not last for a long time, as a work by Tocqueville is showing less and less difference with the older generation. Mill reminds us about Humboldt 2 necessary conditions for human development: freedom and diversity variety of situation
  16. Mill ends’ the chapter with the alarming effect of the globalization and industrialization have on promoting conformity. He says “All the political changes of the age promote it, since they all tend to raise the low and to lower the high. Every extension of education promotes it, because education brings people under common influences, and give them access to the general stock of facts and sentiments. Improvement in the means of communication promotes it, by bringing the inhabitants of distant places into personal contact, and keeping up a rapid flow of changes of residence between one place and another. The increase of commerce and manufactures promotes it, by diffusing more widely the advantages of easy circumstances, and opening all objects of ambition, even the highest, to general competition, whereby the desire of rising becomes no longer the character of a particular class, but of all classes.
  17. To Mill, the most important of all the changes is the ascendancy of public opinion in the State, that the idea of resisting the will of the public disappears more and more from the minds of practical politicians. All these are creating a mass influence hostile to Individuality. Mill asks that people act now to make sure it Individuality safeguarded because “mankind speedily become unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it”


See the Summary of Chapter 4 in the next post in this series.


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