“On Liberty” (1859), Chapter 3: Of Individuality as one of the Elements of Well-Being, by John Stuart Mill

“On Liberty” (1859), Chapter 3: Of Individuality as one of the Elements of Well-Being, by John Stuart Mill

  • Let’s examine if the same reasons don’t require that men should be free to act upon their opinions without hindrance from fellow man, so long as it’s at their own risk & peril
    • Actions should not be as free as opinions. Even opinions lose their immunity when they are expressed with a mischievous act in mind. An opinion can justly be punished when given to an angry mob to incite them
    • Acts that do harm to others without justification may be controlled by the unfavorable sentiments & by active interference by mankind. Man’s liberty must be limited so far as he must not make himself a nuisance to others. If refrains from harming others & just acts according to his own inclinations & judgment, he should be free to carry his opinion into action at his own cost for the same reasons his opinions should be free.
      • Mankind isn’t infallible. Most of its truths are half-truths. Unity of opinion, unless resulting from free comparison of opinions, is not good & diversity of opinion is not evil. As long as mankind isn’t prefect, there should be different opinions. There should be experiments of living & free scope should be given to varieties of character, without injury to others. Individuality should assert itself
        • Where traditions or customs of others rule people, human happiness suffers because it lacks the main ingredient of individual & social progress
    • In maintaining this idea, the difficulty is in the indifference of people in general to the end itself. If people thought free development of the individual was the key to well-being, as a necessary part & condition of civilization, education, culture, etc., liberty would not be undervalued & be threatened by social control
      • Individual spontaneity isn’t seen as having intrinsic worth. The majority don’t see why the ways of things as they are now don’t work for everybody. Spontaneity isn’t ideal to the majority but is seen as troublesome & destructive to the general acceptance of what’s best for man
      • No one’s idea of excellence in conduct is that we all should copy each other. They don’t say that people shouldn’t behave as they see best in their own judgment. People don’t ignore past history & experience in arriving at preferable outcomes & behavior. A mature person uses his faculties to use & interpret experience in his own way, applicable to his own character & circumstances. Others’ traditions & customs are a form of experience. But interpretation & application might not fit the individual with respect to his inclinations & character
      • Human faculties of judgment & perception are only exercised in making a choice when you do things out of custom, no choice is made by the individual. These faculties must be used to be maintained & even strengthened. Those who allow the world to make choices for them & make plans for them don’t need these faculties, except to imitate others. You have to use observation to see, judgment & reasoning to foresee, activity to gather information for decisions, discrimination to decide, self-control to maintain the decision. All of these have to be developed
      • Not only is what you do important but so is how you do it. The human has to grow like a tree, not be built like a machine. You grow through exercising understanding. Sometimes it’s OK to follow a custom intelligently & sometimes to deviate intelligently. It’s better than blind adhesion to it. It’s understood that our understanding, desires, impulses & strengths should be our own
        • Strong impulses are only dangerous when not balanced. They should grow alongside strength to control them, because weak consciences with strong impulses lead to danger
        • When one person’s desires & feelings are stronger than another, that means he has more raw material of human nature & is more capable of evil & good
        • Strong impulses = more energy. They can be used for good & bad
        • Cultivation of impulses & desires by society serves its interests. When a person has his own desires & impulses, he has an expression of his own nature & has more character. Those without their own impulses & desires have no character. Those with strong impulses with a strong will have an energetic character
  • In early states of society, these forces might be too much & social principles struggle with them. To induce strong men to obey rules requires them to control their impulses. To overcome this, law & discipline assert a power over all men – to control a power over all a man’s life in order to control his character
    • Now society has overcome individuality & the danger is not excess of a person’s impulses & preferences, but a deficiency. Now, everyone lives under the eye of censorship, not only in what concerns other but what concerns himself. It doesn’t occur to people to have any inclination except out of custom. The mind is completely yoked, even when it comes to pleasure. Peculiarity & eccentricity are shunned until men have no nature to follow, only custom
    • This goes along with the Calvinist viewpoint that whatever isn’t a duty is a sin. They say human nature is radically corrupt. They crush out human faculties – the only one necessary is to surrender to God. This view, in a mitigated form, is popular in obedience as prescribed to us by authority.
    • But it’s more consistent with faith that God gave us inclinations & faculties to develop in order to be excellent in our actions, not to be abnegated
    • The individual isn’t himself when worn down into uniformity. He is himself when his self is cultivated & allowed & encouraged to show through. Human life becomes rich, diversified & produces higher thoughts, allowing the race to grow stronger. Each person becomes more valuable to himself as he becomes more valuable to others.
      • It’s necessary to restrain individuals from encroaching on the rights of others. What he loses in freedom to gratify himself at the expense of others he gains in opportunity to develop his social nature through restraint. When he is restrained in things not affecting the good of others, he spends his efforts trying to break the restraint. To allow both sides of nature their due, people must be allowed to live different lives. Anything that crushes this individuality is a form of despotism
  • Cultivation of individuality is the only way to produce well-developed people. Originality is a valuable element in people. There’s a need not just to learn new truths & to point out when “truths” aren’t true but to start new practices, tastes & senses in life. Not everyone can provide these services but just a few people can prove an established practice. Without these people, life would be stagnant with nothing new. Originality prevents beliefs & practices from remaining traditional
    • People of genius are a small minority but to get them you have the proper environment to get genius to flourish. If they are force into mold, society wouldn’t benefit from their genius. Efforts to restrain them will destroy their genius & their gifts. You have to allow genius to unfold itself in its own way through freedom of thought & practice
    • Most people think they can do without originality but don’t understand all improvements were brought about by freedom to think & act differently. Originality opens people’s eyes to new things & methods
    • At the moment, individuals get lost in the crowd because public opinion rules the world. The masses decide things & use government as a tool to enforce moral & social relations in a form of collective mediocrity
    • Men now get their opinions & ideas from men just like them. No government can force man to rise above the mediocrity except under counsels of highly gifted men. But the great thing is the average man has the ability to recognize improvement & adopt it. The genius just has to show the rest of society the way. Forcing people into it is antithetical to freedom & corrupts the genius
      • But it seems that mediocre men become powerful & dominant, & to turn that around would be to allow more individuality that would lead to higher levels of thinking. This would encourage non-conformist people, who eschew custom. But the tyranny of opinion makes eccentricity seem like a bad thing
  • Freedom has to be given to uncustomary things & even encouraged. This goes not only for the geniuses but to everyone. To promote only one mode of living is to promote something that won’t suit a lot of people. Different people require different forms of spiritual development. One thing may help one person but hinder another
    • Nowhere on earth is this fact not apparent but we often hear people who stray from the norm as being considered morally deficient. Only those, usually the noble or rich, who are immune to social opprobrium are free to be eccentric.
    • Another factor about individuality is that not only is the average man of moderate intelligence but of moderate inclinations. They don’t want to do unusual things & those outside the norm are often looked down upon
      • Lately moral improvement has led to regulation of conduct & the discouragement of excesses. The public have become more likely to prescribe general rules for conduct & conformity expressly or tacitly to desire nothing strongly
  • Often when ideals only include half of what’s desirable, it destroys any instance of the other half. Instead of strong energy controlled by strong reason, we either see weak feelings & weak energy conforming to a rule without strong will or reason
    • Today only commerce encourages energy. What’s leftover is spent on hobbies but on a smaller scale. England seems only capable of doing anything out of habit. We need a change of spirit & some freedom to reverse the trend
  • Despotism of custom is the hindrance to human advancement by providing antagonism toward liberty. Spirit of improvement is a different matter. They might coincide but improvement can be brought about by coercion & liberty
    • Most places in the world have no history because the despotism of custom is complete. This true with the Far East, where conformity to custom is the very definition of justice & law. No one dreams of resisting custom
      • A people may advance for some time but will stop when it stops having individuality. Despotism of custom prescribes singularity. It doesn’t stop change, so long as everyone changes together
      • When we are free to progress & change, we make new inventions, keep them until they are improved by something better. We look to improve politics, education & morals – by trying to persuade our morality is better than another
      • Places like China must have had individuality at some point because they have some customs that work, they have writings & inventions but all of that stopped & society became stationary once individuality was suppressed. It seems this will only change through outside intervention
      • What’s stopped Europe from this fate? Diversity of character: individuals, classes, nations, variety of paths. They may have been intolerant of on another & attempts to thwart one another are rarely long-lasting. Europe owes its superior position to its plurality of paths. But it’s sliding into the same fate as China.
  • 2 things are necessary for human development – Freedom & a variety of situations. The variety is presently diminishing
    • People are reading the same things, seeing the same things. They have the same hopes & fears, the same rights & liberties
    • All political power is oriented toward raising the low & lowering the high. All education pushes for it. People are under the same influences. People in for away places are in closer contact. Increased commerce & industry promotes that. We all have the same circumstances & objects of ambition
      • It will continue until there ceases to be any social support for non-conformity. A combination of all the preceding influences will be hostile to the individual. If the claims of the individual are to be asserted, it should be now before we get enforced assimilation

Author: knowit68

Leave a Reply