Read with me: On Liberty, Part Three

Welcome to Part Three of this exploration of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. We looked before at Chapter I, which introduced many of the key ideas and concepts of Mill’s theory, and Chapter II, which argued that freedom of thought and discussion was essential to society. This chapter concerns Mill’s thoughts on the centrality of the individual as the main unit of society (as opposed to, say, the household). I actually found this chapter to be much weaker than the previous. Though I effectively agree with his main conclusion – that people generally tend to be happier when they live their life how they see fit – many of his arguments are poorly developed, and some are rather underdeveloped. We will come onto to that, along with other thoughts and critiques that this chapter inspired, later. First, I will present a summary of his main argument.

Chapter III: Of Individuality, As One of the Elements of Well-Being

Mill begins by providing caveats from his last chapter. He had argued that people should be left free to believe what they want, and discuss what they want. However, he states, “no one” – not even he – “believes that actions should be as free as opinions”. More precisely, if words lead directly to actions that violate the harm principle, the means of expression, though not the opinion expressed, should be restricted, for 

Even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. 

This is not necessarily restricted to direct calls for violence. The example he provides is one of promoting anger against corn dealers (very relevant to his time of writing): people should be free to publish their opinion that corn dealers are starving the poor, but should not express this opinion in front of a mob of people. His opinion is thus that the press should be completely free, but that some speech, even of the same opinion, should be restricted. It is not, then, freedom of ‘speech’ per se, but freedom of publication. The freedom of the individual should thus be unrestricted, so long as he does not prove himself a nuisance to others. What it means to be a “nuisance” is to be defined in a later chapter. For now, Mill extolls the virtues of letting individuality roam free in order to improve people’s well-being.

Central to his argument that individuality will improve well-being is the idea that in acting as individuals, people will engage in “experiments of living”. This means allowing people to live as they wish, giving free scope for varieties of character, so long as people do not cause injury to others. Mill argues that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically. What is the impediment to these “experiments”? Mill argues that people who are content with the way their lives are going do not see the value in experimentation, spontaneity, or choice. Others who seek to reform society see individuality as an impediment to their reforms – that is, what they think people should do. This is a matter of degree: no one argues that people should copy one another completely, nor that they should totally disregard all established experience. Rather, Mill suggests, once at maturity, people should use their critical faculties to decide what part of recorded experience is applicable to themselves. They should not just accept custom simply because it is custom – this would not help train their minds. Indeed, 

The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. 


He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties.

Choosing one’s own path therefore exercises a range of critical functions; and it is this way of seeking self-improvement that separates humans from machines.

What of those who think that while our understanding should be our own, our impulses and desires must be controlled? As Mill argues, people’s impulses should similarly be free, for they are only dangerous if not properly balanced by a strong conscience. The impulse to do good can be just as powerful as the impulse to do bad. “Impulse” is simply an energy that must be trained and cultivated. Furthermore, these desires and impulses must be left alone in order for a person to have character: strong impulses guided by a strong will make for an energetic character. Society needs strong characters. If earlier societies struggled to contain spontaneity, that is, they found it difficult to induce men to obey rules that required impulse control, they resorted to despotism. However, society, at the time that Mill writes, is, in his opinion, able to control such impulses. The danger now is that it controls it too much. People should be permitted to reflect on their preferences and desires, and assess what modes of living would suit their character and disposition. Instead, they ask themselves what suits their position or circumstance. As he clarifies, 

I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary.

This is expressed, at its most extreme, in the tradition of Calvinism, which teaches that it is man’s duty to follow and obey their teachings, and surrender himself completely to God. This is echoed in other religions. Yet, Mill argues, God gave humans critical faculties and impulses so that they might use them.

Furthermore, Mill continues, individuality of character is beautiful, and beautiful characters together constitute a beautiful society. However, the whole of society only becomes greater than the sum of its parts in this way when the parts are allowed to flourish. Within this, man being prohibited only from “gratifying his inclinations” which would lead “to the injury of others” will better develop the “social part of his nature”. If, however, he is restrained from acting in ways which do not cause harm to others, this will stunt his character, building only resistance against the restraints. In other words, restraint on anti-social (harmful) behaviour will breed social behaviour, while restrictions on individuality will breed anti-social behaviour. As he summarises, 

Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men. 

Individuality will, in this way, elevate humans to the best they can be, and anything that prevents this must necessarily be immoral.

Society and the individual therefore benefit from experiments of living. With a diverse array of experiments, only a few need to be successful for others to learn from. Further, just as free discussion of ideas keeps the ideas alive, so too does free experimentation of modes of living keep understanding of customary practices alive. Within this environment, where people are free to discuss ideas and experiment with how they live, genius is free to breathe. Geniuses are less able to fit “into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character”. If forced into a mould, they will not grow, and society will not benefit. There is a danger, however, for “unoriginal minds” to constrain genius, because they believe they have no need for original thought. The individual therefore becomes “lost in the crowd”.

There are further implications, too. Without individual brilliance, government becomes responsive only to the tendencies and instincts of the masses. Mill sees this for himself: he notes how “public opinion now rules the world”. This is true in England, where he argues that the government is swayed predominantly by the middle class, who all form the same opinions, and share in a “collective mediocrity”. They form their opinions from middle class writers writing in middle class newspapers. A government who represents this mediocre class becomes a mediocre government. Better governments are ruled by a sovereign, himself gifted, or guided by a gifted one or few (though no strongman or dictator). In order to have men capable of leading others in government, they need to have the freedom to deviate from popular opinion; people must dare to break the tyranny of opinion by being eccentric.

Returning to his earlier theme, Mill goes on to argue that a person can choose how to live their life better than anyone else, and that there is no real need for custom. This is because people require different climates for their spiritual development. They have a wide array of inherent likes and dislikes. Yet “the man, and still more the woman” will be reprimanded for doing, and he quotes, “what nobody does”. Indeed, they’ll be treated as if they are insane. They are made, by a supposedly moral movement operating under the guise of philanthropy, to conform to what others regard as improvement. But they are made to conform to something dull, which desires nothing strongly, and therefore “instead of great energies guided by vigorous reason, and strong feelings strongly controlled by a conscientious will, its result is weak feelings and weak energies”.

This spirit of improvement is toxic, and especially so because the spirit of liberty will lead naturally to improvement, and much more so than those improvements which are forced upon others. This despotism of custom leads to no history, given that there is no change. While “a people, it appears, may be progressive for a certain length of time”, they may stop. Why? Because this people “cease to possess individuality”. Mill’s example – and this is an example which betrays the nature of the period when Mill was writing – is of the East, and specifically China. There is potential for what happened there – stagnation – to happen in Europe. Fashion may still change every year or so, but people must still dress the same as others. Yet the change is for change’s sake, and all people change together. People still seek better in machines, politics, education, and morals, but there is still a desire for conformity. People think the object of progress is to become the same. Yet it is only by comparing different individuals that we can see the flaws and good in each, and conceive of characteristics better than in either. Returning to his example, Mill argues that China found good customs, imposed them upon everyone, and then stagnated. The only way they can be improved, he asserts (again betraying the nature of the period) is by “foreigners”. Europe has so far been preserved by its diversity. The attempts to force conformity upon each other, driven by the European’s intolerance for one another, have so far been unsuccessful. Yet the “variety of situations” is diminishing as people assimilate: 

Comparatively speaking, they [Europeans] now read the same things, listen to the same things, have their hopes and fears directed by the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them.

This assimilation is being driven by several factors. Education is bringing people under common influences. More communication and more migration is bringing different people together, who then become the same. Politics is raising the low and lowering the high to bring people to a similar level. Commerce has given everyone the same desire to rise, and the same access to products that bring “easy circumstances”. Worst of all in eradicating difference is the ascendency of public opinion to the level of the state, making more it difficult to resist the will of the public. Forces are therefore encroaching on individuality, increasing assimilation, and limiting the range of experiments of living. All this conspires to reduce the chances of people to improve their own well-being in ways that they see fit.

*        *        *

The central thesis to Mill’s argument here is generally compelling. The concept that people should be free to engage in experiments of living and choose for themselves a life that they see fit, based on their own experience, and based on their understanding of the experiences of others, is beautiful. The phrase “experiments of living” has stayed with me long after I read this book the first time around. It helped shape my views on politics, in particular the debate around devolution in the UK, and the importance of local authorities and mayoralties – the US equivalent being, I suppose, the debate over states and states’ rights. It encapsulates perfectly not just the need for expressions of individuality, but an active interest in learning how people live life differently without desiring to control or change them. Likewise, I really like Mill’s emphasis on how damaging not just political repression, but the stigma of public opinion can be to individual expression.

In his emphasis of social stigma, Mill revisits, and elaborates upon, one of the concepts introduced earlier in the book: the tyranny of the majority. The threat of public opinion taking hold of the state comes, in Mill’s mind, from the middle class. A growing middle class, rather than being a force for good, could tyrannise over others, asserting their opinions and modes of living as the correct way to live. This fear resurfaces throughout the chapter, and especially the fear that the state will learn to respond to this mass, reflecting popular “will”, and enacting laws that infringe on the rights of those deemed as “eccentric”. This fear is again present today, in the form of populism. I would be repeating myself by discussing this further, but it is worthy of note that Mill saw the threat coming from the middle class, while today the threat is seen from the disaffected (“left-behind”) working classes.

Another theme that carries over from the previous chapter is the importance of training one’s faculties. Training came before from debate and discussion, and active consideration of ideas. In this chapter, it comes from exercising choices about how to live one’s life. The same criticisms apply – at some point people will have to defer to custom, because they cannot consider everything. However, this is subject to the same rebuttal: people should still have the freedom to choose. Within this, the emphasis on training the impulses is also particularly interesting. The impulse is characterised as a key aspect of one’s character, but it must be trained and guided. 

A final theme that Mill revisits is the critique of organised religion. This again demonstrates the text’s place within the history of Protestantism, though this time the criticism is aimed at Calvinism, rather than Catholicism. Interestingly, the idea that God gave humans critical faculties so that he might use them is now a popular rebuttal used by atheists, which demonstrates the traditions of atheism in this Protestant-Liberal thought.

Other key themes emerge in this chapter that had not been developed elsewhere. A first is an emphasis on balance that reoccurs throughout. This follows from Mill’s idea that impulses and desires should be balanced by a trained intellect and a strong conscience. It is the balance of these two elements that reduces the danger of people acting recklessly, whilst also enhancing their individuality and personality. The idea of balance is also present at the societal level. Society must balance its need to control people’s impulses to protect others from harm against its need to allow individuals to flourish. 

As well as showing the primacy of balance to Mill’s ideas, this chapter also shows what “progress” means to Mill. He does not see an endpoint to history. Other thinkers might well believe, as Mill implies, that the point of progress is to find the ideal point to live, establish these ideal modes of living as customs, and live out human existence thereafter. This is futile, as Mill argues out: no such ideal would fit everyone. The point of experimenting is not to find practices that should become custom, for there should be no custom. “Progress” will come naturally as individuals experiment with what works for them, learning from others, and building on the joint stock of knowledge. Humanity will continue to evolve in this way, always changing, but never reaching some predestined endpoint.

Similarly, the writing here also reveals something of Mill’s approach to free will and determinism. Mill clearly believes in free will as the basis for decision making. However, free will can be eroded by the failure to exercise it, and in that way people become more like cattle or machines (the two metaphors that Mill commonly refers to). By exercising critical functions and seeking self-improvement, humans distinguish themselves from other animals. Mill does not sidestep completely the idea of biological determinism, for he acknowledges the presence of impulses and desires, which can influence human behaviour. He states, however, that these impulses can be guided and trained by a strong intellect. In this view, Mill almost takes a compatibalistic approach to the debate over free will, with humans driven by animalistic and biological impulses, but able and capable of guiding and shaping these impulses by exercising their critical faculties and making choices. He does not point out that humanity’s cognitive abilities are, to a greater or lesser extent, biologically determined. But then this is not a debate over whether or not free will exists, but over the degree to which giving humans freedom of choice will improve their well-being.

This chapter also contains some interesting links to other theorists. Some Mill references directly: he draws on Wilhelm von Humboldt explicitly, framing his thoughts around his influences by this German philosopher and linguist. Mill borrows from von Humboldt the idea that, in order to live well, people should have “freedom, and variety of situations”. This is foundational to Mill’s argument, developing the “variety of situations” to mean a diverse array of “experiments of living”. He draws on others, too, if less explicitly. At some points Mill begins to draw on ideas explored almost two centuries earlier by John Locke – ideas which found their way into the United States’ Declaration of Independence. The whole basis of “experiments of living” is almost a rewording of the famous line in the Declaration of Independence that people should have the freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, which itself famously borrows from Locke’s work.

There are further strands which may well have influenced later scholars. Though I do not have the authority to make bold claims on this matter, there are other concepts that came to my mind as I read this chapter. In his discussion of impulses, Mill’s conceptualisation of human nature becomes almost Freudian: the idea that humans possess impulses and desires which could be destructive could be characterised as the id. At the same time, that humans should possessive the capability of developing a strong intellect that responds to moral teachings is reflective of the superego. The inherent balance of these two, and how they result in the complete and developed human personality, is reflective of the ego. Similarly, in his discussion of how society treats people who express their individuality in “eccentric” ways as “insane” seems also to reflect Foucault’s theories on socialisation, and the use of terms such as “unnatural” and “sick” to legitimise force against “deviants”, and attempt to make them “normal”. Mill, like Foucault later on, is critical of how society may attempt to correct people they deem to be different.

Mill’s critique here is worthy of some comment. I had the same problem reading this as I had with Foucault’s ideas. Namely, that some people really do need help, and that they may present a danger to themselves in ways that, were they a previous or later version of themselves, they would come to regret. There are some people whose minds, in the language of Mill, never reach “maturity”, that is, people we would recognise today has having learning disabilities who need to be cared for, and who cannot freely engage in “experiments of living” without harming themselves. There are also other societal issues, such as mental illness and addiction, which deeply affect people’s lives. They end up in an “experiment of living” that is detrimental to their well-being, and which almost anyone, including themselves (even if they cannot see it in the moment), would recognise as detrimental. At what point does society intervene? How do we balance respecting people’s freedoms against what becomes a public health concern, for though these people’s actions affect themselves directly, they also impact others directly and indirectly. Anyone who has known a loved one affected by addiction or mental illness will know how hard this is. Mill’s implication that we should treat people suffering in this way as simply “eccentric” and engaging in some “experiment of living” is problematic. As important as it is to recognise that society could label anyone as “unhealthy” or “insane” in order to imply deviance and promote conformity, this comes with the inherent assumption that these labels are being misapplied – that most people given these labels are, in fact, healthy. Or, alternatively, that labels like “healthy” and “unhealthy” have no objective meaning, which again is not helpful when it comes to understanding healthcare and well-being. One possible solution to this problem may be to learn from the experience of others who have lived through addiction or mental illness, and especially how they reflect on their life after the event. This experience could be used to guide interventions into people’s lives, helping them recover or get through any periods where their actions are clearly detrimental to their well-being. Yet this would likely come with the important caveat, something so often said, and something which Mill is probably really hinting at, that people have to want to change.

Another flaw in Mill’s argument, and one which carries over from the previous chapter, is the underlying assumption that people will be honest. Just as his argument that freedom of discussion assumed that people were engaging in discussions seeking the truth, so too does this argument that people can learn from the experiments of other assume that people will report their experiences honestly. People begin their “experiments of living” to identify new practices, reassess old ones, and find better ways of living. Their experience can be useful to others, who can choose from a great array of possible modes of existence. Yet will people whose experiments have failed report this? People are flawed. Having sunk their time into a particular way of life, they may continue living it, however detrimental it may be to them, pretending that it is working well. There may be a reputational cost to them admitting they were wrong. This may result in society being unable to learn from the mistakes of others, if others are unwilling to recognise their mistakes. How, then, would such experiments be able to proceed?

Towards the end of the chapter, Mill also makes some claims which do not make sense within his argument, as well as some which are now almost opposite to Liberal thought. The series of claims he makes about the dangers of assimilation (meaning people generally becoming more and more alike, rather than the current connotations of the term which references immigrants becoming more like those already resident) are unsubstantiated and, if developed, might even contradict his earlier statements. These points are delivered hastily, and no evidence is provided to back them up; little attempt is made to explain them.

First, let us address his claims that migration and increased communications will lead to greater assimilation (that is, conformity). Mill argues implicitly that in order to preserve diversity, the world needs less, rather than more migration and communication. He asserts that people moving about freely, and communicating with each other freely, will lead to everyone becoming the same. Yet this assumes that people will be quick to abandon their cultural heritage, something that was not true of Mill’s time, and still does not reflect today. Furthermore, even if this were true, how are experiments of living supposed to work if people do not move freely or talk to one another? How are people supposed to learn from the experience of others without talking? Another irony, at least reading this today, is that people (at least those on the right) now worry about too much diversity within society as a result of immigration, worrying that a diverse range of views will lead to conflict and incompatibility when it comes to addressing problems of shared concern.

Second is his view that politics is reducing diversity by raising the low and lowering the high. It is not immediately clear what this means; my mind went to taxation and the provision of welfare. Mill is implicitly against taxing the richest in society, and using that money to raise the living standards of the poor. I understand this point from the perspective of a Libertarian who is against taxation on principle. The worry, however, that this will somehow harm society does not make sense to me, nor does it to later Liberals (even those acting shortly after Mill’s writing who introduced compulsory schooling and other reforms). Mill’s solution to this is, implicitly, less government intervention, rather than more. Yet raising the living standards of the poorest will give them greater opportunity to experiment in different modes of living, while taxing the richest allows them to contribute from their successful experiments to increase the diversity of experiments that society can enjoy. A safety net, provided by the state, would allow people to experiment, fail, and learn. Mill similarly objects to the standardisation of education, fearing that it will lead people having “common influences”. The implication is, again, absence of state involvement. However, just as the state must have a role in protecting individuality, should it not also have a role in giving individuals the opportunity to express and develop their individuality through the provision of education? How are people supposed to develop into “maturity” and exercise their freedoms if they are not educated well?

Thirdly, Mill worries that with the increase in commerce, all of society, rather than a few, shares the same desire to become wealthy and increase their status. Again, it is not immediately clear what the problem is here. So what if “rising” becomes the desire of all classes? What is the alternative? Maintaining the class structures that defined Victorian Britain? Furthermore, surely people pursuing commerce in order to improve their status, starting their own businesses, and finding a career that they want, rather than one that reflects their status, is precisely the objective that Mill was arguing for. This is an example of self-improvement and experimentation, of people choosing for themselves something that fits their character and disposition, rather than what suits their position or circumstance. Mill might elaborate on this fear more. A more charitable interpretation of his ideas might be that society would find itself inundated with businesspeople, and lose artists, scientists, and other creatives whose genius advances society. There is no reason, however, why people cannot have multiple desires, pursuing a career, while maintaining their creativity.

Despite some issues, some of Mill’s ideas still have implications for the present day. I wanted to conclude by reflecting on the caveat to freedom of discussion the Mill begins his chapter with. This is a concern I had from Part Two, and I think Mill handles it reasonably well. The idea that it is how and where the opinion is expressed, rather than the opinion itself, that must be controlled should it lead to harm is an effective guide. It is a much less liberal interpretation of free speech than I think most defenders of free speech today would put forward. That you should not be allowed to express an opinion that excites emotion in a context of high emotionality is a much more aggressive stance than preventing incitements of violence. It relates so clearly to recent events. Mill’s example is of a someone standing up in front of an angry crowd and expressing their opinion that the corn dealers are starving the poor – this form of expression should, in his view, be restricted. The obvious recent example is President Trump standing in front of an angry crowd close to the Capitol and expressing his opinion that their vote had been “stolen”. Regardless of whether or not he directly called for violence, in Mill’s view he should not have been allowed to speak there – his opinion would have been fine to publish, however. A similar application is to the “gag orders” placed on the British press, who are restricted from reporting on on-going trials. They are free to publish their opinion that certain people in the trial are guilty, however they may not publish this opinion while the trial is on-going, and thus in a way which may risk influencing the jury. That there is a classically liberal case to be made against such forms of expression is something I think has been missed by political pundits, especially those on the right, who call themselves Classical Liberals in their defence of free speech. Rather than free speech, however, this foundational text instead supports freedom of discussion, freedom of privately held beliefs, and freedom of publication. Freedom of any form of expression, however, would not be permitted – such expression must be limited, given how closely the mode of expression relates to action.

The harm principle again goes undefined. The next chapter, however, promises to demonstrate when it is that the state may intervene. Join me next time for Part Four of the read-along of On Liberty

Let me know what you think in the comments.

The copy I’m reading is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, with a forward by John Gray, published first in 1991, and reissued in 2008:

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, edited by John Gray(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 62-82.

3 thoughts on “Read with me: On Liberty, Part Three

  1. Pingback: Read with me: On Liberty, Part Four – Bucky's Book Reviews

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