On Liberty

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Chapter 3, Of Individuality, as one of the Elements of Well-being

Summary Chapter 3, Of Individuality, as one of the Elements of Well-being


In this chapter, Mill tries to show that individuality and nonconformity are valuable both on the level of the individual and on the level of society. Mill believes that society naturally prefers conformity, and that this preference is exacerbated by democratization and the control of society by the masses.

Mill's concern with the stifling of individuality extends to both legal and social realms. He believes that in the face of public pressure to conform and the institutionalized power of over-reaching laws, the individual is obstructed from an ability to make meaningful choices, and thus from personal development. More broadly, and extremely important to any argument resting on the concept of utility, conformity hurts society as well as the individual in the minority, since in conformity people lose out on potentially desirable ways of approaching life and stop learning from each other. Mill believes that social progress requires a dynamic give and take between conflicting ways of life.

Mill's views of social progress are intimately tied up with his views on individuality and conformity. Mill subscribes to the belief that there are better and worse ways to live life: barbarians and savages, Mill believes live more poorly than civilized man. But, with civilization comes a tendency toward conformity. And since Mille believes that it is through a free and dynamic development of one's self and the interaction with people with different ways of life that an individual perfects himself, and similarly, that it is through discussion and dissent that "truth" is kept alive in society, conformity leads to social stagnation. There may be such a thing as too much individuality, as a barbarian nation is structured (or unstructured). Conformity, however, the opposite of too much individuality, is similarly problematic, and leads only to a lack of vitality. Mill here outlines a relationship between the liberty of man and society that is dynamic, a constantly negotiated terrain; there is a delicate balance, the individual must always be free, but the specter of too much freedom, as embodied by the uncivilized world, does exist.

Mill does not give many examples in this chapter, and his discussion of liberty of action is quite general. Thus, it is important to think about what individual "liberty" Mill truly considers to be necessary for human and social development. If by liberty he merely means permitting eccentricity, then it is not clear that his position is very radical all. However, if Mill wishes to encourage people to act out against deeply engrained social norms, then one might wonder if society might simply lose cohesion and become polarized under his system. One might also wonder if there aren't some actions that are simply worthless for human development. The next two chapters provide some real examples of Mill's principles in action. When reflecting on these examples, think about whether they are consistent with Mill's arguments and predictions in this chapter.

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