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The importance of individuality in Mill's On Liberty


To: Genevieve G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The importance of individuality in Mill's On LIberty
Date: 20 February 2008 13:37

Dear Genevieve,

Thank you for your email of 5 February, with your essay in response to the question, 'Why does Mill emphasise the importance of individuality in "On Liberty"?'

I was expecting to receive a response to unit 2 of Possible World Machine, which discusses the problem of freedom of the will. However, I am perfectly happy to respond to an essay on Mill's 'On Liberty'.

At the beginning of his essay, Mill makes the point that he is not concerned with freedom of the will (i.e. as discussed in unit 2) but rather with liberty in the social and political sense.

The question of freedom of the will is a metaphysical issue. Whether or not we 'believe' that we have free will from a metaphysical point of view, we nonetheless act as if we are free. We criticize the actions of others on the assumption that they freely chose to do what they did. I don't think it is even possible to describe a 'society' where individuals did not 'believe' that they had free will.

Whereas, we have no difficulty in describing different societies where 'liberty' in the sense described in Mill's essay is held in high regard, or in low regard. This is the topic that Mill is concerned with.

You have written a good answer to the question. You have grasped the main point, that the development of individuality according to Mill is not only an essential part of human well-being, but also that society as a whole benefits from the cultivation of individuality because of its enriching effects on culture, as well as on stimulating debate.

It is through open and unfettered debate -- encouraged by freedom of thought and discussion -- that we can discover truths and solve the problems that society faces.

You make the point at the beginning of your essay that Mill became dissatisfied with Benthamism, and its reduction of all happiness to a 'calculus of pleasure and pain'. This can already be seen in Mill's earlier book, 'Utilitarianism' where Mill disagrees, crucially, with Bentham over the question of the nature of pleasures.

According to Bentham, the only distinction between pleasures is their 'fecundity'. The pleasure of playing pushpin (a popular bar-room game at the time) is equivalent to the pleasure of writing poetry. The difference lies only in the fact that the poet, through his or her productions gives pleasure to others.

Mill's view, by contrast, was that we must recognize 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures, which are not commensurable or reducible to a common calculus. This spoils the 'scientific' aspect of ultiltarianism, while at the same time increasing its intuitive appeal. 'It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.'

However, Mill realized that there is still a problem with the emphasis on happiness or well being, which has the potential to conflict with human freedom. Isn't a state where we are happy but less free better than a state where we are free but unhappy? If the ultimate end is happiness, then freedom is just another means of achieving that end, which might be more or less effective in different circumstances, and in any case not essential in the final calculation.

Mill's response to this worry was to argue that individuality is an essential part of human well being. You can't talk about 'happiness' without bringing in its most important component, the free expression of one's individuality. This claim goes together with the view about 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures. The higher the pleasure, the more it expresses our individuality.

However, I have a criticism of Mill. I am all for individuality but I am not so sure if Mill is fully prepared to follow that idea to its conclusion. For Mill, the 'truth' is to be arrived at through free and open discussion. But what is this truth? The committed Muslim, or Jew, or Christian has no chance in winning a 'free and open' debate over the existence of God or the necessity of obeying this or that religious commandment. The only method of arriving at value judgements that survives is Mill's utilitarianism. Human benefit, defined in scientific terms, stripped of 'superstitious' moral intuitions is the only acceptable basis on which decisions can be made.

It is for this reason that I would argue that Mill's 'liberalism' is, at its core, intolerant and illiberal.

All the best,