John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control

By Joseph Hamburger | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven
INDIVIDUALITY AND MORAL REFORM

… individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress. (John Stuart Mill [261])

MILL'S CELEBRATION of individuality in chapter three of On Liberty is passionate and compelling. He presents a picture of a free-spirited, independent person with a distinctive personality who lives in accordance with original and worthy ideas and values. The person with individuality is spontaneous, original, and makes choices in accordance with strong desires that reflect individual character rather than with what is fashionable or customary. Such a person, moreover, is courageous and thus not afraid to defy society. Of course Mill believed that these qualities of individuality were inherently valuable. He indicates that individual spontaneity had “intrinsic worth” and deserved “regard on its own account” (261). And he argued that individuality allowed for the greatest development of human qualities—“it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be” (267). Human nature, after all, was more like a tree than a machine, and thus it ought “to grow and develope [sic] itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” (263)

Mill celebrated individuality, however, less for its intrinsic value than for its usefulness in helping bring about distant and (in the largest sense of the word) political ends. The few statements upholding it for its inherent value are greatly outnumbered by the many passages emphasizing its instrumental value. Those with individuality were to contribute to society and this they were to do by criticizing and undermining existing society which was still in the transitional state and also by promoting the emergence of a new organic society. Thus, while for Mill individuality as he described it was his ideal of character, his portrayal of it in chapter three of On Liberty included attributes that would allow those with this kind of character to contribute to the implementation of his plan for moral reform. Some of the features of individuality would be useful during the first, destructive phase of his plan, and others would be valuable during

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John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control *
  • Contents *
  • Editor's Note ix
  • Preface xi
  • Acknowledgments xix
  • John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control *
  • Chapter One - Liberty and Control 3
  • Chapter Two - Cultural Reform 18
  • Chapter Three - Mill and Christianity 42
  • Chapter Four - Candor or Concealment 55
  • Chapter Five - Arguments about Christianity in on Liberty 86
  • Chapter Six - The Religion of Humanity 108
  • Chapter Seven - Individuality and Moral Reform 149
  • Chapter Eight - How Much Liberty? 166
  • Chapter Nine - Mill's Rhetoric 203
  • Epilogue 225
  • Index 235
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