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n Chapter III of On Liberty Mill develops and defends the ideal which he describes as that of 'the free development of individuality'.
Individuality is opposed to the blind submission of oneself to the customs and traditions of one's society. Customs may have developed within too narrow a range of experience, and even within that range, what is embodied within customary practices may not be the best interpretation of that experience. Again, the knowledge and wisdom contained in the traditions of one's society may be suited to the needs of ordinary men living in ordinary situations, but not all men are so placed. A particular person may be very different from others, and he may also find himself in highly untypical circumstances. For such a person customary styles of life may have little to offer. Human beings are not machines to be built after a model. They are more like trees which grow and develop from inward forces. just as not all plants can survive in the same physical atmosphere, so too not all human beings will grow up healthily in the same social atmosphere. Some modes of life will cultivate the potentialities of some individuals, but they will at the same time crush those of others. Different persons require different conditions for their development, and there is no one pattern of life that will suit everybody. The attempt to force, by customary and other pressures, essentially different people into a uniform mould will stunt and warp them, thus preventing them from realizing their different potentialities.
But Mill's central objection to blind conformity to custom is that if a man accepts custom simply because it is custom, then he does not make a choice [Isaiah Berlin stresses the importance Mill attaches to the freedom to choose]. To that extent he is less of a human person, for he has failed to develop in himself "any of the distinctive endowments of a human being" (p. 116). These distinctive human faculties of "perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice" (p. 116). Those [67/66] who are unable or who refuse to exercise their human capacity for choice, Mill compares with apes, with cattle, with sheep, and with steam-engines. They have lost or surrendered that which is distinctively human, that which marks them out from the rest of nature and from the artefacts of human creation which cannot have aims and purposes of their own but are designed by human beings to serve the purposes of human beings. Once one has succeeded in building a good machine for a particular purpose, one can multiply it many times, and each additional machine, so long as it is a faithful copy of the original, will be just as good as the original. But with human beings the matter is different. Even with human beings who are very similar in potentialities, and who are similarly placed, it is not the case that they would all have the same human worth if they were all forced to copy a good model of their kind. It is possible that a person "might be guided in some good path, and kept out of harm's way" without his making choices of his own. "But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it." (p. 117.) What is lost in the forced imitation by human beings of good models of conduct is the conscious choice between alternatives, and all that this involves. The act of choice brings into play various faculties,
He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision. And these qualities he requires and exercises exactly in proportion as the part of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings is a large one. [p. 117]
Men who make choices develop what Mill calls a "character": their desires and feelings are the products of their own conscious choices and are not the passively generated products of external factors.
Individuality for Mill, therefore, consists in part in the readiness to make deliberate and considered choices between alternative beliefs and patterns of life, and in part in the direction and content of such choices. The right choice for each individual depends on the sort of person he is, and hence [69/70] varies from individual to individual. Each person should choose that pattern of life which develops to the fullest extent his potentialities, subject only to the condition that in so developing himself, he does not harm others, and so does not hamper their development. Mill does not go further to specify how one can discover what one's potentialities are. He believes that freedom and variety of situations are the necessary conditions for this discovery.
A common criticism of Mill's notion of individuality is that he equates mere eccentricity with individuality. This point of view is well put by R. P. Anschutz who accuses Mill of substituting "bohemian nonsense for bourgeois nonsense" [Anschutz, p. 25]. Mill, he says, is guilty of "the error of assuming that a man is only himself when he succeeds in being different from other men, as if individuality meant peculiarity and idiosyncracy. Hence -- and this is the greatest weakness of his position -- he is led to ignore the fundamental part played by tradition in providing a context for the empty form of individuality." [Anschutz, p. 27] But the objection is mistaken. Mill is not opposed to tradition and custom as such. Either to reject or accept customary practices, without first considering their claims as opposed to those of alternative patterns of behaviour, is equally to refuse to exercise choice. In fact Mill believes that there is much that men may learn from the customs of their society. To reject them out of hand is foolish, for customs embody past experience which may well be relevant to the present problems of many men. Customary practices can furnish useful guides as to how we should choose, but it is the necessity for choice from which we should not run away. If a person, in exercising choice, decides that a customary style of life is the one that most suits him, there is nothing that Mill need find objectionable. However, at the time when he wrote, he felt that the sway of custom was too great. There was a "despotism of custom", and this was manifested in two different ways in which the lives of men were affected. First, the demands of custom were imposed on many. Men were forced to act in the same way and to hold the same beliefs. Second, even when customary rules were not imposed, men willingly and unthinkingly accepted them. It never occurred to them that there could be alternative ways of doing things. Mill praises [70/71] eccentricity in this context because it is a means of breaking through the tyranny of custom. Eccentricity provokes thought. It shows men that alternative ways of life are possible. It shakes men out of their unthinking complacency, and thereby encourages them to accept or reject custom as an act of conscious choice. His hostility toward the uniformity of human behaviour should also not be taken as an expression of his love of variety and eccentricity as such. He in fact believes that human beings are different from one another, and that if they were allowed to pursue their own plans of life, individuals would behave differently. Uniformity of behaviour is an artificial state of affairs created by the tyranny of prevailing fashions. Uniformity of human behaviour is therefore for him a sign that human nature has been suppressed and forced into a narrow range of preconceived directions and patterns. Certain avenues of self-development have been blocked. So he values variety and eccentricity not in themselves but because he believes that the free development of individuality will in fact produce variety and eccentricity in human conduct, and these. are welcomed as expressions of individuality.
The ideal of individuality is one that Mill thinks is within the reach of all men, and it is therefore not an élitist notion. But here, as elsewhere, he sees a special role for the élite. He believes that only a few men are capable of initiating new practices. The rest are, however, capable of realizing their individualities too because they can choose for themselves among a range of alternatives which they have not initiated. Like so many other political thinkers, Mill sees the prevailing state of human affairs as highly undesirable and the life of men in such a state as lacking in dignity. But unlike many other thinkers, he does not put forward an authoritarian solution. He relies in the end on the processes of reasoning and on the therapeutic shocks to complacency which new ways Of life axe likely to have. To force ignorant and complacent men to realize their individuality is for him a contradiction. The element of free choice is necessary, though not sufficient. So the Elite have only "the freedom to point out the way", but not the right to coerce others. "The power of compelling others into it is not only inconsistent with the freedom and [71/72] development of all the rest, but corrupting to the strong man himself." (p. 124.) Here he displays the characteristic liberal fear of the corrupting effects of vesting too much power in the hands of men, no matter how enlightened or morally good they may be. The élite should persuade others not to remain in their present undesirable state and should set examples of how men may "grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable" (p. 125).
The significance of Mill's notion of individuality is that he has in fact paved a middle way between the doctrines of Benthamite utilitarianism and those of later British idealist philosophers. A Benthamite utilitarian is not primarily concerned with how people come to have certain desires; he takes men's existing desires as the given data, and he concerns himself with trying to satisfy as many of these desires as possible in such a way that the greatest amount of happiness is produced. The idealist philosophers, on the other hand, are more interested in what a man ought to do than in what he currently desires to do. A man's true self is taken to be a rational self, and not the person we meet every day. When Mill speaks of the importance of having a "character" and of cultivating desires of "home growth", or of desires that have grown out of one's free choices, he is very much concerned to provide a basis for the criticism of the existing desires of men and of the way in which they come to engage in various activities. The barriers to freedom of thought and action are not exhausted in prisons and in threats of punishment, all those things that combine to prevent a person from carrying out what he wishes to do. In a closed society where the sources of information are very limited, and only prevailing views are easily accessible, men tend to come under the unquestioning sway of these views. They do not hold views different from the prevailing ones or seek to conduct themselves differently from customary practices. There is, therefore, no need for them to be restrained by threats of punishment and by prison bars. Yet such men are, as Mill would say, in a state of "mental slavery", unaware of and therefore unconcerned with alternative conceptions of what is worth doing, or of what is true or desirable. They remain conditioned and docile creatures without any beliefs and desires which are the [72/73] products of the deliberate choices they have made. They have merely passively assimilated what is in their limited social environment.
Mill's emphasis is on the cultivation of active rather than passive persons. Men are not to be viewed simply as passive instruments for the reform and reconstruction of society by a few enlightened men: "there are as many independent centres of improvement as there are individuals." (p. 128.) The plea for individuality is also a plea for a society at is open to a variety of influences and ideas and that does not seek to control and manipulate knowledge, for it is only in such a society that men can discover what they really regard as valuable and important and what views and plans of life they are prepared to accept. To take the existing views and desires of men as the ultimate basis of political calculation, without regard to the way in which these views are formed, is to surrender to the tyranny of current orthodoxies. On the other hand, to disregard such views and desires completely, and to seek to impose enlightened standards on all against their clear wishes, is to practise paternalism. Mill's ideal of individuality provides an alternative to these two influential traditions of social and political thought.
What is the connection between freedom and individuality? As we have seen, individuality consists in part of choosing for oneself. Hence the connection between freedom and individuality is internal. There seems to be a similar relation between individuality and some kinds of happiness. Mill is of course well known for his claim that "some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others." [Utilitarianism, p. 7] The connection between individuality and happiness depends on the kinds of pleasure one has in mind. As far as the qualitatively lower pleasures are concerned, the connection is purely contingent. But Mill seems to envisage a more intimate connection between individuality and some of the qualitatively higher pleasures. Thus he urges men to cultivate "native pleasures", or the pleasures of "home growth", pleasures that are linked to the making of free choices between alternative patterns of life (p. 119). These "native pleasures" cannot be attained except through the pursuit of individuality and the exercise of freedom that it involves. Indeed Mill sometimes [73/74] gives the impression that these pleasures are identical with the exercise of free choice, though in general he adopts the position that free choice is a logically necessary condition for their attainment. His view seems to be that the native pleasures consist in the enjoyment of activities which one has freely and critically chosen from a range of alternatives.
We are now in a position to understand Mill's sense of utility "grounded on the permanent interest of man as a progressive being". Liberty is necessary for "the free development of individuality", and without liberty "there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress." (p. 115.) Thus Mill is still appealing to utility, or the promotion of happiness as the standard for appraising the value of liberty. He also claims that because of the diversity of the sources of human pleasures and pains, and their different effects on different persons, men will "neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable" unless they are allowed freedom to pursue their own modes of life (p. 125). It becomes clear as the argument proceeds, that the ultimate goal is not really happiness in any sense that is detachable from the growth of individuality. "Utility in the largest sense" refers to the development of individuality and its associated pleasures. Liberty is to be valued because it is a logically necessary condition for the growth of individuality. Men must be allowed to choose for themselves because free choice is itself a most important ingredient of the kind of happiness Mill was most concerned to promote. Men who choose in conformity with custom, not because they independently agree with it, but blindly and without thought, or because they axe pressured to do so, cannot by definition be happier than those who choose freely. Happiness of this kind is not what Bentham conceived -- a goal that is distinct from individual liberty, and as a matter of fact achievable through it in certain situations [Bentham's view of liberty is discussed by Douglas Long]. For Mill, happiness is not something that can be got through any means. It is not just what men believe or how they feel which is important; the manner in which they come to have certain beliefs and attitudes is also important. "If a person possesses any tolerable amount of [74/75] common sense and experience, his own mode of laying down his existence is the best, not because it is best in itself, but because it is his own mode." (p. 125.) The importance of choosing and acting independently and in a rational manner is further emphasized by the use of expressions like "an intellectually active people" and "the dignity of thinking beings". Rational choice, as Mill's arguments in the chapter on freedom of thought and discussion make clear, implies that one knows the correct grounds for believing something, and that one is prepared to listen to conflicting views whenever they arise. It thus implies the existence of freedom for those who disagree with us.
Although Mill attaches great intrinsic value to the development of individuality, he also points out that the growth of individuality will produce good consequences. This is of course perfectly consistent, for something can be valued both as an end in itself and as a means to some other end. Mill complains that "individual spontaneity is hardly recognized by the common modes of thinking as having any intrinsic worth, or deserving any regard on its own account." (p. 115) It is for this reason that Mill thinks it important to show how the development of individuality in one person can be of use to others who do not value their own individuality. The ordinary person would not be very impressed by an account of individuality which merely extols its intrinsic value, and this is why Mill's defence takes the form it does of spelling out both the intrinsic and instrumental values of individuality [cf. Richard B. Friedman].
Having said that the individuality is the same thing as development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good than that it prevents this? Doubtless, however, these considerations will not suffice to convince those who most need convincing; and it is necessary further to show, that these developed human beings are of some use to the undeveloped -- to point out to those who do not desire liberty, and would not avail themselves of it, that they may be in some intelligible manner rewarded for allowing other people to make use of it without hindrance. [pp. 121-2]
[75/76] Mill goes on to argue that everybody benefits from progress and improvement which depends on new ideas, the introduction of more enlightened conduct, and the cultivation of new tastes and styles of living.
In a recent paper, James Bogen and Daniel Farrell suggest that Mill's claim that freedom and individuality are intrinsically desirable is fully compatible with his utilitarianism which regards happiness as the only thing intrinsically desirable [Bogen / Farell]. According to them, by happiness Mill does not simply mean a mental state, but also, and more importantly, the set of all those things which are intrinsically desirable. When Mill treats pleasure or happiness as a mental state, he regards happiness in this sense as just one of the things that are intrinsically desirable. But Mill also regards many other things which are not mental states as intrinsically desirable. For example, money, health, and virtue are desirable as ends. It is not the mental states produced by these objects and activities which are intrinsically desirable, but the objects and activities themselves. So if happiness is a collection of all the intrinsically desirable goods, then liberty and individuality can be included in this collection.
Bogen and Farrell interpret Mill as claiming in Utilitarianism that "what is desired as an end is desirable as an end." [Bogen / Farell, p. 331]Mill believes that "Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some end beyond itself, and ultimately to happiness, is desired as itself a part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until it has become so." [Utilitarianism, p. 47] But Bogen aid Farrell argue that Mill is only committed to the view that a thing's production of pleasure (as a mental state) is a causally necessary and sufficient condition for our desiring that thing for its own sake. For example, the intrinsically desirable sight of a snowcapped mountain gleaming in the moonlight may be for some both a necessary and sufficient condition for their having a desire to climb the mountain. But once they have the desire to climb, this desire could be an end in itself and not simply a means to catching another glimpse of the mountain [Bogen / Farell, p. 334]. Similarly, virtue could be desired and desirable for its own sake, even though it was originally desired simply as a means to pleasure (as a mental state). It could be desired even if it no longer produced pleasure.
The crucial question is whether the account just given shows that Mill's defence of freedom and individuality is, as Bogen and Farrell claim, "a straightforwardly utilitarian defence" [Bogen / Farell, p. 328]. They themselves draw attention to the problem of deciding how to resolve conflicts between different ends. Since a plurality of ends, or intrinsically desirable goods, is subsumed under the notion of happiness, Mill would have to determine the order of priority between these ends in cases of conflict. Even though they think that the principle of utility itself cannot resolve the ordering problem (Bogen and Farell, p. 328), Bogen and Farrell do not seem to think that this affects the utilitarian character of Mill's defence of liberty. But unless there are utilitarian reasons for ranking one value higher than another, the utilitarian cannot consistently accept that ranking. Unless liberty and the development of individuality maximize happiness or the net satisfaction of desires, there is no basis for the utilitarian to accord them the highest value. There is of course no reason why utilitarianism should be tied to the notion of happiness as a mental state (Williams, pp. 84-85). But at the same time whatever notion of happiness one employs in formulating utilitarianism cannot be such as to make the doctrine indistinguishable from rival non-utilitarian theories 14. For then the claim that Mill's defence of liberty is a straightforwardly utilitarian defence would be empty. The arguments of Bogen and Farrell are inconclusive precisely because they leave off at this crucial point.
Until we have a clearer picture of how liberty and individuality rank in Mill's order of priorities, and the reasons for the ranking, we cannot claim that he is a straightforward utilitarian. Indeed there are a few obstacles in Mill's defence of individuality to the establishment of this claim. just as, on the account given by Bogen and Farrell, liberty is intrinsically desirable because it is desired as an end by some people, many other people desire for their own sakes general comformity and the suppression of deviant conduct. For a utilitarian, the intensity of a desire and the number of people who share it will affect the value to be attached to its satisfaction. But Mill's awareness of the widespread existence and strength of these anti-liberal desires did not lead him to give them any additional weight. Nor did it weaken for him the intrinsic [77/78] value of individuality. Mill did not believe that the degree of desirability of something is proportional to the extent to which it is actually desired as an end. He placed a high intrinsic value on individuality in the full knowledge that there was too little appreciation of it, and too little desire for it15.
But it will of course be claimed that in the long run the promotion of liberty and individuality will lead to the greater satisfaction of desires than the imposition of conformity and the exercise of coercion. But even if this is true, it gives a misleading account of Mill's position. First, in discussing self-regarding conduct, we saw that Mill wished to discount certain satisfactions and certain forms of distress in his calculation. It is just because he disregarded certain satisfactions that he could be so sure that the over-all consequences of developing individuality would indeed be favourable. Secondly, it is also the case that the high intrinsic value he placed on individuality did not depend on the degree of satisfaction it yielded, but on its development of certain capacities. And the development of these capacities is valued in itself and not as a means to the satisfaction of desires. In a brief but valuable discussion, R. S. Downie has suggested that Mill's qualitative distinction between pleasures can be restated as a distinction between activities: "a higher value can be set on some activities than on others, not for the amount of pleasure they produce but for their ability to deepen a person's individuality and so help him to develop himself" (p. 70). It is self-development, and not the mere satisfaction of desire, that Mill valued. Some of those who do not develop their individuality have strong desires to conform unthinkingly to a certain way of life. Mill believed that their desires should be satisfied so long as there is no harm to others, but he did not place a high value on the satisfaction of these desires.
From the utilitarian point of view it is also puzzling that Mill should insist so uncompromisingly that individuality be developed within "the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others", and that he should so absolutely refuse to allow anyone, including "the strong man of genius" to develop himself at the cost of the individuality of others. Utilitarianism, as an aggregative doctrine, will seek to maximize the sum of [78/79] intrinsic value. If individuality has intrinsic value, then, other things being equal, this involves maximizing the realization of individuality. But maximization may involve the sacrifice of the individuality of some in order to promote a net increase in the realization of the individuality of the rest [I am indebted to Professor H. L. A. Hart for raising this point with me]. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues that Mill can be rescued from this only by making assumptions analogous to those relied on by utilitarians (p. 210). Thus Mill would have to assume that individuals have a similar capacity to develop individuality, and that the right to liberty has diminishing marginal utility. He can then maintain that a person who has already exercised to some degree his right to liberty by developing his individuality, will promote individuality to a lesser extent than another person who has not yet exercised this right. With these assumptions we can explain why maximum intrinsic value will be promoted by the granting of an equal liberty to all to develop individuality.
However, there is no need for Mill to make these assumptions because his doctrine of individuality does not imply a maximization of the realization of individuality. Distributive requirements are already built into his doctrine. His liberty principle restricts interference with a person's freedom to cases where harm to others can be prevented. Failure to realize one's own individuality is not a harm to others, whereas the suppression of another person's individuality is a form of harmful conduct -- an unwarranted interference with his freedom. So to suppress a person's freedom in order to promote the individuality of others is to harm him without any justification in terms of harm-prevention. By the same token, to cultivate one's individuality by harming others violates the liberty principle. Thus the prevention of harm to others sets limits both to what may be done to help others realize their individuality, and to what may be done to realize one's own individuality. Within these limits, Mill hopes that each person will, with the help of others, develop his individuality to the fullest.
Mill's claim that freedom and individuality are important as ends in themselves has often been misunderstood. It is not the claim that all freely chosen acts are good or valuable, nor does it imply that there is some value in an immoral act [79/80] simply in virtue of its being freely chosen19. Mill also does not deny that good consequences can flow from coerced and unfree acts. His emphasis is on the worth of the agent "his comparative worth as a human being" (p. 117). Freedom is a precondition of the worth of the agent, and an essential component in his ideal of individuality. Unless a person's actions are freely chosen, he cannot be regarded as a worthy person, even though good results may have been achieved by the denial of his freedom.
What is the relation between the acceptance of freedom as an end in the sense advocated by Mill, and the belief in objective truths? This is an issue that has been excellently discussed by Basil Mitchell (Ch. 6). He distinguishes between different varieties of liberalism, and in particular between what may be called "the old liberalism", which claims that only in a free society will men be able to discover true answers to moral and other related questions, and what he calls "the new liberalism", which values freedom because it denies that there are objective truths. According to Mitchell, the new liberalism is represented by P. F. Strawson in his paper, "Social Morality and Individual Ideal", where he argues for the freedom of individuals to bring into effect a variety of different and conflicting ideals of life within the framework of a common social morality. Freedom is valued not on the ground that it is the best, or perhaps even the only, means of promoting the discovery of new truths, for the new liberal does not believe that there is a truth about life; but rather freedom is valued because it promotes ethical diversity which is regarded as intrinsically good. On the other hand, according to Mitchell, Mill is an advocate of the old liberalism although "the seeds of the new liberalism" are to be found in his defence of individuality. Mill never embraces fully the new liberalism because, even when he praises individuality, he is not indifferent to the question of truth. He sees the importance of individuality in the discovery of new truths that it makes possible, and in setting the example of "more enlightened conduct and better taste and sense in life" (Mitchell, p. 92). With Mill as the notable exception, Mitchall argues that there is in general a tension between the belief that one already has the truth and the belief in the importance of freedom. So [80/81] those who claim that there are objective truths, already known, feel constrained to deny toleration, while those who wish to vindicate freedom feel obliged to deny objectivity. However, a middle path between the old and the new liberalism is possible: there is "a liberal case which does not rest on the premise that the truth is not known or not knowable". This case rests on the belief that "a man cannot live the life of a moral and rational being unless he is able to make his own choices, so that restriction of his power by fear of punishment is in itself an evil" (Mitchell, p. 97). But if my account of Mill's doctrine of individuality is correct, then Mitchell's middle path lies in the very heart of Mill's case for freedom. Mill of course also subscribes to some version of the old liberalism, as is shown by his argument that freedom of expression leads to the discovery of truth and the elimination of error [this is only one of his arguments for freedom of discussion, cf. Chapter 8]. There is no inconsistency here, for Mill recognizes that freedom has instrumental value and is also to be valued as an end in itself. The old liberalism merely captured the instrumental value of freedom. On the other hand, the significance of freedom as an end is given expression in both the new liberalism and in Mitchell's middle way. In saying that Mill subscribes to the latter rather than to the former, it is still necessary to account for "the seeds of the new liberalism" to which Mitchell alluded.
There is first no necessary incompatibility between the new liberalism and the middle path. What is distinctive of the middle path is that, unlike the new liberalism, it does not presuppose the absence of objective truths. But this is quite compatible with there being in fact no objective truths. Whereas the new liberalism collapses if there are objective truths, the middle way remains equally viable whether or not there are in fact such truths.
Mill believes that there are objective truths in many areas, and his discussion of freedom of expression makes this clear. But in the area of personal ideals concerning the sort of life a person should lead, or the sort of person he should strive to be, his view is complex, and it is here that the seeds of the new liberalism seem to be sown.
It is, however, very odd to claim in the alleged spirit of the new liberalism that there is an area of life where it is a matter [81/82] of indifference to what ideals one subscribes. One may indeed, as Strawson says, experience sympathy "with a variety of conflicting ideals of life", but I doubt that he wants this to be taken as suggesting that one sympathizes with every ideal of life that men happen to accept, or that they may be persuaded to accept. One's sympathy extends to a certain range of conflicting ideals, and within that range, no question about one ideal being truer or better arises. But there is, or should be, a limit beyond which ideals of life are rejected because they are regarded as degrading, or because they do violence to one's general conceptions of what human life should be.
It is against this background that Mill's notion of individuality can be further elucidated. Within a certain range Mill undoubtedly accepts different ideals of life as equally valid for different men.
There is no reason that all human existence should be constructed on some one or some small number of patterns ... Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable. [p. 125]
This sounds like the new liberalism, but Mill's range of sympathy is not unrestricted. He still recoils for example, from the ideal of polygamous marriages which he views with deep disapprobation and as "a retrograde step in civilisation" (p. 148). The institution of polygamy falls outside his range of what is attractive or captivating, though not of course outside his range of what should be tolerated.
More generally, it may be said that to the question, what sort of life a person should lead or what sort of person he should become, Mill does not believe that there is one objectively true answer applicable to all men. But at the same time he does not think that so long as the agent's choice is freely and deliberately made, it is to be welcomed no matter what its content may be. The free and deliberate choice of a way of life is only one component in his ideal of individuality. The other component is that the choice should be such as to develop a person's potentialities. Now no matter how different the potentialities of different persons may be, there are [82/83] still some basic resemblances between them simply in virtue of the act that they are human beings. They have "the distinctive human endowments" [cf. Downie and Telfer, pp. 95-97], and it is part of every man's potentialities to develop these endowments. Depending on what their other and more specific potentialities are, different men will find different plans of life most conducive to their self-development. But certain limits are s et to the type of conduct which will be compatible with the ideal of individuality. For if a chosen plan of life is such as to destroy to a large extent, or to arrest the growth of these endowments, it would retard a person's potentialities, and hence run foul of Mill's second component of individuality.
Again, a person may also fail to develop fully his more specific potentialities, his special talents and abilities, because of a lack of knowledge and guidance. The traditions of one's society and the experience of others can therefore be very helpful if only they are taken account of intelligently. But changing circumstances call for adjustments in one's plan of life. What may have been an ideal form of life for a certain type of person under one set of circumstances may cease to be so when new circumstances arise. Hence, "There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life" (p. 122). For a variety of reasons. Mill cannot be indifferent to the question of truth, and must therefore subscribe to Mitchell's middle way rather than to the new liberalism. None the less he seems to come closer to the new liberalism when he is putting the case for individuality than when he is arguing for freedom of expression, and this calls for some explanation.
In defending individuality, Mill is concerned with those personal ideals of life which, if they are carried out, do not cause harm to others, whereas in discussing the case for freedom of expression he emphasizes inter-personal questions of concern to all about what is right or wrong, true or false, good or bad in "morals, religion, politics, social relations and the business of life". Many of these latter issues are about our common social duties and responsibilities, the merits and [83/84] demerits of social institutions, and the pursuit of appropriate social policies. In these areas the analogy with choosing a coat or a pair of boots (p. 125), which Mill uses in the context of personal ideals, is inapplicable. The correct answers in these areas do not vary, as they do in the case of personal ideals, with the individuals to whom we are speaking: it would be inappropriate to say here that a size of boots or a coat which fits perfectly well one person would not fit another.
Mill believes that freedom and variety of situations are indispensable conditions for the flowering of individuality. Freedom is necessary because individuality consists in part of choosing for oneself. Variety of situations is necessary because the genuineness of one's choice is to a great extent dependent on the range of alternatives one can visualize. Though it is of course possible for a man who has not been presented with alternative beliefs and modes of life to conceive such modes and to reject them critically in favour of the way of life prevailing in his society, this possibility is considerably reduced for most men if they do not have the opportunity of knowing about "experiments in living", or of listening to and reading about views which propose such alternatives. Variety of situations enlarges the range of alternatives available for choice, and also puts alternatives more vividly before us.
Individuality does not, however, exhaust the goals of political action. A good society will pursue other goals apart from the promotion of each person's individuality. But the ideal of individuality guides the manner in which these other goals are to be reached. The framework of political life is set by this ideal, and the pursuit of other goals is to be carried out within this framework. Mill's liberalism does not seek to provide solutions to every contemporary political problem. But individuality furnishes a positive guide to political action in two ways. At a rather general level, it sets limits to what may be done in the attainment of other goals. It is not an ideal that is to be put aside while we get down to the business of seeking other things. Secondly, it itself makes more specific claims by insisting that opportunities for its realization should be provided. Non-interference with a person's conduct except to prevent harm to others is important. So is the protection [84/85] and improvement of the institutions which allow and encourage free discussion where they already exist, and the building up of these institutions where they do not yet exist. The creation and maintenance of an atmosphere of toleration constitute a permanent part of the aims of political action.
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Last modified 20 April 2001