The Dragonfly and Raven

The Dragonfly and Raven

Friday, May 27, 2016

What is the Importance that Mill Ascribes to Individuality in On Liberty?

There are several ideals that the people of the United States, and the greater part of the “Western” world has incorporated into their political ideologies. Among these are the belief that there should be a freedom in the thoughts that an individual can have, and then the freedom of the individual to be able to express those thoughts, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of other individuals, through either the spoken word or through the written medium. This is based on the idea of individualism, or the importance of the individual identity, and the rights that are therefor granted to the individual for the express purpose of promoting this individual identity. These ideals were expressed several times throughout history, but they were perhaps best encapsulated and explained by the English political philosopher J.S. Mill. Mill lived during the Nineteenth Century, and his work is considered to be some of the most influential of the era. Mill was the son of James Mill, who was a utilitarian philosopher, and friend of the famous Jeremy Bentham. It is from both his father and the work of Bentham that Mill draws many of his views of the world, seeing it through a predominately utilitarian lens. However, that is not to say that these are the only people who influenced Mill. In particular, his work drew heavily off of the writings of the Prussian Wilhelm Von Humboldt's The Limits of State Action. It is the goal of this essay to examine the political philosophy of the late J.S. Mill, as presented in his essay On Liberty, while at the same time looking at how he borrows and reformulates the opinions and ideas presented by Humboldt in The Limits of State Action, and then also incorporating the commentary and analysis of the American political philosopher John Rawls in his lectures on Mill. This essay will seek to answer the question of the importance that Mill ascribes to individuality in On Liberty.

First, it would be prudent of us to look at the greater context of Mill's writing. In this, we will turn first to the lectures of John Rawls. In these lectures, Rawls believes that it is important for us to note that the works of Mill are rather unique, in the sense that they are not written from the point of view of a scholar, nor of a politician, with experience in the field of governance, but rather they are written from the point of view of an educator—and in this, we can see that Mill is trying to educate the reader. He is, in essence, trying to shape, to mold, the opinion of his audience with the principle of liberty that he presents in On Liberty. This is why, as Rawls sees it, that Mill's writings are almost entirely iterative, and why he does not extend his political theory into deeper, uncharted waters. In regards to the underlying principle of his work, Rawls notes, as was previously stated, he was greatly influenced by the utilitarianism of his father and of his father's friend Bentham. However, Mill does have a clear distinction in how he views utility, which is in opposition to Bentham's views. This distinction is that Mill believes, unlike Bentham, that the principle of utility is too narrow to be applicable in all situations on its own. For Mill, legislation must take cues from not only utility, but also from history and the natural world. This idea, that laws should come from, or be influenced by, the natural world and order, is an idea that Mill draws from the writings of Humboldt—the idea being that the natural world is better at organizing life (or as it is applied to legislation, society) than human social constructs. This all being said, Mill did still value the principle of utility. It was still to him the underlying principle that should be adhered to—the principle that other principles should be based off of.

On Liberty aims to answer a question that Mill was preoccupied with—that question being what the balance should be between the individual rights—those being civil rights—and the right and ability of the state to interfere, to restrict, and to take-away those rights. To answer this question, Mill presents two main ideas: those being that the individual is of great importance, and that his civil rights must be upheld. More on how this is applied to the actions of society later though. First, let us look at how he views the individual, and on their value. His belief in the value of the individual seems to stem directly from the utilitarianism of Bentham, as well as the writings of Humboldt. To Mill, the value of the individual is self-evident, though he goes on to explain and to defend it (here, again, we see the influence of his career as an educator showing, and with it, the need to explain all parts of a concept, so that the student, or in this case, the general audience, is able to better understand the concept, and form their own opinions on the matter at-hand). To him, the value of the individual comes about when the individual is afforded the civil liberties that they require to flourish—these civil liberties being the liberty of thought and of feelings, of consciousness, of opinion, of expressing and publishing said thoughts and opinions, of the ability to pursue what one wills (given that the pursuits are in no way harming another, or in any other way illegitimately depriving them of their individual rights), and lastly, stemming from the other liberties, the liberty to assembly in a peaceful manner. With these liberties, the individual will be allowed to grow, and will be cultivated. This individual then, with these liberties, will be able to contribute to the good of society through the pursuit of their interests in regards to how they can benefit the commonwealth, and then through the ability to think freely, and to express their thoughts. Through this expression of their thoughts, individuals will be able to contribute to the public discussion of issues—an extremely valuable thing indeed to Mill. These ways are how, as Mill sees it, individuals are able to benefit the society, and why individuals should be afforded the civil liberties that they are entitled to, other than the fundamental idea that the individual is to be valued purely for the reason of their existence, and their uniqueness in this world, which also seems to be part of Mill's thought, though not directly stated.

Now, understanding how Mill sees the value of the individual, let us turn to how he sees the balance of the civil rights of the individual with the actions of the society. In this, his principle of liberty is quite clear. The principle says that, “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.” From this, we see that the civil liberties that are afforded to all (as described above) should only be trodden on for self-protection. This means that laws made by society should regard not what the individual does that concerns only themselves, but rather, laws should be made that regard the actions of an individual with other individuals, and the society as a whole. It is in this realm of conduct that society is in its power to legislate, to punish individuals, and to offer guidance to individuals as to what is to be done. More on this later, though. Interestingly enough, this principle of liberty does not apply to all, as Mill excludes children, immature adults, those mentally impaired, and “barbarous peoples,” or, those living in states of significantly less development than the modern states of the world (here, referring to the European States, and to the United States). This, as Rawls points out, makes his principle of liberty subordinate to the principle of utility that is set out by Bentham, among others. However, there is an interesting dichotomy that seems to exist because of this subordination. For, Mills believes that the rights of the individual are paramount, especially in regards to their right to being able to freely think and to express those thoughts, with him going so far as to say that, “if all of mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” The importance of this statement is twofold.

First, there is the importance of this statement in regards to the principle of utility and the principle of liberty. In this, we see the aforementioned dichotomy. Here, we see Mills asserting the principle of liberty, and the rights of the individual, being of extreme importance. This assertion of the importance of the individual appears to be in contradiction to the principle of utility, for the value of the opinion of an individual should be less than that of the opinion of the society as a whole—simple utilitarian calculus. This is, however, not a contradiction to the principle of utility. The reason that it is not a contradiction is that by allowing the individual to keep and to voice their opinion, they are contributing to the dialogue that exists in the public sphere. This maintaining of this dialogue is of the utmost importance, as without it, the value of the opinions and ideas dwindle away. Therefore, by extinguishing the opinion of an individual, the harm done is far greater than what would be gained by silencing them. Thus, this is not a violation of the subordination that exists between Mill's principle of liberty and the principle of utility.

Now, let us return to the topic of the discussion of ideas in the public sphere.  It is through this discussion that Mill ascribes one of the ways in which the individual is valuable—and through them, individuals and individuality as a whole. Earlier, the civil liberties that Mill believes all should have were laid out, and among those pertinent to public discussion are freedom of thought and the freedom to express those thoughts. Now, with the freedom to think there comes opinions, and these opinions often—if not most of the time—are related to interactions with other people. These ideas then, are debated, as people do when they disagree. To Mill, this disagreement, this debate, is extremely important, because it is what makes opinions valuable. In his mind, an opinion is of little value if it cannot be questioned, if it cannot be discussed. An opinion like that is akin to a tyrannical opinion, as that which is tyrannical cannot be debated nor discussed. So, contrary opinions are to be valued, even if they are contrary to a true belief, for they act as a check to the tyrannical nature of unquestionable beliefs at the very least. Opposing beliefs can also be used as educational tools, or they can be used to help better shape, to help refine, the opinion that they are acting contrary to. Thus is the importance of the individual within the sphere of public discussion.

Having discussed whom the principle of liberty is applicable to, the nature of said principle to the principle of utility, the seeming dichotomy that exists due to this and the valuation of the opinion of the individual as opposed to that of society—and the reasons for that valuation—, let us now turn back to the realm of legislation. As previously stated, mankind's—meaning society's—purpose is to protect one another. This is why we have laws. It is the duty of legislators, though, to make laws that do not infringe of the civil rights of individuals within a democracy. This is not to say that individual rights are to be valued above all else in the world—far from it. To Mill, the individual's rights are to be valued and protected only in so far as they do not harm others, or infringe on their rights. This allowance then, for the infringement of the rights of the individual, does not extend to the point that extreme proactive measures. Society is allowed, by this doctrine, to act to prevent a crime from occurring, but only if it is clear that a crime will occur, based off of the actions of the individual. The example that Mill uses is that of the production and sale of poison. Now, in the case of poison, if it were to be used for one purpose only, to kill another human, than society would be well within their right to prohibit its sale outright. However, that is not the case. Poison has multiple, legitimate uses. Thus, society has only the right to regulate and restrict the production and sale of poison to those specific purposes—such as killing pests. Thus is a brief explanation of how Mill outlines the scope of laws in regards individual rights.

Now, Mill is afraid of what a democracy has in store for the freedoms of the individual, which is one of the reasons that he is writing this piece. Greatly influenced by Tocqueville, Mill sees the tyranny of the masses, and the tyranny of the popular opinion to be both a great and real threat. As Rawls notes, Mills is worried about the uneducated masses making decisions based off of irrational feelings, incongruous with the rational thought that should be driving their decision-making processes. This is, in many ways, in line with the fears of Bentham. This is the reason, according to Rawls, that Mill puts forth his principle of liberty, so that it may serve as a guide to the masses, both educated and uneducated alike, as to how they should take on legislation. Thus is one of the main purposes of this piece, as explained by Rawls.

There is one final point that I will examine in this essay, and that is the other main boon that Mill says is had from individuality—that being, the value that is had from individuals pursuing their interests. For this, Mill takes from Tocqueville. Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, is concerned with the moderation that is brought by democracy. While it does move to bring people out of poverty, while also decreasing hunger and illiteracy, it at the same time decreases the greatness of intellect that exists in the world—which to Tocqueville is a great tragedy. Mill is also afraid of this, though he believes that by promoting individuality, this can be avoided. Moreover, Mill believes that by allowing individuals to grow, and that by allowing them to pursue their interests freely, that society allows for individuals to better it through them bettering themselves. The logic behind this is quite simply, really, and it has its basis in utilitarian thinking. Essentially, the line of reasoning goes that the whole of society is no more than the sum of its individuals. It can ever be only as good, or as bad, as they are. This ties in quite nicely to the idea of the total utility of the society being equal to the added utility of its members, as laid out by Bentham in On the Principles and Morals of Legislation. Thus is how the individual can benefit society through the pursuit of their interests.

J.S. Mill was a crucial figure in the political thought of the Nineteenth Century. It was he who so greatly encapsulated the ideals of civil liberty and individuality that the Western world still values so greatly today. His ideas were highly iterative, based off of the utilitarianism of both his father and Jeremy Bentham, among other utilitarians. It was also heavily influenced by the Prussian Wilhelm Von Humboldt of seventy years prior, and the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville. In his famous work, On Liberty, Mill lays out the argument for individuality based off of the utility that it provides for the society as a whole through the contributions that individuals give to the public sphere of debate and then also the benefit that they provide through the pursuit of their interests. In order for this to occur, however, Mill says that the civil liberties of freedom of thought and of feelings, of consciousness, of opinion, of expressing and publishing said thoughts and opinions, of the ability to pursue what one wills (without harming others or depriving them of their civil liberties), and the liberty to assembly in a peaceful manner must be respected, and not infringed upon by society—through legislation or by other means—except in cases where an individual is interacting with other individuals or the community as a whole in a manner that promotes or creates mischief. There then, is the philosophy of J.S. Mill as presented in On Liberty.

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Rawls, John. Lecture on the History of Political Philosophy. Edited by Samuel Freeman. Boston:
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2007. Print.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la democratie
en Amerique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 1-4. 15 May 2016. <>.
Von Humboldt, Wilhelm. The Limits of State Action. Edited by J.W. Burrow. Indianapolis:
Liberty Fund. 1993. Print.