Mill individuality essay

8 August 2016

Within Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ it is clear that he has a high regard for the issues surrounding freedom and it’s limits. Mill is an advocate of negative freedom, as a liberal he believes that there should be no restraints on an individual’s freedom unless it is hindering the freedom or health of another person. One of the main reasons as to why Mill values liberty is because it contributes to personal development. Thus Mill argues that in order for individuals to develop they should be able to perform ‘experiments’ in living’, which allow individuals to go through a system of trial and error until they find their own appropriate way of life.

Moreover, experiments in living are beneficial to society as they provide a different way of living different from that of custom and help tackle the tyranny of public opinion. Thus it can therefore be argued that Mill’s account on personal liberty does in fact ensure the development of society and the individual. The first way in which Mill’s account of freedom ensures the development of the individual and society, is that it promotes the truth. The link between personal freedom and truth is one of vital importance to Mill.

Mill individuality essay Essay Example

Personal liberty allows people to come to opinions and ideas that that they can then go and share and spread with other individuals. Thus creating a pluralist society whereby ideas are tolerated, by virtue of them being expressed. In order to create such a society ‘geniuses’ are needed to introduce new ways of thinking into society and to challenge the old ways of life. For such people to exist we need freedom in society to practice our individuality.

Mill states that even if an opinion or individual lifestyle is false or offensive it should be allowed to be expressed, as it will have strengthen the true opinion or right way of life and allow those holding that opinion to have greater faith in it. For example, a scientist needs the freedom to experiment in order to discover new truths about the natural world and share these ideas with the rest of humanity. However, should we express discoveries that are wrong? Surely this would be a waste or time.

Mill would argue that because even false options have value, we should allow them to be expressed. A false discovery could spur on others to be clearer about what the truth might be, it could even be a step that we take to discover the real truth. Mill does not think that once truth or a good way of individuality is discovered, we should remain complacent with it. This would allow society to become stagnant and proven truths could develop into custom. This would therefore be detrimental to human individuality as individuals will become ‘sheeps’ and follow custom blindly.

Custom does not educate or improve an individual’s well being, indeed Mill argues that ‘he who does anything but follow custom, makes no choice’ Mill’s solution to this is to revisit and reconsider truths, so that they remain lively. It is also true that by not reconsidering customs and public opinions, they could come to rule society, resulting in a ‘mediocre’ society. Only if there is individual freedom, we can avoid truths becoming ‘dead dogma’. If personal liberty did not exist, society would become stagnant and individuals would not question the ways of life around them, meaning that neither society nor individual develop.

It is therefore vital to have personal freedom so that individuals are allowed to question ways of life and society can develop. Mill also believes that personal freedom is important because it promotes individuals with a means to develop on a personal level. Mill believes without ‘experiments in living’ human beings lose what it means to he truly human. In order to be truly human, an individual needs to interpret and adapt the experiences of others and themselves to suit their own moral codes.

Individually is the development and expression of ones own character, as opposed to going along with customs and traditions imposed on society from previous generations. Mill illustrated this himself in the example he gives about Christianity, arguing that the Christian moral system cannot be derived from the New Testament alone, there are also ideas from the Old Testament. This therefore implies that much like the Christian tradition, individuals should derive their own individuality from previous experiences, however experiment with it so that it is their own private morality.

Mill approvingly quotes the German politician Von Humboldt who argues that each persons vision of morality ‘is the most harmonious development of his powers to complete a consistent whole’. Each persons powers are different, as are there desires and emotions which need to be developed to be ‘complete and consistent’. Therefore each persons development is individual to them, thus following custom or public opinion stagnates their individual growth, as they are nit experimenting their faculties.

However, it would be easy to criticise this, what if someone else’s individuality and experiments in living interfere or undermine my way of experimenting. Mill would simply apply his ‘harm principle’ to such a situation. As long as my way of life does not harm or infringe on other peoples rights and their own freedom then I am allowed to act on any way that pleases me. It can be argued that such a restraint protects society from damaging behaviour but also improves me as a person as I am not indulging in selfish acts.

Indeed it is beneficial to society to have eccentricity, because without it, it can be argued that people will become submissive, weak willed and without strong opinions. Society will lose it means to progressing further. Mill talks about this to am extent in his chapter on democracy. He argues that in order for society to develop we need ‘two opposing parties’, one that is defined by tradition and pragmatism and the other by social progress. However, it can be argued that by giving people the means to be eccentrics you are threatening social order and putting society at whole at a risk ( the opposite of what Mill says his theory does).

However , like most problems that surround the idea of negative liberty, mill would argue that as long as the experiment in living is within the limits of the harm principle them it should be allowed. This personal liberty not only provides people with a means to experiment their own ways of living, but also allows society to flourish as eccentricity and geniuses (provided by liberty) can enlighten individuals and governments into new ways of living. Furthermore, to treat human beings with no individuality and not provide them with a means of experimenting in their living, is to assume that they are all the same.

Mill argues that we are all different in our desires and in what will make us happy. Imposing a specific lifestyle on all members of society would be like treating an orchid, sunflower and cactus all in the same way. The conditions in which the orchids thrive could kill the sunflower. Much like plants, human beings differ too much to attempt to make all members of society conform to one model of the good life. However, speaking from a Marxist perspective we could argue that human beings should only focus on ‘need satisfaction’.

This would mean that all individuals have the same needs such as food, water and shelter. Marx argued that in order to live a true human existence, human beings should focus on satisfying those needs equally. Therefore, Mill’s argument that individuals are different would prove to be invalid to Marx. Although Marx makes a valid point, it would be in cohesive to argue that all human beings do actually have the same needs. For example, someone with disabilities is going to have more needs than a non disabled person.

Thus it is true that different human beings have different needs in order to create this individual identity. How can society progress if all human beings are treated the same? Surely it is only because of difference in ideas that human human being have come so far. To treat a hard working person the same as a lazy person seems unjust, their individuality is different and their desires too are different. Treating them the same would not amount to higher levels of liberty. Thus personal liberty does ensure developments in society and the individuals.

One of the main objections to Mill’s individuality argument is that there are many situations in which utility may conflict with individual freedom. The idea that utility and conflict can conflict is illustrated by the potential drug addict. If a state prevents an individual from buying an extremely addictive drug, for example heroin, although we take away their individual freedom we are also contributing to their utility, and the utility of others as taking drugs can affect others indirectly.

The harm principle is difficult to apply in such a situation, because it implies that only acts that are infringing on the liberty of another person or causing them harm should be stopped. Therefore it can be argued that society needs a source of paternalism. Conservatives argue that Mill has given human beings more rationality than they really possess. Conservatives see human beings as rationally imperfect creatures who need guidance. Mill gives special emphasis to the faculty of reason. For Mill it is reason that enables us to use our liberty effectively and even improve it.

Conservatives to argue that there us too much weight given to human reason and not enough emphasis on their other characteristics. Although Mill does mention the importance of desires and impulses he assumes that reason can be the way in which we control them. Human beings ,as imperfect creatures, are driven more by hate, jealousy, sexual desire than they are by reason, if we take these irrational human drives into account, it may be necessary to consider restricting freedom in specific areas that mill would not accept, for example their sexual lives.

Without such paternal restraints it can be said that individuals will cause harm to themselves and also to society. Therefore no one benefits from personal liberty, instead people are at a disadvantage from it. An argument is given by Lord Devlin as to why personal development could be dangerous of the moral frameworks of society. Devlin argued against the harm principle and negative freedom in the 1950s, during the time of the Wolfenden report, which argued that the law should not interfere with the private lives of its citizens.

However Devlin argued that if the law failed to enforce common moral values, society would begin to disintegrate. To sum up Devlin’s argument, he argued that im order for society to be stable there needs to be a common morality which is public, and not private, it is the governments responsibility to ensure that the welfare of society is looked after, so it is legitimate that governments can pass paternal laws, on the basis of presenting moral values. An example that Devlin uses for his public morality is one of the drunk man.

Say a man is to get drunk every night on the private sphere of his own home, it can be argued that as long as the man isn’t harming society he is free to do this. However what if a quarter of the population is getting drunk every night, that will have negative effects on society and peoples individuality. So society should not tolerate practices that conflict with these common moral values. If these common moral values were aimed at preventing harm to others then Mill would agree, however Devlin was someone who disapproved of self actions, for example drunkenness and homosexual activity.

He appeals to social utility and the importance of social cohesion as a way to make society a better place. However is Devlin right to say that actions such as homosexuality lead tot he break down of society? Society had now come to accept legally homosexuals, and society has not broken down. Moreover, how are individuals and society’s expected to make moral progress without being allowed to experiment with different practices. Should we really give up the prospect of a developed tolerant society in the name of cohesion, whereby everyone is following one set of rules?

To conclude Mill’s account of personal liberty ensures the development of individuals and society, by allowing the truth to come forward and allow individuals to use their own reason to choose their own ways of life. Society is protected from following custom and becoming stagnant, and also becomes more tolerant to absurd ideas. It is also true that personal liberty is needed so that society can progress into greater things. For example it would be easy to regard feminist and gay thighs thinkers as geniuses as they have pioneered some of the more equal and tolerant laws of this day and age.

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