02 September, 2003

On Liberty: Chapter III: “Of Individuality”

The following is an assigned essay which was completed for a grade. Unfortunately, some formatting has been lost in the transition to LJ.

Eric J. Herboso
02 September, 2003

On Liberty: Chapter III: “Of Individuality”

In Chapter III of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Mill argues that the individual actions of human beings should be considered one of the “elements of well-being” (53), assuming, of course, the limitation of disallowing hindrance upon other individuals. His main argument here rests upon the grounds that liberty of action is a necessary requirement for development, and that “it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces…well-developed human beings” (61). Thereby, any proponent of development must necessarily also promote individuality. This follows from the idea that it is only through a good mix of ideas, influences, and (especially) actions that any new ideas may be sought; for if stagnation is the rule, then development is completely impossible.

Having said this, he attempts to go on to argue against those who would still be against individuality and yet admit “that originality is a valuable element in human affairs” (61). (He ignores, of course, those who would argue that the world is already perfect, assuming that such people do not exist.) However, the remainder of this chapter at least fails in this attempt. Though he says that he plans “to point out to those who do not desire liberty, and would not avail themselves of it, that they might be in some intelligible manner rewarded for allowing other people to make use of it without hindrance”, he finishes the remainder of the chapter without accomplishing this goal. Instead, he continues the argument that the presence of liberty of action in a society helps that society to improve itself developmentally. While Mill’s argument is indeed strong, it remains weak enough to be resisted by those who either care little for progress or those who view liberty of action as inherently negative, regardless of it being a necessary requirement for progress.

However, this minor point aside, it is likely that Mill’s argument for liberty will be accepted by a great majority of the people. However, Mill takes this argument to the very extreme, seemingly daring the reader to respond negatively against it. (A justification for this view can be made from Mill’s earlier statement in Chapter II: “Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but to object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme,’ not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case” (20, emphasis added).) Mill talks of government by the one or few as more conducive to freedom than by the masses themselves, and on the ‘good’ being best achieved by “the more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought” (64). Mill even goes so far as to almost jokingly call into question the idea of public education, saying that it causes an assimilation of the masses’ thoughts and actions to such a high degree that it may well be a hindrance to progress itself.

However, Mill takes this game of extremities a bit too far when he reaches to China as an example of a state without advances or progress of any kind. In Mill’s day, this euro-centric viewpoint was very much accepted, but any competent arguer would now stay far away from such generalities, even if it turns out to be a valid criticism of that culture.

It will be interesting to see how Mill’s overall argument will continue in the remainder of On Liberty. So far, he has been very persuasive – though, like most arguments, there still remains a limited number of gaps in the logic which preclude a definitive understanding of the topic of Liberty. It remains to be seen if these gaps will be filled in by the end of his essay.

Rapaport, Elizabeth. “On Liberty”. Au. John Stuart Mill.
Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.: Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1978

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