Against conformity

Alongside its classic defence of liberty, John Stuart Mill’s most famous tract issues a clarion call to the celebration of individuality and the rejection of uniformity in thought and practice. It’s a call that rings through the ages.

John Fitzpatrick

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On Liberty is above all a political tract. Over the 25 years before its publication in 1859, its author, John Stuart Mill, had established himself as one of the leading political philosophers of his age, writing on such topics as democracy, civilisation, logic, political economy, utilitarianism and moral philosophy.

He was also an activist and campaigner, not only for parliamentary reform and female suffrage, but on a wide range of other issues, too, such as slavery and the conduct of British rule in Ireland. Indeed, as a youth, he had been arrested and briefly jailed for distributing leaflets about birth control to working-class Londoners. In 1865 he became member of parliament for the City of Westminster, and in 1867 moved an amendment to the Second Reform Bill to give women the same voting rights as men. It was defeated by 196 votes to 73, but it was the first step on a parliamentary road that led to equal voting rights for women in 1928.

Mill was fully engaged with the society of which he was a part and On Liberty, as he himself was aware, was his most important intervention in its affairs. Given that he spells out the purpose of the work so famously in its introduction, any attempt at paraphrase would be gratuitous:

‘The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, 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. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.’

He proceeds, later in the introduction, to set down with the same clarity and elegance exactly what he is defending:

‘This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.’

It will be noted that from the outset Mill emphasises the repressive threat from public opinion as well as from the state. In fact, On Liberty is directed more at the former threat; indeed, it is directed even more at the spirit of conformity amongst the population that leads to that threat. The defence of liberty against public opinion (as well as law) is therefore advanced also by means of an urgent plea for toleration and respect for diversity on the part of all those individuals who comprise the public as they in turn freely form and express their opinions. It will be readily apparent that the one ‘principle’ is not ‘very simple’ after all (any more than the ‘truths’ of Jefferson were ‘self-evident’).

Why Mill focuses so much on public opinion becomes much clearer once we have taken the weight of why it is that liberty matters so much to him in the first place. In this he does not appeal to any abstract right, but rather to the utility of liberty, and in particular to its utility in promoting ‘the permanent interests of man as a progressive being’. It is this conviction which lies at the heart of the work, as indeed is clear from its structure.

Of the five chapters, the first is introductory and the last discusses ‘applications’ of the argument. In between, the second chapter, ‘Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion’, and the fourth chapter, ‘Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual’, set out in bold and clear terms the classic defence of liberty and the importance of the limits on the authority of society. It is the third chapter ‘Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being’ that is often overlooked. It is a clarion call to the celebration of individuality, and to the rejection of the uniformity of thought and practice that is fatal to the progressive development of human beings and society as a whole.

Here Mill sets out his belief that ‘the free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being; … it is not only a co-ordinate element with all that is designated by the terms civilisation, instruction, education, culture, but is itself a necessary part and condition of all those things.’ Today, words like ‘change’, ‘progressive’ and ‘diversity’ are so debased in their usage that it is salutary to be reminded of their appropriate deployment. Mill argues that if society remains open to ‘different opinions’, ‘varieties of character’ and ‘experiments of living’, then both human happiness and social progress can occur. That ‘if’ is a crucial precondition: ‘the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty’. But the prize, as Mill describes it, is certainly worth striving for:

‘It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others.’

At the front of On Liberty Mill included a brief dedication and an epigraph. They say a great deal about him and about this work. The dedication is a generous and moving tribute to the great love of his life, Harriet Taylor, ‘the inspirer and part author, of all that is best in my writings’. She died the year before it was published. The epigraph, chosen from the English translation (1852) of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s On The Limits of State Action (1791), shows the clarity of Mill’s vision:

‘The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.’

On Liberty is not simply a profound piece of political philosophy, it is also a stirring call to action. As Mill writes: ‘If the claims of Individuality are ever to be asserted, the time is now …’

John Fitzpatrick is director of the Kent Law Clinic at the University of Kent, England.

All quotations are taken from On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, by John Stuart Mill, Alan Ryan (ed), published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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