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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Liberty too

So, the last post on John Stuart Mill's 'On Liberty' was a long one... now, I warn you, this one is too. And it's not the end...


I had to copy this phrase as it's just wonderful - and so different from how I had characterised Mill: the mental well-being of mankind, on which all their other well-being depends.

This makes me think about utilitarianism and the now assumed position that people can be regarded numerically. How many people are you helping through your philanthropy? Well, if your philanthropy takes people only to a large number of existing beings without this mental well-being.... then, what? Maybe changing political institutions in a nation is as important as saving lives?

Mill then considers 'intemperate' and 'offensive' statements - and cannot condemn them because he feels that often that claim is made by those hearing an argument that they are not willing to hear and that they only judge those expressing opposing views to be offensive and would not use the same standards to denounce people arguing on their side. He goes on to claim that the minority cannot afford to use this tool, as they don't have power, but that it is often used against them. Thus, if there were to be any restriction, it would be better to restrict the majority than the minority.

It is, however, obvious that law and authority have no business with restraining either, while opinion ought, in every instance, to determine its verdict by the circumstances of the individual case; condemning every one, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candour, or malignity, bigotry, or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves; but not inferring these vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own; and giving merited honour to every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell, in their favour. This is the real morality of public discussion: and if often violated, I am happy to think that there are many controversialists who to a great extent observe it, and a still greater number who conscientiously strive towards it

So, 'the real morality of public discussion' demands a genuine willingness to listen, generosity shown to opposition views and an entirely open mind.

He moves on to address that it is just as important for people to be free to live according to their beliefs as it is to be able to express them - though they must do no harm to others. Here he introduces a proviso to the free speech mandate: No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor,or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard. Acts, of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavourable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind. The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.

So this gives justification for restricting inflammatory views - though hate speech when not in a febrile context would not fall under his proviso.

As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

This asserts the importance of variety in styles of life - which he says the majority can seek to quell by their conviction that the norm is suitable for them and so should be suitable for everyone. But Mill says this kind of spontaneity is vital to the well-being of the individual. He continues, expanding on this theme:

It is for him to find out what part of recorded experience is properly applicable to his own circumstances and character. The traditions and customs of other people are, to a certain extent, evidence of what their experience has taught them; presumptive evidence, and as such, have a claim to his deference: but, in the first place, their experience may be too narrow; or they may not have interpreted it rightly. Secondly, their interpretation of experience may be correct, but unsuitable to him. Customs are made for customary circumstances and customary characters; and his circumstances or his character may be uncustomary. Thirdly, though the customs be both good as customs, and suitable to him, yet to conform to custom, merely as custom, does not educate or develop in him any of the qualities which are the distinctive endowment of a human being. The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used. The faculties are called into no exercise by doing a thing merely because others do it, no more than by believing a thing only because others believe it. If the grounds of an opinion are not conclusive to the person’s own reason,his reason cannot be strengthened, but is likely to be weakened, by his adopting it: and if the inducements to an act are not such as are consentaneous to his own feelings and character (where affection, or the rights of others, are not concerned) it is so much done towards rendering his feelings and character inert and torpid, instead of active and energetic.

The claim is that acting in bad faith dampens down creativity and endeavour. It's worth considering in this light Solomon's claims about living with passion.

He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. 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 pro-portion as the part of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings is a large one. It is possible that he might be guided in some good path, and kept out of harm’s way, without any of these things. 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. Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself.

This is a wonderful passage! And it seems to me to validate much I have written on Murdoch and Virtue Ethics and transcendence - and also to contradict what Mill himself wrote on motives! He finishes the paragraph with this inspiring image:

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

[D]esires and impulses are as much a part of a perfect human being as beliefs and restraints: and strong impulses are only perilous when not properly balanced; when one set of aims and inclinations is developed into strength, while others, which ought to co-exist with them, remain weak and inactive. It is not because men’s desires are strong that they act ill; it is because their consciences are weak. There is no natural connection between strong impulses and a weak conscience. The natural connection is the other way. To say that one person’s desires and feelings are stronger and more various than those of another, is merely to say that he has more of the raw material of human nature, and is therefore capable, perhaps of more evil, but certainly of more good. Strong impulses are but another name for energy. Energy may be turned to bad uses; but more good may always be made of an energetic nature, than of an indolent and impassive one. Those who have most natural feeling are always those whose cultivated feelings may be made the strongest. The same strong susceptibilities which make the personal impulses vivid and powerful, are also the source from whence are generated the most passionate love of virtue, and the sternest self-control. It is through the cultivation of these that society both does its duty and protects its interests: not by rejecting the stuff of which heroes are made, because it knows not how to make them. A person whose desires and impulses are his own—are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture—is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character. If,in addition to being his own, his impulses are strong, and are under the government of a strong will, he has an energetic character. Whoever thinks that individuality of desires and impulses should not be encouraged to unfold itself, must maintain that society has no need of strong natures-is not the better for containing many persons who have much character-and that a high general average of energy is not desirable.

This sounds like my understanding of Nietzsche! I can hardly believe this is the man whose ideas gave rise to a philosophy I have thought of as bloodless! It's also interesting given my recent dive into the importance of emotions in an ethical life, as much as in a full life. Perhaps this post on setting oneself up for ethical emotions is the most relevant in this context.

The stress on feelings is also seen in Kierkegaard, and in his writing too emotions are aligned with commitment, rather than being followed wantonly.

[T]he danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences. [...] In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual or the family do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask them-elves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine?I do not mean that they choose what is customary in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved:they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own. Now is this, or is it not, the desirable condition of human nature?

It seems to me that some of this comes through in The Inner Level - where what matters is what will alleviate status anxiety the most. That said, it is true also that very strong emotions appear to play a large role in both identity politics and national populism, but in a way that seeks to silence the other side of the argument. One could see trans people as very fully expressing their dissent from traditional gender norms - and they have rightly rebelled against constraints to their freedom of expression. Now, though, there does seem to be a powerful desire on the part of trans activists to silence those who state different opinions, see what has happened to J.K. Rowling (previously considered by all a national treasure) and Germaine Greer (an influential feminist activist). It seems ironic that those who are now, rightly, enabled to express in speech, action and way of life a very different mode from that of the majority are imposing such restrictions on others.

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 there-fore capable of being more valuable to others.

There is a limit to this expansive development, and that is where an individual's actions harm or restrict others - but, says Mill, this is not a bug, it's a feature: [T]here is a full equivalent in the better development of the social part of his nature, rendered possible by the restraint put upon the selfish part. To be held to rigid rules of justice for the sake of others, develops the feelings and capacities which have the good of others for their object.

He states strongly that originality in individuals is of benefit to all others in a society: [T]hey might possibly learn something from them. It will not be denied by anybody, that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. 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. This cannot well be gainsaid by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices.

A further benefit lies in preventing real truths turning into dead dogma: [Original ideas] keep the life in those which already exist. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it be a reason why those who do the old things should forget why they are done, and do them like cattle, not like human beings? There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever recurring originality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive, and there would be no reason why civilisation should not die out, as in the Byzantine Empire. Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people—less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves,without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character.


I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius, and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice, being well aware that no one will deny the position in theory, but knowing also that almost every one, in reality, is totally indifferent to it.

[...] Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of. They cannot see what it is to do for them: how should they? If they could see what it would do for them, it would not be originality. The first service which originality has to render them, is that of opening their eyes: which being once fully done, they would have a chance of being themselves original. Meanwhile, recollecting that nothing was ever yet done which some one was not the first to do, and that all good things which exist are the fruits of originality, let them modest enough to believe that there is something still left for it to accomplish, and assure themselves that they are more in need of originality, the less they are conscious of the want.

He says the trend to devalue the intellect has increased since Classical times: In sober truth, whatever homage may be professed, or even paid, to real or supposed mental superiority, the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind. [...] At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses. This is as true in the moral and social of private life as in public transactions. Those whose opinions go by the name of public opinion are not always the same sort of public: in America they are the whole white population; in England,chiefly the middle class. But they are always a mass, that is to say,collective mediocrity. And what is a still greater novelty, the mass do not now take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders, or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name,on the spur of the moment, through the newspapers.

This feels very pertinent today. Intellectualism is seen as elitism, the preserve of privilege and of technocrats. This is very damaging. It has repercussions for our cultural life and, holding such beliefs, limits greatly the potential and scope of those individuals who hold them. Without the engagement with ideas, maybe we can't grow up.

The general average of mankind are not only moderate in intellect, but also moderate in inclinations: they have no tastes or wishes strong enough to incline them to do anything unusual, and they consequently do not understand those who have, and class all such with the wild and intemperate whom they are accustomed to look down upon. Now, in addition to this fact which is general, we have only to suppose that a strong movement has set in towards the improvement of morals,and it is evident what we have to expect. In these days such a movement has set in; much has actually been effected in the way of increased regularity of conduct and discouragement of excesses; and there is a philanthropic spirit abroad, for the exercise of which there is no more inviting field than the moral and prudential improvement of our fellow creatures. These tendencies of the times cause the public to be more disposed than at most former periods to prescribe general rules of conduct,and endeavour to make every one conform to the approved standard. And that standard, express or tacit, is to desire nothing strongly. Its ideal of character is to be without any marked character; to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.

I don't think here he is advocating greed and rabid consumerism - I think he's critiquing the 'stiff upper lip', 'mustn't grumble', restrained and precise rule of the day.

Instead of great energies guided by vigorous reason, and strong feelings strongly controlled by a conscientious will, its result is weak feelings and weak energies, which therefore can be kept in outward conformity to rule without any strength either of will or of reason. Already energetic characters on any large scale are becoming merely traditional. There is now scarcely any outlet for energy in this country except business.

The only way that people in the society he was writing about could express ambition and passion is through commerce. It seems pretty similar today.

The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement.

He continues that progress or improvement is not a good if people are forced to conform to it - liberty remains the paramount goal. The argument concedes that there is progress in Britain - new inventions, political arrangements and moral codes - but that everyone has to adopt them at the same time. The is no originality or spontaneity, without which liberty is lacking and psychological well-being suffers.

He continues that commerce is antithetical to originality, because everyone wants and can buy the same mass produced things. Society, he says, is so assimilated that everyone does the same things, goes to the same places. I suppose at least now the mega-rich are different. For the rest, we all seem to harbour the desire to mimic the ordinarily rich: All the political changes of the age promote [assimilation], since they all tend to raise the low and to lower the high. Every extension of education promotes it, because education brings people under common influences, and gives them access to the general stock of facts and sentiments. Improvement in the means of communication promotes it, by bringing the inhabitants of distant places into personal contact,and keeping up a rapid flow of changes of residence between one place and another. The increase of commerce and manufactures promotes it,by diffusing more widely the advantages of easy circumstances, and opening all objects of ambition, even the highest, to general competition, whereby the desire of rising becomes no longer the character of a particular class, but of all classes. A more powerful agency than even all these, in bringing about a general similarity among mankind, is the complete establishment, in this and other free countries, of the ascendancy of public opinion in the State. As the various social eminences which enabled persons entrenched on them to disregard the opinion of the multitude gradually become levelled; as the very idea of resisting the will of the public, when it is positively known that they have a will,disappears more and more from the minds of practical politicians; there ceases to be any social support for nonconformity—any substantive power in society which, itself opposed to the ascendancy of numbers, is interested in taking under its protection opinions and tendencies at variance with those of the public.

This is fascinating, because so much of this 'leveling' might well be taken for a good - increasing equality of opportunity and broadening horizons. Yet at the same time I think he is putting his finger on a substantive cause for concern.


So, you may be relieved to know, that's enough JSM for today. More soon though - but I'll attempt to give you a breather.

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