On Liberty

On Liberty Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3

Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being

Mill begins this chapter with placing limitations on the personal freedom that he has so far proposed. He professes his belief in autonomy except when a person proves to be placing others in danger with their actions; he asserts that "no one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions." He thinks that personal liberty is threatened by the lack of respect society gives individual autonomy ­ the majority often sees no reason why everyone shouldn't be happy with their decisions. Mill asserts that humanity wasn't made to simply conform to each other, for if that were the case the only skill humans would need would be the art of imitation. Mill also speaks about the importance of a person to have his own desires and impulses. Strong impulses produce energy, the fuel for change and activity, both good and bad.

Mill disagrees with the Calvinistic theory that humans can only be good through compromise and that "whatever is not a duty, is a sin." In Calvinism, it is best to eliminate individuality and the evil of human nature because the only necessary act of humanity is to devote one's self to God. Mill thinks this restrictive view of humanity doesn't do justice to the inner good of man and the likelihood that God created man with potential assuming that he would use it. In more extreme terms, Mill states that any will, religious or not, that suppresses individuality is tyrannical.

Mill talks about the importance of original thought and spontaneity in human society. Original thinkers can seek, discover and spread word about truths that otherwise wouldn't be found. Genius minds are usually unique members of society whose intelligence and thoughts don't fit into the usual mold that society has formed. Mill believes that eccentricity is linked closely to character, genius, and morality, and fears that there it is increasingly lacking in society, citing that "spontaneity forms no part of the ideal of the majority of moral and social reformers."

People are inherently different and should be allowed to explore these differences, according to Mill. People thrive and fail under the same circumstances - making all people uniform is a detriment to their unique qualities, according to Mill. He thinks that society in general doesn't give enough importance to spontaneous action. However, he doesn't think that individuality should come at all costs, individuals should temper their self-interest so that the more capable people in society don't trample on the less capable.

Mill thinks that even if people don't adhere to this theory of freedom and spontaneity, they will learn something from the exposure they have to the environment that advocates such behavior. Also, a more effective government of developed citizens will result from a society that is free to circulate new ideas and challenge the majority's opinions. Mill contends that this type of development will produce a happier society where people are allowed to follow their desires rather than being forced to settle for the majority's weak passions. Mill believes that suppressed impulses result in the redirection of strong passions towards less constructive things. Finally, Mill believes that all of society would benefit from an emphasis on individuality because it would prevent society from falling into a dangerous status quo.

Analysis of Chapter 3

Mill's argument in this chapter strikes a balance between his utilitarian and liberal philosophies. Mill believes that in a society that encourages individual liberty, both driven individuals and those satisfied with the status quo could reach their maximum level of happiness. However, also in this chapter, Mill lays the groundwork under which society can impose itself on a person who wrongly invokes his/her liberty. Although he gives each person the complete freedom to follow the goals that maximize their happiness, he believes that society should restrain that spontaneity and individuality so it doesn't adversely affect others.

Mill encourages eccentricity among individuals as he sees it as the key ingredient to genius. He doesn't believe that society should reign in a person with different interests and passions to conform to the mainstream principles. Once again, Mill's words are applied in a religious context. He cites the uselessness and harm of society mandating religious preferences when the end result is a society loosely tied to religion with more attention focused on other, less moral aspects of the community.