Mill on Individuality Phil 13 Fall, 2007
Paragraphs (and sentences) in regular type are interpretations of what Mill is saying. Paragraphs (and
sentences) in italics are my comments.-Dick Arneson
In chapter 3 of ON LIBERTY Mill argues that individuality is one of the essentials of human well-being.
Mill holds we cannot achieve happiness without individuality.
So what is individuality? It's not easy to say. Mill enthusiastically praises individuality, and associates
many goods with it, but he does not offer a definition of the word. The set of claims he wants to make
by means of the notion is reasonably clear.
Mill contrasts individuality with mere conformity to custom. The habit of choosing to do something just
because that's the way things are usually done around here does not promote individuality. But
mechanically resisting custom would not do either.
ndividuality and conformity to custom.
Sometimes it sounds as though Mill identifies individuality with becoming different from other people in
one's preferences, values, way of life. But is Mill celebrating weirdness for its own sake? Of the English
people of his day, Mill complains, "they like in crowds." Why is this bad? Having limited experience, I
look to others, especially those I consider my peers, for cues as to what is worthwhile and
choiceworthy. People take pleasure in being fashionable, in conforming to the customs of the fashion-
conscious. The issue cannot be whether one chooses what is different from what others choose or the
same as they choose. What Mill evidently wants is that people should choose reflectively, in the light of
their own experience. One aspect of individuality is choosing one's own plan of life independently after
reflection and deliberation. A plan of life is a strategy for how to live so as to achieve one's basic aims.
Individuality and development of mental faculties
Mill associates individuality with developing one's talents and capacities, especially one's mental
capacities Choosing one's own plan of life is also linked to mental cultivation. Mill writes, "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 apelike one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties."
link between choosing one's own plan of life and developing one's talents looks tenuous. First, even if
one chooses a plan of life by slavishly following the local custom or the advice of one's relatives,
whether this leads to mental cultivation or not depends above all on the content of the socially endorsed
life plan one thoughtlessly chooses. Born in a family of scientists, conforming to family custom
unreflectively might lead one to be a nuclear physicist or bio-medical researcher. Second, one could
choose for oneself thoughtlessly, and the content of what one chooses might not include mental
cultivation. The life I choose independently, striking off on my own path against custom, might be to be