Throughout On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argues for individuality and condemns conformity. He takes a strong stance against legal coercion and social pressure to control and manage people’s behaviors and options. The only time that the individual should be prevented to act or think in whatever way he or she desires is if their behavior or beliefs harm others. Mill is very utilitarian in his argument supporting individuality and diversity of opinion. He states that liberty of opinion should not only be allowed but encouraged because it helps society in two ways: first, if the unpopular opinion is correct, it could help to fix or reform society. Secondly, even if the unpopular opinion is wrong, it will force society to re-evaluate the reasons why their popular opinion is correct. Similarly, liberty of behavior helps society to progress because a nonconformist’s lifestyle can help to challenge society and prevent stagnation.

Notes & Quotes

  • In her text Bleak Liberalism, Amanda Anderson seeks to push against representations of liberalism (particularly leftist criticisms of liberal thought) by demonstrating the consistent reflexive awareness of social, moral, and psychological limitations inherit to liberalism. This is what she means by “bleak” liberalism. Rather than exist without true consideration of the “real” world, as some critics have claimed, liberalism is constantly grappling with its limitations and tensions. Although she focuses on authors and thinkers of the 20th century to create “bleak liberalism,” she notes that this sort of thinking is inherit to liberalism and can be traced back to thinkers like John Stuart Mill, pointing, in particular, to his On Liberty. He repeatedly considers drawbacks to his plan of liberalism, such as the potential for the tyranny of the majority (8) and the particular challenge of practicing tolerance through religion (11). Anderson pushes this sort of “bleak” thinking to the forefront of her conception of liberalism and spends some time discussing the high-realist novels of the Victorian era, including Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Hard Times, as well as George Eliot’s Middlemarch. In these novels, Anderson notes that there is major tension present between the desire for individual liberty and moral agency, and for a desire to reform massive social inequality. She ends the first chapter (“Bleak Liberalism”) by examining the present state of neoliberalism alongside academic critiques of neoliberalism. According to Anderson:

…the critiques of neoliberalism’s deprivations and distortions presuppose the significance of a developed sense of moral commitment linked, on the one hand, to one’s social and political vision, and, on the other, to a sense of one’s own self-actualization and guiding values. The liberal ideal is alive and well in the very diagnosis of neoliberalism’s assault on the achievements of traditional political liberalism. (45)

  • At the end of Chapter III, Mill takes on the language of the gothic to describe conformity. His view that conformity “grows on what it feeds on,” as well as conformity’s ability to create copies out of humans is very vampiric. It also reminds me of the current blend of the posthuman gothic, in which the monstrosity of the “copy” haunts digital gothic texts. Finally, this is a sort of gothic destabilization of the self, but placed on the grander scale of society. If we allow the infection of conformity to spread, and refuse diversity to exist, then we will completely loose ourselves as well as our ability to see difference of opinion for what it truly is, rather than as “monstrous.”
  • The demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves, grows by what it feeds on. If resistance waits till life is reduced nearly to one uniform type, all deviations from that type will come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature. Mankind speedily become unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it. (72)

  • Mill begins Chapter V with a description of the free market and its connection to his views of liberty. Although he believes that an individual must be held accountable and duly punished by the law or society if he or she hurts another or society as a whole, there is one major exception. If, for example, a person success in an “overcrowded profession” and “reaps benefit from the loss of others” by getting hired for a job for which someone else was rejected (and therefore, hurt), this person should not be punished because they are acting for the good of society. In a competitive job market, the best person for the job will be hired, and therefore, this is a good thing. The same goes for free trade, which will provide socially beneficial effects because of competition. He goes on to discuss the prevention of crime, closely looking at the sale of poison. Because poison can be used for other purposes besides murder, the selling of poison should not be restricted, however, he states that it would be good for the seller to have to write down the name and address of the buyer in order to prevent any unlawful use of the product. This entire section seems to fit well with what Anderson argues in Bleak Liberalism. Mill seems aware of the tensions inherent in liberalism, as well as in the free market, causing him to play out different possibilities, as well as possible solutions.

On Liberty (1859) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.