EDIT: Hello from the future! This post is part of the old blog. That means it may be deprecated. However, I deemed it valuable enough to keep around. The new blog starts here!

Let's continue our trek into On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. This week I'll highlight some things found in the 3rd chapter - "On individuality, as one of the elements of well-being" - that I found interesting. Individuality is (more) common place nowadays, but its extent is questionable; most people want to be original and revel in their individuality (yours truly included), but more often than not we are simply vibrating inside accepted norms. I encourage you to read this by keeping in mind how it applies to tech culture.

Mono-culture is death

So in this part of the text, Mill argues for "originality". Customs are laying waste to originality and crusting the swift flow of ideas. I think he said it best when talking about the growing propensity to customariness (that is actually a word!) of average men:

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.

By "customary" he is talking about the tendency of people to act based on what they think someone of their status or of a higher status would do rather than consider their own affinities i.e. what is expected of them.

What is so bad about customs? Aren't they the result of social experience? Aren't they time-proven and majority-approved tacit processes? Well, just go back to the last post to see what Mill had to say about blindly submitting to tacit understandings. It's the same idea here. Except that there are also historical examples underlining the dangers of a customary society.

The main example is China. Blessed with major technological advancement, a numerous population and ample resources, it failed to reach the level of dominance that Europe had at the time of Mill. The reason for that were customs that prevented trade and stifled individual growth (even modern books talk about this, see Guns, Germs and Steel. The enforcement of customs and the subsequent mono-culture was so effective that China lost its edge to Europe.

Quick aside here. It could be argued that the problem isn't the notion of customs but rather what those customs entail. If it was socially well seen to trade, then China could have dominated. To Mill, this might be true: some customs are better than others, but to discover them individuality must be allowed and the means imposing those customs so effectively must be prevented.

Ok back on track. With the prevalence of customs for the sake of customs, Mill predicted the gradual deterioration of the pace of progress in Europe (like in China) unless individuality was allowed to grow. Public opinion is the main opponent here and the one against which originality must be shielded or at least the one it should overcome. What's the alternative? The human spirit is crushed by a numbing system where nothing is done because of actual want and everything is done because of fictional need.

The Oppressive Mass

Really Mill goes back and again to this idea of the oppressing mass. And I don't think he means to be condescending by that. He's stating his observation of the society and he promotes individuality as a means to elevate all of society. Individuals can stir the flow to a better direction and the more thoughtful individuals the better.

In modern day terms: he deplores the popularity of Honey Boo Boo, but acknowledges that unless individuals are more enlightened, its popularity won't change as it is driven by mass appeal. Note that his solution is not to have an opposing custom imposed on the public (it bears repeating), but rather have the decision become organic from the individuals themselves.

It's hard to see the impact of our individuality in this era of masses - that applies to both Stuart Mill's time and ours. It is necessary though, says Mill, because our greatest advancements were brought forth by individuals and if we don't allow individuals to be "original" and deviate from the imposed norm than we will stop advancing.


I will stop it here for this week. That was a bit longer than I expected! Quick recap:

  • All of the reasons to praise liberty of expression are valid for individuality.
  • Customs and uniformity stifle progress and the well-being of mankind.
  • If the world is increasingly decided by group-think, it is more important than ever to be original and try new things for the benefit of all.

Ok, chapter 4 will be next. It's about the authority of the state on the individual - I guess he does tackle that aspect! I will try to post something different in between though. Pause this heavy stuff a bit.