John Stuart Mill, individuality, and liberty

This is an excerpt from a manuscript on moral individualism (image).

Mill was a methodological individualist, in the sense that he believed that social phenomena can be reduced to, or explained with reference to, individual behavior (see, e.g., Mill 1974 [1843], pp. 877ff; see also Zouboulakis 2002). He also defended a moral version of individualism as individuality which is similar to, yet distinct from, Marx’s theory. Like Marx, Mill’s theory of individualism concerns the realization of inherent properties in individuals. However, contrary to Marx, the individual human being in Mill’s theory “is the same metaphysical individual whether in or out of society” (Thilly 1923, p. 5).

Mill’s view was that human beings can, and should, develop their individuality by realizing their full potential and, thereby, flourish. For the present purposes there are two important elements to this view. One is internal to individuals and concerns the development mainly of their mental faculties. The other is external to them and concerns their social and political freedom.

According to Mill, humans’ mental qualities distinguish them from other animals (1977 [1859], p. 262). To develop their individuality and flourish as human beings, individuals must actively exercise these qualities (ibid):

The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. […] 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. […] 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.

Mill’s view on freedom is one of the most well-known in modern political philosophy. He was of the view that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” (ibid, p. 223). This is commonly known as Mill’s liberty principle. One justification of the liberty principle is that it allows for the free development of individuality. Mill wrote passionately (ibid, p. 266):

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 therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them. […] Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called.

One obstacle to individuality and human progression that Mill observed in his time was the legal and social subjection of women, which should be replaced with principles of complete equality (Mill 1984 [1869), p. 261). Another obstacle was that individuals in the working class did not enjoy the fruits of the industrial and economic revolution of the 19th century. Their individuality remained undeveloped throughout their lives, as there were no real conditions for change and flourishing (Mill 1965b [1848], pp. 766–77). They had to invest their labor in occupations over which they had no control, countering their development of individuality (Mill 1965a [1848], p. 216). Therefore, Mill supported worker associations and called himself a socialist (Ottow 1993).

This reveals a possible inconsistency in Mill’s political philosophy. In social matters conformity to custom and community thwarts individuality (Mill 1977 [1859], p. 269):

The power of compelling others into [following wise and noble initiatives], is not only inconsistent with the freedom and development of all the rest, but corrupting to the strong man himself. […] In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service.

To the contrary, in economic matters Mill uses the same noun, i.e., conformity, in a positive sense (Mill 1965a [1848], p. 204):

In the extreme case of obstinate perseverance in not performing the due share of work, the community would have the same resources which society now has for compelling conformity to the necessary conditions of the association.

In any case, Mill’s theory of individuality is an important contribution to the philosophy of individualism. It includes the view that individuals not only have the right to realize their full potential, they also have reasons to do so (beyond their own wishes, if any). Developing one’s individuality means that one is transformed into a “noble and beautiful object of contemplation,” that life becomes “rich, diversified, and animating,” and so on (as cited above). As with Marx’s individualism as individuality, these are substantial claims that do not fit onto the individualism-collectivism scale, but warrant further investigation.


Mill, J. S. (1965a [1848]). Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy books I-II. In Robson, J. M. (Ed.) Collected Works of John Stuart Mill Volume II. University of Toronto Press.

—. (1965b [1848]). Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy books III-V. In Robson, J. M. (Ed.). Collected Works of John Stuart Mill Volume III. University of Toronto Press.

—. (1974 [1843]). A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive Part II. In Robson, J.M. (Ed.). The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume VIII. University of Toronto Press.

—. (1977 [1859]). On Liberty. In Robson, J.M. (Ed.). Essays on Politics and Society. University of Toronto Press.

—. (1984 [1869]). The Subjection of Women. In Robson, J.M. (Ed.). Essays on Equality, Law, and Education. University of Toronto Press.

Ottow, R. (1993). Why John Stuart Mill Called Himself a Socialist. History of European Ideas 17(4), 479–483.

Thilly, F. (1923). The Individualism of John Stuart Mill. The Philosophical Review 32(1), 1–17.

Zouboulakis, M.S. (2002). John Stuart Mill’s Institutional Individualism. History of Economic Ideas 10(3), 29–45.