The Ethics of Identity
Kwame Anthony Appiah
The New York Times, June 12, 2005

The Great Experiment

Depending upon how you look at it, John Stuart Mill's celebrated education was either a case study in individuality or a vigorous attempt to erase it. He himself seems to have been unable to decide which. He called his education "the experiment," and the account he provided in his Autobiography ensured that it would become the stuff of legend. He was learning Greek at three, and by the time he was twelve, he had read the whole of Herodotus, a fair amount of Xenophon, Virgil's Eclogues and the first six books of the Aeneid, most of Horace, and major works by Sophocles, Euripides, Polybius, Plato, and Aristotle, among others. After studying Pope's Homer, he set about composing a "continuation of the Iliad," at first on whim and then on command. He had also made serious forays into geometry, algebra, and differential calculus.

The young Mill was kept away as much as possible from the corrupting influence of other boys ("the contagion," as he put it, "of vulgar modes of thought and feeling"); and so, in his fourteenth year, when John Stuart was about to meet some new people beyond the range of his father's supervision, James Mill took his son for a walk in Hyde Park to prepare him for what he might expect to encounter. If he found that he was ahead of other children, he must attribute it not to his own superiority, but to the particular rigors of his intellectual upbringing: "it was no matter of praise to me, if I knew more than those who had not had a similar advantage, but the deepest disgrace to me if I did not." This was the first inkling he had that he was precocious, and Mill had every reason to be astonished. "If I thought anything about myself, it was that I was rather backward in my studies," he recounts, "since I always found myself so, in comparison with what my father expected from me."

But James Mill was a man with a mission, and it was his eldest son's appointed role to carry forward that mission. James, as Jeremy Bentham's foremost disciple, was molding yet another disciple-someone who, trained in accordance with Benthamite principles, would extend and promulgate the grand raisonneur's creed for a new era. He was, so to speak, the samurai's son. In the event, self-development was to be a central theme of Mill's thought and, indeed, a main element of his complaint against his intellectual patrimony. When he was twenty-four, he wrote to his friend John Sterling about the loneliness that had come to overwhelm him: "There is now no human being (with whom I can associate on terms of equality) who acknowledges a common object with me, or with whom I can cooperate even in any practical undertaking, without feeling that I am only using a man, whose purposes are different, as an instrument for the furtherance of my own." And his sensitivity about using another in this way surely flows from his sense that he himself had been thus used-that he had been conscripted into a master plan that was not his own.

Mill memorably wrote about the great crisis in his life-a sort of midlife crisis, which, as befitted his precocity, visited when he was twenty-and the spiral of anomie into which he descended, during the winter of 1826.

In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: "Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institution and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?" And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!" At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.

He pulled out of it, stepped blinking into the light; but for a long while thereafter found himself dazed and adrift. Intent on deprogramming himself from the cult of Bentham, he plunged into an uncritical eclecticism, unwilling to exercise his perhaps overdeveloped faculties of discrimination. He was determinedly, even perversely, receptive to the arguments of those he would once have considered the embodiment of Error, whether the breathless utopianism of the Saint-Simonians or the murky Teutonic mysticisms of Coleridge and Carlyle. When intellectual direction returned to his life, it was through the agency of his new friend and soul mate, Mrs. Harriet Hardy Taylor. "My great readiness and eagerness to learn from everybody, and to make room in my opinions for every new acquisition by adjusting the old and the new to one another, might, but for her steadying influence, have seduced me into modifying my early opinions too much," he would write.

It was a relationship that was greeted with considerable censure, not least by James Mill. So there is some irony that it was she, more than anyone, who seems to have returned the rudderless craft he had become to the tenets of the patrimonial cause. His love for her was at once rebellion and restoration-and the beginning of an intellectual partnership that spanned almost three decades. Only when Mrs. Taylor was widowed, in 1851, could she and Mill live together as man and wife, and in the mid-1850s their collaboration bore its greatest fruit: On Liberty, surely the most widely read work of political philosophy in the English language.

I retell this familiar story because so many of the themes that preoccupied Mill's social and political thought wend their way through his life. It is a rare convenience. Buridan's ass did not itself tap out any contributions to decision theory before succumbing to starvation. Paul Gauguin, the emblem and avatar of Bernard Williams's famous analysis of "moral luck," was not himself a moral philosopher. Yet Mill's concern with self-development and experimentation was a matter of both philosophical inquiry and personal experience. On Liberty is an impasto of influences-ranging from German romanticism, by way of Wilhelm von Humboldt and Coleridge, to the sturdy, each-person-counts-for-one equality and tolerance that were Mill's intellectual birthright. But my interest in Mill's work is essentially and tendentiously presentist, for it adumbrates the main themes of this book, as it does so many topics in liberal theory.

Consider his emphasis on the importance of diversity; his recognition of the irreducibly plural nature of human values; his insistence that the state has a role in promoting human flourishing, broadly construed; his effort to elaborate a notion of well-being that was at once individualist and (in ways that are sometimes overlooked) profoundly social. Finally, his robust ideal of individuality mobilizes, as we'll see, the critical notions of autonomy and identity. My focus on Mill isn't by way of argumentum ad verecundiam; I don't suppose (nor did he) that his opinions represented the last word. But none before him-and, I am inclined to add, none since-charted out the terrain as clearly and as carefully as he did. We may cultivate a different garden, but we do so on soil that he fenced in and terraced.

Liberty and Indivituality

"If it were felt that the free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being; that it is not only a coordinate element with all that is designated by the terms civilization, instruction, education, culture, but is itself a necessary part and condition of all those things; there would be no danger that liberty should be undervalued, and the adjustment of the boundaries between it and social control would present no extraordinary difficulty." So Mill wrote in the book's celebrated third chapter, "On Individuality, as One of the Elements of Wellbeing," and it is a powerful proposal. For it seems to suggest that individuality could be taken as prior even to the book's titular subject, liberty itself. Our capacity to use all our faculties in our individual ways was, at least in part, what made liberty valuable to us. In Mill's accounting, individuality doesn't merely conduce to, it is constitutive of, the social good. And he returns to the point, lest anyone miss it: "Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this?"

To be sure, Mill does offer conventionally consequentialist arguments for liberty-arguments that liberty is likely to have good effects. His most famous arguments for freedom of expression assume that we will find the truth more often and more easily if we allow our opinions to be tested in public debate, in what we all now call the marketplace of ideas. But he argued with especial fervor that the cultivation of one's individuality is itself a part of well-being, something good in se, and here liberty is not a means to an end but part of the end. For individuality means, among other things, choosing for myself instead of merely being shaped by the constraint of political or social sanction. It was part of Mill's view, in other words, that freedom mattered not just because it enabled other things-such as the discovery of truth-but also because without it people could not develop the individuality that is an essential element of human good. As he writes,

He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need for any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision. And these qualities he requires and exercises exactly in proportion as the part of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings is a large one. It is possible that he might be guided in some good path, and kept out of harm's way, without any of these things. But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it.

Individuality is not so much a state to be achieved as a mode of life to be pursued. Mill says that it is important that one choose one's own plan of life, and liberty consists, at least in part, in providing the conditions under which a choice among acceptable options is possible. But one must choose one's own plan of life not because one will necessarily make the wisest choices; indeed, one might make poor choices. What matters most about a plan of life (Mill's insistence on the point is especially plangent coming from the subject of James and Jeremy's great experiment) is simply that it be chosen by the person whose life it is: "If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode." Not only is exercising one's autonomy valuable in itself, but such exercise leads to self-development, to the cultivation of one's faculties of observation, reason, and judgment. Developing the capacity for autonomy is necessary for human well-being, which is why it matters not just what people choose but "what manner of men they are that do it." So Mill invokes "individuality" to refer both to the precondition and to the result of such deliberative choice making.

The account of individuality that Mill offers in chapter 3 of On Liberty does not distinguish consistently between the idea that it is good to be different from other people and the idea that it is good to be, in some measure, self-created, to be someone who "chooses his plan for himself." Still, I think it is best to read Mill as finding inherent value not in diversity-being different-but in the enterprise of self-creation. For I might choose a plan of life that was, as it happened, very like other people's and still not be merely aping them, following them blindly as a model. I wouldn't, then, be contributing to diversity (so, in one sense, I wouldn't be very individual), but I would still be constructing my own-in another sense, individual-plan of life. On Liberty defends freedom because only free people can take full command of their own lives. . . .


Utilitarian Philosophers :: John Stuart Mill :: 'The Ethics of Identity', by Kwame Anthony Appiah