Editor at ReformerMag, Writing on Governance, Institution, and Liberalism.

Individualism and Reason

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill puts on a decisive defence on the importance of individualism when it comes to society. He argues that for an individual to be truly free they must be free from the tyranny of the majority and of public opinion—what he refers to as social tyranny.

In his philosophical argument for individuality, the bedrock of current liberal life, Mill tends to leave out an important facet of the process in which individuality develops —the social negotiation process. To say that individuality is the key to liberty and social utility is one thing, but to ensure that one must be free from public opinion is another. This becomes clear when we look a bit closer at what is meant by public opinion as embodied by “Society”.

On a legislative level, it is easy to see how a majority can lead to the implementation of moral laws which impact the development of individuality, from sexual preference to liberty in expressing opinion. But this is not entirely what Mill was referring to in his book. Public opinion plays a much more critical role in our lives aside from legislation. Think: fashion, what is considered acceptable behaviour in public, or even acceptable behaviour when it comes to familial relations (respect for elders, courtesy, gender roles); these are all elements that have nothing to do with legislation and an individual’s legal rights and freedoms.

When looked at through this lens, it becomes clear that “Society” as a coherent unit of agency doesn’t exist, and controlling the influence of culture and tradition (custom) is shifted to an issue of personal interactions with other members of society and immediate relations.

This makes any such interaction extremely subjective, personal, and fluid and any meaningful analysis needs to be shifted from a simple transaction between individual and “Society” to a critique on inter-individual behaviour.

Mill somehow hints at this and uses it to demonstrate the need to increase awareness on the benefits of individualism itself. He refers to this as development, although, how this development should come about is left to the whims of personal desire.

The origin of prejudice

Mill’s analysis rightfully points to the source of social tyranny as the way we rationalise differences and how this plays a role in our perception of social relations.

The key to individual liberation, Mill posits, is the necessary understanding that our opinions on right or wrong are NOT infallible and are based purely on our subjective preferences.

“The practical principle which guides them [individuals] to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person’s mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathises, would like them to act. No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people’s liking instead of one. To an ordinary man, however, his own preference, thus supported, is not only a perfectly satisfactory reason, but the only one he generally has for any of his notions of morality, taste, or propriety, which are not expressly written in his religious creed; and his chief guide in the interpretation even of that. Men’s opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blamable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason—at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their antisocial ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly their desires or fears for themselves—their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest.”

The prejudices we form then come from our own preferences and finding a larger social validation for them. This is far beyond the typical analysis of in-group out-group interaction that we usually see in social psychology and places the source of prejudice not exclusively in our want of social belonging i.e. in individuals adopting others values to belong, but that our sense of social belonging is based on our individual prejudices. That is to say that prejudices are not only taught through socialization, but are based in the individual interpretation and then reinforced by building a social group around them.

Accepting preference

The above however remains almost strictly transactional and not enough for us to understand some of the internal processes that form our own preferences and warrants an elaboration.

In the above excerpt Mill refer to individuals’ social and anti-social affections, envy and jealousy, and arrogance and contemptuousness. What role do these emotions play in forming preferences?

We know that individuality, which exists as a function of consciousness, is an observable reality. We know, as fact, that people are different. But the way we observe this is not by understanding every individual’s character, that would require us to interact with every person we come across and judge independently. No, we do so through a social lens. That is, we observe others and make a judgment based on performative or social perceptions. Let us take the example of an athlete. If we observe a runner there are two observations that one can make, first a performative differentiation that this person is a better runner, second, that this person due to their abilities, or other unseen factors, occupies a position of social regard.

Those two observations could manifest in the internal psyche as insecurity, jealousy, envy, and contemptuousness (Why is that person better? It’s unfair. I’ll never be in the spotlight. Am I not doing enough?) From these emotions one can ultimately come to the conclusion that they have no appetite or preference for running i.e. these emotions are internalised as a personal characteristic – I’m no good at running, it doesn’t make me feel good, therefore, I don’t like running.

On the other hand these feelings could be externalised, one may begin to resent runners and build rationalizations around that resentment e.g. runners don’t do anything yet they get all the credit, this is systemic of an unfair society. Soon enough others are found with similar viewpoints and an independent identity, on the basis of this resentment is formed, a counter-culture.

We would then perceive that those with similar values to us provide a higher utilitarian value (sense of belonging and happiness) and those with differences will receive a dismissive attitude. This heuristic rationalization is then used to navigate next encounters.

Alternatively, we can take the view point of the runner. Fuelled by social validation for a skill, they may begin to see others as inferior. This on its own, similar to the above mentioned development of a counter culture, provides no harm. However, let us consider that the runner begins to see the development of a counter culture as a threat to their status, and being physically superior, begin threatening and bullying individuals so that through fear they may supress that threat or the proliferation of that culture. A fine example of Social Darwinism emerges and a preference towards violence is forged.

Looking at preference through this developmental lens makes it increasingly difficult to understand how Mill suggests individuals can develop an acceptance to differences in preference. A rational understanding on the side of one doesn’t remove the threat of Social Darwinism, and the idea that somehow we will all come to respect differences without the interference of our emotional predispositions and rationalizations is highly unlikely.

The tyranny of reason

In response to this convoluted relationship between liberty and preference, philosophers have reinforced their stances on the importance of reason. For it is only through reason that an uninhibited ability to take in new and potentially opposing information develops, bringing with it a larger understanding of the world (knowledge) beyond our preferences.

Both Plato and Freud’s philosophies are largely built on this rational. Plato takes that claim further by saying that an individual can be just only if their spirit and appetite are subordinated to their reason. He thus goes at length about the importance of taming ones passions.

Freud’s division of consciousness into the Id (instinctive drives), Ego (social allowances), and Super Ego (disciplinary tool) also follows this analysis. Although Freud’s model, used in conjunction with psychoanalysis, was aimed to liberate individuals from their unconscious drives and repressions by bringing it up to the level of consciousness. In this way Freud actually sought to make individuals understand how their preferences and perceptions developed countering the social processes described above.

However, both Freud and Plato’s juxtaposition of instinctive drives (passions) against reason has led to the development of something equally as bad at the social tyranny Mill seeks to expunge—the tyranny of reason over character.

The complex analyses of philosophers like Plato and Freud have themselves become reduced maxims and customs imposing on individuals, a belief that for them to be liberated they must turn a blind eye to their emotions. This idea has been reinforced by stoic philosophy which posited that emotions can impair judgment and thus they must fall under the remit of self-control for the benefit of reason.

Beyond philosophy, our impressions on the dangers of emotion has been reinforced in our current economically geared world which through meritocracy, and a Calvinistic (Protestant) influenced work ethic, has placed value on frugalness, hard work, and self-moderation, interpreting any pursuit of emotional relief not only damnable as a vice (hedonism via. worldly-pleasure), but as wasteful and irrational – economically irresponsible.

But as Freud and Mill will remind us, there is no way for us to understand our preferences, or even learn to accept them as just that, preferences that constitute elements of our individual characters (and not ideals in the face of perceived social incompetence such as the rationalisation our previous counter-culture was built on) unless we pass through an understanding of our emotions.

The idea that we must replace emotions with reason does nothing but redefine what we are being hedonistic about to create an illusion of self-control that cannot exist unless we acknowledge the role that our passions and emotions play.

Mill explains this relationship by saying that as we accept reason as our own, so must we accept our impulses and desires:

“To a certain extent it is admitted that our understanding should be our own: but there is not the same willingness to admit that our desires and impulses should be our own likewise; or that to possess impulses of our own, and of any strength, is anything but a peril and a snare. Yet desires and impulses are as much a part of a perfect human being as beliefs and restraints: and strong impulses are only perilous when not properly balanced; when one set of aims and inclinations is developed into strength, while others, which ought to co-exist with them, remain weak and inactive. It is not because men’s desires are strong that they act ill; it is because their consciences are weak. There is no natural connection between strong impulses and a weak conscience. The natural connection is the other way. To say that one person’s desires and feelings are stronger and more various than those of another, is merely to say that he has more of the raw material of human nature, and is therefore capable, perhaps of more evil, but certainly of more good”

The path to liberation

The problems we face when it comes to individual liberation, then, are twofold. First, is the individual realisation that their preferences are not infallible, and therefore they must not develop a sense of moral direction on their premises. Second, is the understanding that the path to their utilitarian individualism (individualism that can lead to maximum happiness and social benefit) is not through the “taming” of the passions but my harnessing them and using them as a propellant towards productive creation.

Mill was adamant that overcoming these two predicaments was an individual’s task and would naturally come about with the provision of freedom and variety of choice. He goes on to claim that external interference will sully the process of individual development by creating a general sentimental and socially aligned predisposition. This analysis extends to education, class assimilation, improvements in the means of communication, and commerce.

Here however, is where I must part ways with Mill’s analysis which seems to assume that any sort of intervention is negative. Of course, intervention with the sole aim of creating conformity is egregious. However, the availability of information and connectives of people will only improve the breadth of information an individual has access to draw from providing a variety of choice, the problem remains, how do you ensure freedom away from social Darwinism?

If we have established that the pursuit of individualism, from a utilitarian perspective is best for both the individual and the state, as Mill argues, then it is too critical of a thing to be left to the whims of the individual which is so amenable to the influence of society and prejudices. We must encourage intervention to bring it about in the most expedient manner.

The only safe method in which this can be done is through the provision of an education aimed at reinforcing individual preference, assisting with the exploration of emotion, and promoting an understanding and acceptance of the other. If it is through the state that we have been able to establish the individual rights that we so value now, it is only rational that we fight to embolden it by entrenching individualism in its systems and allow it to stand with us as a tool in the fight against social tyranny.

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