The Importance of Individuality & the Consequences of Conformity

An examination of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, in which he stresses the importance of individuality.

This paper provides discussion and analysis of John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” focusing on his conceptions of individuality and conformity and the effects of these two contrasting categories on society as a whole. Mill places great importance on a people’s ability to exercise individual choice, arguing that our very humanity is defined by our ability to make our own decisions. One of the greatest champions of the power of the individual, Mill urges people to avoid conformity, or blind, unquestioning adherence to existing norms, even if those norms are archaic, and do not make logical sense within the context of contemporary society. Conformity, he argues, causes society to stagnate if societal constructions are never questioned or challenged, nothing will ever change and society will cease to progress. This paper examines Mill’s theory as it applies to 19th century Britain and Western society in general (seen by Mill as in danger of succumbing to conformity), focusing on issues of censorship and the strict moral codes of the period.
“He argues that what renders a person human is his/her ability to choose, and that by blindly adhering to custom a person rejects his/her humanity and individuality. In order to be an individual, one must understand previous customs but then interpret them and, if necessary, change them to fit one’s personal views and lifestyle. He places great value on individuality; not only is it crucial to the proper development of the human being, but to the development of society, for without it society will become stagnant and immobile. That is, if people stick to customs without questioning whether those customs are applicable to their lives and times and adjusting them appropriately, their societies will cease to progress. He applies his theories to 19th century Western society, warning that modern censorship and strict regulations hinder the development of the individual, and consequently the society. No greater responsibility, importance, and glory can be placed on individuality than are placed by Mill.”