Monday, February 16, 2009

Mill On Liberty and the Pressure to Conform: Too Little Substance

In the previous post I noted that Mill is committed, as anyone should be, to the importance of passing along traditions that promote good lives. He also rails against the pressure to conform to convention. Perhaps living in Victorian England has given him a certain perspective which we living in the era of pierced faces cannot imagine, but in any event, the tension between the commitment and the railing is never resolved substantively in the little book.

In short, of course valuable traditions must be inculcated in the youth of a society and of course too much pressure to conform is bad. Both positions should be seen as trivially true by anyone with whom it would be worth deliberating. So, that much is true, but trivial. Unfortunately, that's all we get with Mill. How shall we decide cases in which these two vectors collide? He gives us no help.

Mill tosses the term "progressive" around in Chapter III: Of Individuality. In those passages he could be read as an anti-conservative. Yet such a position would be straightforwardly inconsistent with Mill's regard for tradition, as I explained it in the previous post. Now, progressivism is untenable, with its stupid disregard for tradition and its record of fascism. On the other hand, the rigid conventionalism Mill excoriates is also untenable. But we knew that, or we should have known it. So, what of substance do we get from Mill on this issue? Nothing.

Of course, if your society is too rigidly conventional, Mill's eloquently individualistic passages might be of use. But even these are merely consequentialist in nature, totally overlooking the fact that the individual has a right to do with his life as he likes because it is his and no one else's. Moreover, Mill never acknowledges that the eccentrics he admires should have the spine enough to take a bit of mockery and derision from the conformist crowd, especially if the chosen eccentricity is as useless and detrimental as a pierced face.