John Stuart Mill Prefers Preferences for Almost Anything But Indolence

John Stuart Mill makes an eloquent argument for freedom of desire in On Liberty, chapter III, “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being,” paragraph 5:

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 connexion between strong impulses and a weak conscience. The natural connexion 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. Strong impulses are but another name for energy. Energy may be turned to bad uses; but more good may always be made of an energetic nature, than of an indolent and impassive one. Those who have most natural feeling, are always those whose cultivated feelings may be made the strongest. The same strong susceptibilities which make the personal impulses vivid and powerful, are also the source from whence are generated the most passionate love of virtue, and the sternest self-control. It is through the cultivation of these, that society both does its duty and protects its interests: not by rejecting the stuff of which heroes are made, because it knows not how to make them. A person whose desires and impulses are his own—are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture—is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character. If, in addition to being his own, his impulses are strong, and are under the government of a strong will, he has an energetic character. Whoever thinks that individuality of desires and impulses should not be encouraged to unfold itself, must maintain that society has no need of strong natures—is not the better for containing many persons who have much character—and that a high general average of energy is not desirable.

Unfortunately, John Stuart Mill undercuts his argument for freedom of desire by implicitly attacking the desire for indolence and passivity. In modern American culture as well, two of the desires we are the most ready to denigrate is the desire to watch TV (which in recent years has been the medium for some of our greatest works of art) and for sleep–which can be one of the most beautiful forms of indolence and passivity. (I found it entertaining to see the varied google search results for the phrase “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

I often fail in my resolutions. But I value happiness enough that ever since my psychologist colleague Norbert Schwarz impressed upon me the high marginal product sleep has in producing happiness, I have made an effort to get more sleep. I have not regretted those efforts. And my wife Gail and I just finished a “Prison Break” marathon.