Choice and Excellence: A Defense of Millian Individualism

Social Theory and Practice 31 (4):483-498 (2005)
Communitarians have argued against Millian individualism (ethical liberalism) by claiming that it leads to the compartmentalization of life, and thus inhibits virtue, that it causes alienation, and leads to what I call the problem of choice. Ethical liberals celebrate the free choice of a conception of the good life, but communitarians respond by posing a dilemma. Either the choice is made in reference to some given standard (a social or natural telos), in which case it is not free, or it is made without reference to a standard, in which case it is arbitrary. This entails either ethical liberalism is false or it reduces to existentialism. I tackle each of these arguments in turn, showing that alienation is not any more of problem in liberal than in communitarian societies, and explain how virtues can fit between compartments in our lives. Regarding the problem of choice, I show that communitarians have assumed that justification must have a foundationalist structure. I show instead how a coherentist structure can allow for a person to begin with unchosen ends or with unchosen standards, but eventually arrive at a structure of ends (which constitute a vision of the good life) that is both freely chosen and rationally justified. This vindicates Millian individualism.
Keywords J.S. Mill  alienation  communitarianism  ethical liberalism  compartmentalization
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DOI 10.5840/soctheorpract200531421
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