Ain’t That America? (Part Two)


In the first part of this essay I wrote that Americans owe a huge philosophical debt to John Stuart Mill for articulating the “harm principle,” the main idea behind the personal freedoms we hold so dear. According to the harm principle, you are free to think, say or do whatever you wish in the pursuit of happiness as long as you do not harm or threaten anyone else’s freedom to do the same. It’s an ingenious way of extending the boundaries of one’s private sphere as far as the public interest allows. Within those boundaries, the individual is sovereign, as Mill famously put it.

I believe nearly all Americans agree that the harm principle is the bedrock of our political culture. Even if they have never heard of it, most Americans would recognize the idea and accept its basic validity. We are committed in our bones to the principle of live and let live.

At the end of the day, though, the harm principle is a purely negative precept; it only sketches what the prevailing authorities should not be allowed to do when it comes to controlling the thoughts and actions of individuals. And since no one likes to be told what to do, the harm principle turns out to have a lot of intuitive appeal.

There is much more room for disagreement, though, as soon as we contemplate what we should do with the freedoms that grow out of the harm principle. What is personal liberty for? Is it (merely) an intrinsic good, to be exercised for whatsoever we wish, or does it serve a higher purpose? A life spent on the couch snarfing Doritos and playing video games could (with important caveats about not neglecting certain peronal duties) accord perfectly with the harm principle, but should we encourage such disspipation by stamping it with the harm principle’s imprimatur and leaving it at that?

Mill anticipates this problem in On Liberty, the beautiful little book in which he spells out the harm principle. Even though humans enjoy robust freedoms of thought, speech and action, Mill worried they would tend, through intellectual laziness and tacit surrender to social control, to join the heard. Therefore Mill thought it was essential to constantly court difference of thought by seeking new “situations” and actively experimenting with new forms of life. In his lapidary words:

Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? . . .

Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

Today my thoughts are about two American thinkers who picked up where Mill left off and elevated this idea–let’s call it the diversity principle–into a defining feature of the American persona. If the biggest part of being American is to believe in the harm principle, the next biggest part is to believe something slightly more controversial–that we only do the harm principle justice if we live as differently from the crowd as we can, and that we think boldly, privileging our private intuitions over public opinion and even the precepts of established institutions. In pursuing the widest possible diversity of life experiments, we become stronger, braver, more ingenious. Freedom is for reform, activity and creation, concludes Mill, not merely for droning undisturbed on one’s inevitable way toward death.

The first American thinker to capture the positive spirit of Mill was Walt Whitman. His Leaves of Grass, indeed virtually all his poems, are a paean to the multitudinous diversity of the American persona. Whitman saw the wellspring of our national strength rise from a multitude of sources: the self-reliance of frontier life on the plains, the surging energy of the political meeting house, the industrious hives of American factories, but especially in the great variety of skilled trades. He was bowled over by the creative energy evident in everyday life. Take, for example, his reflections on work in “I Hear America Singing”:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman beautifully anthemizes Americans content at their jobs–which, he notes right off the bat, are varied. Each character acts creatively in his private realm to help build a public good of great variety. But look again. Isn’t this poem out of date? Why are all the tradesmen, craftsmen and technicians men, and the only two women a mother “at her work” and a “girl sewing or washing?” America was visibly, gaudily on the go in Whitman’s day, “blithe and strong,” but his women seem to hang behind the scenes, quietly doing the drudgework.

Of course the poem is out of date, but I will be so bold as to say that Whitman would be the first today to admit this. He would also be well pleased at how far we have surpassed even his generous vision of personal freedom. Whitman very much saw America as the kind of place where social experiments were constantly being launched from the ground up, fired by individual will and genius. Of course, then, women would eventually become carpenters, sea captains, and more. American life was, for Whitman, about each individual’s quest to increase the scope of “what belongs to him or her and to none else,  expanding life into a perpetual work in progress.

In his prose work Democratic Vistas, Whitman ties his advocacy of diversity directly to Mill’s ideas on freedom. What is needed, Whitman asks, to forge the “truly grand nationality” that America deserves? The answer is cribbed straight from Mill’s On Liberty: “1st, a large variety of character — and 2d, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.” The radical nature of this second requirement cannot be overstated. Americans are called on, Whitman believes, to boldly and ceaselessly carry out experiments in the “full play” of freedom on human life.

Unlike all the political ideologies that had preceded it, which had aimed at achieving fixed ideals of human fulfillment, the American experiment in liberal democracy was to postulate a goal that was ever-changing, suspended just beyond the horizon at any given cultural moment, and evolving according to whatever seemed best and most enlightened to those carrying out the boldest experiments in freedom. As the American philosopher Richard Rorty put it, the destiny of America is to drop the old European frames of reference and “create the tastes by which we will be judged,” forever breaking new paths to we-know-not-where.

John Dewey is the second great American thinker to address this idea, catching it in its high, romantic flight, bringing it down to earth, and giving it human, programmatic form. By now, Dewey’s ideas on how to maximize personal diversity and enable creative life experiments (Mill’s criteria for robust freedom) have been so thoroughly incorportated into our approach to education (especially in primary school), that we hardly notice their provenance. If you take it for granted that children go to school to learn they can become whatever they wish, you can thank Dewey for making this idea mainstream.

John Dewey (image:

There are two corallories to the maxim that every child can aspire to whatever she wishes. One is that, so can her fellows, and two is that (as Mill indicates in the quotation above), the world will be a better place for it. The purpose of education, then, is to awake maximally diverse aspirations and create a reflexive acceptance of  the equal legitimacy of one’s fellows’ aspirations. Dewey lays out these ideas in his masterpiece Democracy and Education. There he discredits the idea that school is for merely amassing facts in the child’s mind or even for acquiring good judgment. Rather, education is for maximizing each individual’s creativity  within the framework of a shared culture. This, of course, can’t be done without posessing salient facts and sound judgment, but Dewey covers that. Utlimately, education, Dewey says,

. . . should mean cultivation of power to join fully and freely in shared or common activities. This is impossible without culture, while it brings a reward in culture, because one cannot share in intercourse with others without learning–without getting a broader point of view and perceiving things of which one would otherwise be ignorant. And there is perhaps no better definition of culture than that it is the capacity for constantly expanding the range and accuracy of one’s perceptions and meanings.

In an earlier passage, Dewey describes the learning process as the application of iterated experience-combining to  problem solving. And since problems keep coming at us throughout life, as do new experiences, an educated human being, for Dewey, is perpetually a work in progress, someone happily at work re-combining experiences to adapt to an open-ended future of novelties.

So, what does Dewey’s definition of education have to do with what I am calling the diversity principle–the idea that we should think differently from the crowd and get up off the couch to enact our thoughts? Everything. Education makes us who we are, politically speaking. And if we come to believe, through education, that our purpose in life is one of “constantly expanding the range and accuracy of [our] perceptions,” we must believe that of our fellow humans are equally entitled to grow in unanticipated ways as well. We are all changing all the time, through the process of adaptive experience-recombination. Not only are we and our fellows literally becoming new people before our own eyes, but we are building building a better, more ingenious society in doing so.

Of course it would be silly to say that Whitman and Dewey have the last word on what it means to be American. But I do think they discovered something of vital importance, a principle that starts with our robust conception of personal freedom and spells out what that principle means for our communal life. Reactionaries, conservatives, and probably anyone over 50 (present company included) sometimes complain that we don’t recognize our country anymore. Good. Our country was not designed to sit still. Our communal life changes, but as long as it does so on the basis of our founding freedoms, I think we should have more hope than fear for the novelties that will ensue.

America, I believe, is meant to be a country in which social differentness keeps on compounding itself until everyone is able to believe they have a place here, and a unique contribution to make to our ongoing experiment. The more natural and reflexive our acceptance of differentness becomes, the closer we get to realizing this hope. As Richard Rorty wrote in Achieving Our Country, if we are to build in America the paradigmatic democracy, we must hold faith that “governments and social institutions exist only for the purpose of making a new sort of individual possible, one who will take nothing as authoritative save free consensus between as diverse a variety of citizens as can possibly be produced.” Believing something like this is a large part of what it means to be American.


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