Social Foundations III Paper: II
Professor Michael Shennefelt
Prompt: 4 John Stuart Mill
Is the Harm Principle harmful?
Liberty and individual freedoms in the 21st century are subject to intense debate between lawmakers, political leaders and citizens. We live in a world where governments and communities, to a certain extent, have control over the rights of people. America has made the use of marijuana and other drugs illegal, the drinking age is twenty-one, there are instances of censorship, and society dictates the concept of right and wrong to people. A influential 19th political thinker, John Stuart Mill would bluntly label this as wrong. Not because of the reasoning behind it but because of the restrictive nature on an individual’s liberties. Mill’s Harm Principle would rule this as a violation of liberty. Mill’s famous principle has little room for questioning moral righteous and his idea of consequentialism has many moral implications.
The harm principle can be summed up in mill’s introduction of On Liberty: “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” This excludes children and insane or incompetent adults. It is important to understand the definition of ‘harm.’ It is clear from his example of a corn dealer that Mill uses the harm principle cautiously. He claims that it is justified to publish the opinion that a corn dealer starves the poor through the press however it is punishable to express it to an excited mob in front of the corn dealer’s house. Under this example mill feels that it is justified to harm the corn dealer’s reputation or livelihood as long as the liberty of the corn dealer is not harmed. The result of each action that an individual takes cannot be measured therefore the butterfly effect (the phenomenon whereby a small change at a place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere) or indirect harm in the long run should be disregarded.
At first the harm principle seems to be very reasonable especially when regarding acts with clear instances of harm. However, as the ‘harm’ becomes harder to measure the harm principle is harder to apply in some areas. It is also important to refer to utilitarianism when discussing the harm principle. Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that states that one should actions should result in the maximum happiness. Both the harm principle and utilitarianism deal only with the consequences of an action and they disregard morality or reason behind the actions. A strong contesting view on consequentialism is that of deontological ethics, which bases the morality of an action on the adherence to rules. A deontological philosopher, Immanuel Kant stated that one must act from duty to be morally right, a strong opposing view of the harm principle. The harm principle can even lead to an individual with good intentions getting punished. If a scientist attempts to cure cancer but creates a life-threatening virus by accident, is the scientist responsible for the loss of life and should he be punished or exempt. Under the harm principle the scientist is guilty however his actions were involuntary. A utilitarian may consider it justifiable to kill Hitler as a baby if given the opportunity, however, a moralistic man would not be able to kill a baby in cold blood for crimes he had not yet committed. Human actions are governed by a strict moral code. Mill may argue that these moral codes are not learned through experience but through society. However, man is born with basic moral reasoning that he inertly posses and develops.
The harm principle also leads to tyranny of the majority as it favors harm to the minority for the greater good of the majority. Let’s assume only one percent of the US population identify themselves as homosexual. If legalizing gay marriage emotionally