PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday April 11, 2003

[2.3.] Broadening the Harm Principle.

 

Is Mill's utilitarianism consistent with the Harm Principle?[1] Here's a passage that suggests that it is:

 

"A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury." (OL ch.1 11; Cahn p.932)

 

This suggests that a government might be warranted in interfering with someone to make him do something to help other people, e.g. turn over money to fund a welfare program. If not turning over the cash harms people, then the government is justified in making you turn it over! In fact, Mill lists a number of things that a government may legitimately force someone to do, and one of those is "saving a fellow creature's life":

 

There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others which he may rightfully be compelled to perform, such as to give evidence in a court of justice, to bear his fair share in the common defense, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection, and to perform certain acts of beneficence, such as saving a fellow creature's life or interposing to protect the defenseless against ill usage--things which whenever it is obviously a man's duty to do he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing. (OL ch.1 11; Cahn p.932)

 

By "harm," Mill means not only performing actions that result in bad consequences for others, but also omitting actions and thereby failing to prevent bad consequences from coming to others.

This broad concept of harm definitely renders the HP consistent with Mill's utilitarianism -- but does it also weaken the Harm Principle so much as to render it worthless? E.g., by failing to join the Peace Corps and building bridges in Afghanistan, you are omitting an action and thereby not preventing bad consequences from affecting others. Does the HP thus allow the government to compel you to join the Peace Corps?

 

Mill seems to have recognized this threat to the HP, since he adds this caveat: compelling someone to prevent harm to others "requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than [compelling someone not to harm others]. To make anyone answerable for doing evil to others is the rule; to make him answerable for not preventing evil is, comparatively speaking, the exception."

 

Nonetheless, he believes that "there are many cases clear enough and grave enough to justify that exception." (OL ch.1 11, Cahn pp.932-33)

 

 

[3.] Freedom of Thought and Speech. (OL ch.1 and 2)

 

[3.1.] Personal Freedoms.

 

Mill is concerned to build "a strong barrier of moral conviction" (ch.1 15, p.934) against the encroaching restrictions on personal freedoms, both by the government ("legislation") and public opinion. To use Mill's own famous phrase, he is concerned to insulate individuals from the tyranny of the majority -- a tyranny which can operate both through political and social institutions:

 

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant--society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it--its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than any kinds of political oppression, since, though not usualy upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. (OL ch.1 5, p.929)

 

Towards the end of ch.I (12, p.933), Mill lists the following areas in which individuals should be allowed freedom (by the government and by society as a whole):

 

1.       "the inward domain of consciousness" -- thought, feeling, opinion, sentiment and belief on all subjects -- plus the associated freedoms of speech and publication

2.       "tastes and pursuits" -- having whatever sort of life you want, pursuing your own interests and activities (so long as you don't harm others)

3.       "combination among individuals" -- i.e. freedom to associate with whomever we wish

 

These three freedoms are essential for a free society: "No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified." (ch.I 13, p.933)

 

Mill's argument in favor of these freedoms seems to be utilitarian: "Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." (ch.I 13, p.933)



[1] Thomas (Mill, Oxford UP: 1985, p.96f.) writes about this and pulls an unconvincing response out of OL ch.4.



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