Monday, May 15, 2006

Mill and the Harm Principle

by Joe Miller

I know that it seems like I'm picking on Tom rather a lot lately. Okay, it's just twice, but still. Anyway, in what I suspect is at least an oblique reply to my discussion of Tom's post on gay marriage, Tom offers his analysis of Mill's Harm Principle:
Many proponents of the harm principle read it narrowly, as if the only harm that one may do to another is immediate or predictable (as in the case of pollution, for example). But there is more to liberty than allowing everyone to do his or her "own thing" as long as it doesn't result in immediate or predictable harm to others.
So far so good. Nothing here is too controversial. But he then follows up with:
We must take account of the harm that might result in the longer run from actions that are likely to strain and sunder the bonds of trust that make it possible for a people to coexist civilly. It is those bonds of trust -- forged by shared customs and moral principles -- that enable the members of society to pursue happiness with little or no fear of -- or the need to prepare for and defend against -- predations by their fellows.
And that, I'm afraid, is where he loses me. This, at the very least, doesn't sound much like the Mill that I know and love. My plan, then, was to write a really long post explaining just how far off this interpretation of the harm principle really is. However. This Saturday (for those of you not aware) is Mill's 200th birthday. So I'm already in the process of writing up a post on Mill which Jonathan has agreed to publish at Catallarchy (hey, they get way more readers than I do). Rather than shoot my entire load here, then, I'm going to hold off on my response. Or rather, I'm going to incorporate my response into my discussion of Mill at Catallarchy. So look for it there on Thursday or Friday of this week.


Blogger Thomas said...


You're right. It's an oblique reply to your discussion of my post on gay marriage. I dashed it off just before I flew to Michigan for a l-o-o-o-ng weekend there. (I spent a month in Michigan last weekend.)

You're also right that it's not the Mill you know and love. To understand why, please read my multi-part series, "The Meaning of Liberty" (linked to at the end of my post on the the harm principle).

I'll check out the Catallarchy Mill-fest later this week. I will then decide whether my attitude needs adjusting -- and post accordingly.


8:53 AM  
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