Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Harm Principle

The harm principle is an essential part of Mill's political philosophy, as it places a limit on our freedom of speech outlining when coercion can be used to curtail peoples freedom of speech. On first glance, it appears that we should settle when coerced can be legitimately used by ascertaining when the good autonomy is outweighed by other goods served by coercion. It also appears that in some cases the good autonomy may actually be advanced by the use of coercion.  

Mill's approach to the issue then suggests that there is no general answer to the question of when coercion can be legitimately used. But rather the use of coercion must be determined on a case by case basis. While we have to determine our usage of coercion on a case by case basis, Mill did outline a general principle which therefore limits the use of coercion to particular cases, The Harm Principle which he states as follows: 
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 sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do other wise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. 

Mill's harm principle is attractive to liberal minded persons and has been very politically influential.  The attraction lies in the fact that it expresses the liberal suspicion of paternalism practiced by the state. It also seems to offer an attractive middle road, as it forbids coercion in many cases where criticism may still be justified. Mill's harm principle for example was invoked to justify many of the liberalizations of the 1960's in regards laws governing censorship, sexual behavior and even abortion. The advocates of liberalization did not seek to deny that some of the activities in question could be deemed to be serious wrong, rather they claimed that the purported wrongness of such activities did not derive from their adverse effects on the interests of other people. These activities were predominantly private wrong doings of which the state had no legitimate interest. 

Applying the Harm Principle 
There are two major problems that arise when one tries to apply the harm principle. The first concern arises from the distinction between private and public harms. The second major concern fro the the harm principle is the distinction between social pressure and forms of actual  coercion.  

Taking one example Mill expressed himself about the illegitimacy of laws governing the prohibition of alcohol. Mill did not argue that the sale of alcohol was good thing but rather it is illegitimate for the state to prevent someone from consuming alcohol. This was a very live issue at the time both in England and the US. While the temperance movement advocating the prohibition was very much religiously inspired, it is perfectly possible to think of secular justifications for restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol which at leas appear to be consistent with the Harm Principle.  We all have an interest in living in a society in which the majority of the people we have to deal with are not intoxicated for much of their lives. Of course the harm principle prevents people from attacking others in the street etc. But the drunkenness of others affects our lives in many other ways. If you are sober it is hard to enjoy the experience of walking down a street of drunk people even if you do not feel physically threatened. So if the effect of permitting the consumption of alcohol so that a large percentage of society drinks to excess every night, this effectively excludes no drinkers from enjoying their lives surely harming them in someone way. 

It is important to note that the harm principle does not claim that the occurrence of harm is always and everywhere sufficient to justify coercion. For example the use of alcohol may be so widespread and ingrained into the culture of our society that it is impractical to prohibit it. Or the costs of such prohibition may have costly side effects, such as the costs caused by organised crime. These kind of points are often made and noted in the discussion of drug laws. But even so it seems hard to see how Mill's harm principle can legitimately object to the principle of alcohol prohibition.  

Mills hopes that he we will be able to divide wrongs into two categories. Ones that principally harms the wrongdoer and that those that principally harm others. The prohibition example suggests that serious harm to other may be sufficient to justify laws that which many would regard to be illiberal. So even if we take the harm principle to be sound in theory it appears that  it will have very little practical application, since many of the activities that cause significant harms to the interests of individual agents will also cause significant harm to others. So the case against prohibiting them can not be based on the harm principle. 

Scanlon generalizes the point that we have been discussing by observing that people have a strong and legitimate interest in the the character of their social environment. He notes that this fact means that damage to other peoples interests alone cannot be enough to license the use of coercion in the eyes of a liberal. Saying that: 
I do not care whether other people, individually, go swimming nude or not, but I do not want my society to becomes so much the norm that I cannot wear a swim suit without attracting stares and feeling embrassed (Scanlon 191) 
If forms of activity which Scanlon considers vulgar or immodest are allowed to frequently occur in public spaces, this could have a serious impact on Scanlon's well being. Tolerance surely requires him to allow other people to engage in such behaviors, but the majority cannot require his tolerance from Scanlon on the grounds that this does not do Scanlon any harm.  

Scanlon's example raises the second difficultly in applying the harm principle. It is is possible to distinguish coercion from disapproval as coercion involving the threat of harm in order to prevent the disapproved act. But there remains a important question about the moral significance of this distinction. If expressions of disapproval are themselves harmful enough to act as a disincentive to certain forms of behavior, why should the harm principle ignore such expressions. Mill seems to be aware of this difficulty: 
We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavorable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of  ours. We are not bound for example, to seek his society: we have a right to avoid it, for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us. We have a right, and it may be our duty to caution other against him, if we think his example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associates. We may give others a preference over him in optional good offices, except those which tend to his improvement. In these various modes a person may suffer very severe penalties at the hands of others, for faults which directly only concern himself; but he suffers these penalties only in so far as they are the natural, and, as it were the spontaneous consequences of the faults themseleves, not because they are purposely inflicted on him for the sake of punishment. (On Liberty, Section 4) 

What Mill is saying that in these cases the wrongdoer should be subject only to the inconveniences which are strictly inseparable from the unfavorable judgments of other, but it is possible to make such judgments of wrongness without engaging in any of the negative behavior listed above. Why should social ostracism be ruled out by the harm principle just because social ostracism isn't intended as a punishment. 

Grounding the Harm Principle 
Even if the problems could be resolved and the harm principle could be applied in a way that delivered the desired results, there would be still some issues about connecting the principle with the results of Mill's thought. Mill considers facts about peoples rights have to be grounded in facts about what is good for people. The harm principle respects this idea in so far as it invokes the notion of harm. But it is difficult to see what the distinction between is harmful to me and what is harmful to others should be of fundamental theoretical significance for the Millian. A harm should be as bad when I do it to myself as when I inflict it on others. 

Raz accepts this conclusion. His view is that the harm principle should not differentiate self-harm from the harm of others. Rather the harm principle should state that coercion can be used only to prevent harm. How can the principal as understood by Raz, say about the value of freedom. It's Raz's view that the state has a responsibility of promoting autonomy. So the widespread use of a drug, which has the effect of stupefying people and rendering them unable to deliberate, then the state ought to discourage or ban the use of such a drug in the interests of freedom. Similarly if commercial development threatens the totality of sports fields in the country, the government may be justified in intervening in preventing such a situation, as sports represent a desirable option which should be protected. Under Raz's view negative freedom (or liberty as power) is valuable only in so far as it is a component of positive freedom.  

Under Raz's view what value will negative freedom have? Freedom to do something bad or worthless has no value and the state need not protect such freedoms. Furthermore, even freedom to do something good may not be worth much unless either there a few sports to pick from or else people are already committed to a sport and wouldn't easily be able to change. It is not clear why given all of this Raz seeks to limit coercion to the prevention of harm. Why not allow the state to intervene to prevent acts which are not harmful, but rather deeply offensive . If such offensive acts are not of any positive value, then on Raz's view they demand no protection from the state. So why should the state not intervene using coercion to stop such acts, say in the name of social peace. Raz argues that the cases in which such coercive intervention is justified is only in instances in which people are harmed. For someone to be harmed Raz contends that the future prospects of that person or individual must be harmed, being offended by someones sexual activity does not diminish your future prospects.  

Raz also argues that the good of freedom actually rules out coercion where harm is not in the question. State coercion represents an indiscriminate violation of the citizen's autonomy. Being only justified as a way of preventing harmful behavior. Raz may have successfully reconciled the harm principle with the Millian approach to the value of liberty. But can he also tackle the two problems of application. Under Raz's view outlined above we no longer have the problem of isolating harms to self from harms to others. Nor need we assume that there is something special about the nature of coercion. And expressions of disgust and disapproval will not not be accepted if they lead to the removal of desirable options. 

But Raz has not acutally derived the harm principle from his doctrine of the value of freedom. Rather he assumes that only harm prevention can justify harm and then shows why state coercion will be a harm by demonstrating that it will remove the good of intrinsic good of autonomy.