Mill's utilitarianism Notes for April 1

Main points

We talked about difficulties in interpreting Mill’s harm principle and whether it is consistent with his utilitarianism.

What is the harm principle?

The Harm Principle tries to establish categories of actions for the purpose of distinguishing cases when state coercion is permissible from those where it is not. The state is permitted to use coercion against behavior that is harmful to others and is not permitted to use coercion against purely self-regarding actions.

The strategy of categorizing actions is complicated by the fact that Mill permits coercion for a third category of actions: those that are potentially beneficial to others such as giving evidence in court, contributing to the production of public goods, and giving aid to those in need (see pp. 10–11).

If Mill allowed the state to use coercion to compel all actions that are potentially beneficial to others, then the harm principle would not amount to much of a constraint on state power. This is so because there is almost always something that we could do that would benefit others. So the strategy of telling us when government can use coercion by categorizing actions appears to be in trouble: there is one category that includes some actions that can be the object of coercion and some that cannot.

We talked about several ways of trying to avoid or minimize the problem. Some brought in other moral notions like rights or duties. Even if they would have worked, it is doubtful that utilitarians could make use of them. The same problem afflicts Rebecca’s suggestion that we delimit our responsibilities according to how directly we are involved with an emergency. Again, utilitarians have little room for such distinctions. All that matters for them is that there are alternative courses of action that could make the world better on the whole.

Finally, as Fowler noted, the third category is the most interesting one. It’s true that there are some people who want to use the state for moralistic or paternalistic purposes. But the big clashes concern how much the state can do to coerce people for the general welfare. That falls within the category of actions that are potentially helpful to others and, for that reason, Mill has little to say about them.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted April 1, 2009.
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