Mill’s harm principle Notes for March 31

Main points

This class was about the interpretation of Mill’s harm principle.

I said that Mill’s official way of defining the harm principle posed problems. However, there is a more modest way of understanding it that is perfectly sufficient for our discussion of paternalism.

Self-regarding actions

Mill tries to establish two categories of actions: those that harm others and those that are purely self-regarding. Why? Because that would answer questions about when state coercion is legitimate. It can be used against actions in the first category but not those in the second.

Unfortunately, he introduces a third category: actions that are potentially beneficial to others.

This is a problem for two reasons. First, it means we no longer know when state coercion can and cannot be used, since some acts that fall into the category of the potentially beneficial can be coerced and others cannot. Second, this category threatens to swallow up the category of self-regarding actions.

Roslyn proposed a way of dividing the category of potentially beneficial actions. Coercion is allowed when the beneficiaries have a right to the action being coerced but not allowed if they do not. I’m quite sure that Mill had something like that in mind. He had some difficulties making good on it because of his particular view of morality: utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a very expansive view of morality: it requires people to do whatever brings about the greatest happiness overall. Utilitarians don’t think there are rights, except those that are derived from that more fundamental requirement to bring about the greatest happiness. But maybe if we severed the harm principle from utilitarianism, Mill could use Roslyn’s suggestion.

Good samaritan laws

Alex looked up legal requirements to give aid. Here’s what he found:

From what I found on Wikipedia, there are 8 US states that have a duty to rescue law.  This would seem to cover situations where a person could rescue another, but not any form of preventative care.  Supposedly none of the states enforce this law, and unfortunately, Texas is not one of the 8.

I think it is very interesting to see that some states have these laws at all, especially when they are not enforced.  Perhaps the aim of these kinds of laws was to instill a moral obligation into people to rescue those in need anyway, and not with the aim of punishing those who did not help those in needs.

An alternative

Instead of trying to categorize actions, why not look at the reasons for interfering? That is, we can look at the harm principle as ruling out a list of reasons for interfering with individual liberty. That’s too narrow to capture what Mill meant, but it will do for our purposes.

This way of understanding Mill’s point, then, is that interference for these reasons is always a bad idea. It makes either the individual whose liberty is limited or the society as a whole worse off than it would otherwise be.

Bear in mind that Mill need not argue for this conclusion by looking narrowly at the particular policy at issue. His objection can be to giving the government the power to interfere in these ways. For instance, it might well work out for the best to interfere in some cases. But, Mill can say, when we add in all the other cases where it does not work out for the best, the balance is negative.

Of course, whether that’s true or not is something to be seen. I just want to remind you to think broadly when assessing Mill’s claims.

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2010. It was posted March 31, 2010.
Name of website