Mill’s Harm Principle Notes for November 5

Main points

I started with Sidgwick’s description of utilitarianism as an esoteric doctrine. Then we talked about Mill’s Harm Principle and its relationship with utilitarianism.

A qualification about Sidgwick

I said that Sidgwick argued that utilitarianism should be an esoteric doctrine. But, looking at the text again, I think I overstated the case. This is what he said.

“Thus the Utilitarian conclusion, carefully stated, would seem to be this; that the opinion that secrecy may render an action right which would not otherwise be so should itself be kept comparatively secret; and similarly it seems expedient that the doctrine that esoteric morality is expedient should itself be kept esoteric. Or if this concealment be difficult to maintain, it may be desirable that Common Sense should repudiate the doctrines which it is expedient to confine to an enlightened few. And thus a Utilitarian may reasonably desire, on Utilitarian principles, that some of his conclusions should be rejected by mankind generally; or even that the vulgar should keep aloof from his system as a whole, in so far as the inevitable indefiniteness and complexity of its calculations render it likely to lead to bad results in their hands.” (p. 21)

That’s narrower than what I had said. It only says that some of the implications of utilitarianism should be kept secret, not that the whole thing should be.

That said, if hiding the truth of utilitarianism would produce the most happiness overall, that is what utilitarianism would recommend doing. Callum described a plausible route to this conclusion involving religious belief.

Utilitarianism is supremely flexible. That’s a source of strength, since it means that it can yield an answer on any practical question, no matter how novel or strange. Most people find its flexibility here to be a weakness. But it’s an interesting question why that should be so.

Mill’s Harm Principle

The Harm Principle is supposed to give us a clear answer to questions about when it is permissible to interfere with someone’s liberty: we can do so to prevent harm to others but not to prevent behavior that is purely self-regarding.

But immediately after announcing the principle, Mill added several notable exceptions. This leads me to an astonishing question: just how important was the Harm Principle for Mill? He identified it as what the book was devoted to arguing for, so the question seems daft. Nonetheless, he seems to me to have been most interested in defending some narrower propositions. These include areas in which he thought individual liberty should have nearly absolute protection:

  1. liberty of thought and expression
  2. liberty in forming one’s plan of life
  3. liberty of association with others

In addition, he clearly wanted to show that several common justifications for interference with individual liberty are invalid.

  1. paternalism
  2. moralism
  3. preventing offense

Utilitarianism and liberty

There are several excellent reasons why utilitarians would, generally speaking, favor individual liberty. As several of you noted, it’s important that there’s always a comparison here. We’re always asking whether individual liberty would be better than the alternatives.

After thinking about the examples on the board, it seems to me that they tend to fall into one of two basic categories:

  1. Individuals are more capable of making themselves happy than others are. They know more about their own tastes, they can make themselves happy more efficiently, and so on.
  2. Individuals are more motivated to make themselves happy than others are. We care more about our own happiness than we do about other people’s happiness. With others, we can even tend to be punitive.

That said, there are some familiar instances in which interference with individual liberty has a good utilitarian rationale. There is a lot of paternalistic legislation that genuinely makes people better off than they would be if they were left entirely to their own devices.

And there is a more sinister possibility broached by Rawls. When you aggregate the preferences of a lot of people, it could turn out that the balance of happiness favors repressing individual liberty. If enough people find interracial marriage upsetting, for instance, there would be a utilitarian rationale for outlawing interracial marriages, contrary to Mill’s third category of liberty (association with others).

Utilitarians can point out with some justification that the numbers don’t actually add up. A thousand bigots may tut-tut over an interracial couple. But the pain they all feel doesn’t come close to the pain felt by those who are forbidden to marry those they love.

Still, it’s legitimate to say that it’s very odd that we’re even asking how the numbers come out. Why should the freedom to marry depend on what other people think?

Key concepts

  1. Utilitarianism as an esoteric doctrine
  2. What the Harm Principle is
  3. The narrower claims Mill made in addition to the Harm Principle
  4. Why utilitarianism generally favors individual liberty
  5. Cases in which it does not
  6. The problem of aggregation, where the happiness of a large number can outweigh an individual’s happiness.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted November 6, 2012.
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