How efficient is J. S. Mill’s ‘harm principle’ in identifying the line between what should be tolerated and what should not? If it is not adequate, can it be amended and improved upon, or is this not worth saving? What other way is there to draw that line?
Philosophy ; Politics (Course Code, Section)
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Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ typically emphasizes the right of an individual to act without hindrance except when the exercise of freedom harms others. Interpretations of this principle have been mired in controversy amongst philosophers thereby provoking fierce debate amongst them. Critics have argued that Mill’s principle fails to create a distinction between tolerable acts and to what extent individuals can tolerate each other’s excesses. This paper will examine Mill’s ‘Harm principle’ and how effective it is in identifying the line between what should be tolerated and what should not. To achieve the cardinal objective of this paper, Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ will be examined first to flesh out inconsistencies in it and how this affects the application of the principle to tolerance. This paper will conclude by recommending how this principle could be amended or improved. It will be argued that this principle is not adequate and should be amended and improved upon.
In on Liberty, Mill proposed the principle known as ‘Harm Principle.’ The premise of this principle is that individuals should be freely allowed exercise their freedom. The only condition specified in the principle for which power can be used against an individual, against his will, is to prevent him from harming other members of a civilized society (Mill, 1859). Deduction from Mill’s principle is that every member of a civilized society must not be prevented in their actions unless their actions threaten to harm others. In essence, Harm’s principle gives individuals a free ticket to do whatever pleases them without getting reprimanded.
Mill expanded further that, even if the individual actions affect the person; no one including the government, should prevent such person. An instance includes behaviors such as attempted suicide or suicide. Harm’s principle states that only the individual can be affected in suicides so, it is abhorrent to prevent anyone willing to take their lives. The ethical issue that arises in the interpretation of Mill’s argument is what constitutes harm. Two maxims emerge from Mill’s ‘Harm Principle as it relates to the definition of harm. The first maxim is that individuals are more like an island to themselves as they are not accountable to the society as long as their actions affect the individual alone. The second maxim is that if an individual’s action is detrimental to the interest of other members of the society, the individual is therefore accountable for such actions and punitive or preventive measures could be taken in this regard to prevent or stop harm to other members of the society. On the other hand, tolerance is to willingly tolerate or accept acts and behaviors that the individual dislikes, abhors or disagrees with.
Vagueness is one aspect of Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ that makes it ineffective to draw a line between what could be tolerated and not. The problem starts when attempts are made to understand and interpret Mill’s definition of harm. Despite giving some exceptions, Mills failed to clearly offer a distinguishable definition of harm, and these cripples the applicability of this principle to distinguish acts of offence and acts of harm. In the absence of precise definition of harm, it will be difficult clearly set aside morally right acts that could be tolerated and wrongful acts that people find hard to tolerate and outright offensive. Tolerance, on the other hand, is a virtue that requires that people should act or behave in ways they also want others to treat them (Wolfe, Moore and Marcuse, 1965). The line between tolerable and intolerable acts is acceptance. According to Wolfe, Moore and Marcuse (1965), tolerance loses its power when the rationale to continue holding on diminishes (Wolfe, Moore and Marcuse, 1965). It is at this juncture that it becomes necessary to draw a line between acts that can be tolerated and others that should not be tolerated. It is possible to tolerate acts or things without accepting them. It is basically about respecting and tolerating other people as long as they act within tolerable limits (Deveaux, 1998). However, things not tolerated cannot be accepted. In other word, peoples may tolerate offensive acts such as noisy street with heavy vehicular movements, migraine-inducing street light, staying in a crowded public bus with a passenger with offensive body odor, people eating live insects in full public view, and people talking vulgar about sexual acts in public bus. In spite of the fact that aforementioned acts are offensive, individuals can still live with such acts. However, acts such as an adult running naked along the street, engaging in sexual acts in public view, and a child beating up his aged parents in public, may not be accepted hence cannot be tolerated.
While some of the acts mentioned earlier can be categorized into offensive and harmful acts, it might be very difficult to draw a line of distinction between them because people differ in the way they define offense and harm. An act that constitutes offensive act to an individual may be viewed as harmful act by another. At this juncture, the ethical dilemma that sets in is whether harmful or offensive acts should be accepted. To some individuals, their tolerance limit is at the point when offensive acts become harmful acts. To others, their tolerance limit is when harmful acts become offensive. This dilemma remains unsettled considering Mill’s imprecise definition of what constitutes harm. Notwithstanding, one fact that emerge is that people can hardly tolerate unacceptable acts while acceptable acts may be tolerated. The major challenge at this, and a significant flaw in Mill’s Harm Principle, is how to distinguish individual’s definition of offensive or harmful acts. In light of the obvious lacuna of what constitute harms that Mill’s Harm Principle becomes ineffective in identifying the line between what should or should not be tolerated.
Furthermore, Mill’s Harm Principle is ineffective in identifying the line between what should be tolerated or not because of its inability to draw a corollary or distinction between the act of tolerating and harm. As mentioned earlier, tolerance is value that must be developed by an individual to put up with acts they find disgusting. The fact remains that there is no need for tolerance if an individual is satisfied with the acts of other people. It can be argued that the act of tolerance is a form of restraint from acting in ways desired by the individual and such repression could negatively impact them.
According to Belashevaa and Petrova (2016), tolerance signifies endurance towards something unpleasant. Tolerance is a psychological phenomenon that involves active cognitive involvement to restrain the self from acting in desired ways (Belashevaa and Petrova, 2016). Therefore, the act of restraining through tolerance often manifests in a personality’s psychological stability in situations of negative influence (Belashevaa and Petrova, 2016). By implication, tolerating unwholesome acts from others could impact the mental wellbeing of the tolerant individuals. Indirectly, acts like this are harmful, but Mill failed to acknowledge the possibility of tolerant acts becoming a harmful act and end up harming the tolerant individual. Individuals can only guide against harmful act if they possess foreknowledge of what constitutes harmful act. However, Mill’s Harm Principle is unable to define the thin line that divides acts which could be tolerated and the ones people find hard to tolerate.
Mill’s Harm Principle also fails to identify the line between tolerated acts and non-tolerated acts because of its inability to recognize the relativity of man’s existence in the universe. Mill implicitly assumed that it is possible for human beings to engage in actions in such a way that other people will not be affected. It is illusory to reach such conclusion that man’s activities could be self-regarding without directly or indirectly having impacts on others. In reality, it possible to do things that appears to be self-regarding, however, other people are affected one way or the other even if such activity is done in the privacy of the individual’s room. For instance, an individual planning to commit suicide may think that such act is a solitary one that is too remote to affect anyone but himself. On the surface, it appears that no one else could be harmed except the perpetrator. On the contrary, family members; loved ones and friends will be harmed directly or indirectly.
Another instance is to smoke heavily indoors despite knowing the health implications of passive smoking. Even if smoking is a solitary act, the harm that results from this action could well affect loved ones and family members thereby making it impossible for individuals to engage in acts that do not spill over to other people whether directly or indirectly. Therefore, Mill’s harm theory misguides individuals to dwell on the wrong notion that other people are not affected by their action. Regardless of people’s conscious knowledge of the effects of their actions on others, affected people may continue to infuriate others by their acts. They harm others with their actions as a result of misconstrued perception about the relatedness of humans to one another within a special setting. Meanwhile, it is a well-known fact that no human being is an island to himself. Everybody is connected one way or the other with other people thereby invalidating Mill’s concept of non-relatedness. Within this context, Harm Principle fails to address how humans are related to one another and how their conduct affects one another.
Misconception between liberty and Utilitarianism is identified as another reason why Mill’s harm principle finds it very difficult to delineate what should or should not be tolerated. At the behest of Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ is Mill’s professed Utilitarianism of which the premise is the utmost happiness and satisfaction of the individual within a civilized society. However, close analysis reveals consequences of action as the main premise of Mill’s professed Utilitarianism. According to Mill, achieving happiness is complex and not clear cut as defined by Jeremy Bentham. Mill noted that happiness is an elated state of mind (Mill, 2000). He proceeds by arguing that individuals can attain true happiness only after preserving a wide range of negative or unwholesome liberties. Mill clearly misses the point when he argues that The Harm Principle and Utilitarianism can go hand in hand. According to Mill, the concept of negative freedom allows individuals to make a choice between overall bliss and gratifying individual desires. It is like making a choice between the good and bad. In Mill’s perception, he states that the only freedom worth mentioning is the one that allows individual limitless opportunity to exercise their rights to do as they wish. While Mill outlined how liberty and Utilitarianism go hand in hand, no significant effort is made to emphasize the possibility of harming other people in their quest for happiness. This explains why the principle cannot offer convincing explanation regarding the theory’s ability to distinguish between tolerable acts and the ones she should tolerate. So far, there has been overwhelming evidence to show that Mill’s harm principle is inadequate in identifying the line between what should be tolerated and what should not. It can be amended and improved upon. To amend the inaccuracies noted in Mill’s harm principle, the supposed fulcrum upon which the principle rests cold be amended to improve the principle. It is generally assumed that the premise of Mill’s harm principle is to distinguish between self-regarding acts which are not supposed to be interfered with, and other-regarding which can be interfered with. Generally, it is very difficult to draw a clear distinction between the two types of conducts. Even Mill’s own applications of the principle, such as his forbidding of slavery contracts, do not correctly settle comfortably on the premise of the principle.
Two components of the Harm Principle can be amended to make it more accurate. The first component that requires amendment is the definition of harm. The vagueness associated with the principle stems from poor or imprecise definition of harm. To make it easier to identify offensive acts and harmful acts, precise definition of harm is necessary to puts things in the right order. Apparently, offensive but acceptable acts could be tolerated. Harmful but unacceptable acts are typically not tolerated. Making attempts to clearly distinguish the harmful and offensive acts binary goes a long way at improving the principle. For instance, acts that because physical injuries should be classified as harmful acts. In tort, the rule holds that the tortfeasor is liable for the consequences that result from his/her tortuous activities that lead to an injury of another person. Additionally, acts that inflict psychological stress or pain on others should also be included in harmful acts category. If it causes severe injury, legal liability could be imposed. While physically injury is easier to discern, it may be very hard or difficult to identity an individual with psychological injury. In spite of the difficulty, individual’s actions can inflict psychological injury on others thereby necessitating definition of harm.
Another way of amending and improving Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ is to focus on reinterpreting the supposed premise of the principle that rests on the distinction between self-regarding actions and other-regarding actions. Considering the fact that tolerance is a virtue and also an end in itself (Wolfe, Moore and Marcuse, 1965), it is pertinent to redefine the premise of the principle and make it suitable for a wide spectrum application. Basically, Mill’s principle states:
“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 a sufficient warrant.” (Mill 1859, p. 223).
Close analysis of the principle reveals that self-regarding actions are the actions Mill argued should not be interfered with because such actions do not affect other people directly or indirectly. However, other-regarding actions are the ones Mills states that they are subject to social interference. Close rendering of this principle reveals something vitally important in interpreting and amending the principle. For instance, while Mill focuses mainly on interference of acts and why nobody should be prevented from engaging in such actions, this part of the principle should be amended to reflect more about reasons for interference. This implies that people would most likely not tolerate actions that might affect their interest. If this is a reason for people not to tolerate others, it is good enough reasons to focus more on the reasons for affecting other people’s interests.
In this case, tolerance therefore becomes relativized in the sense that individuals refrain from engaging in actions that affect other people’s interests. If people know that their actions would harm other people’s interest, it is best to avoid such actions. Even if harm is to be caused to other people, as long as the harm is consensual, such actions can still be tolerated by the other party. It is based on this premise that Mills’ principle should be reformulated to take cognizance of consensual harm, instead of harm. ‘Harm’ is too broad to be contained within any definition aimed at helping people decide when it is no longer proper to tolerate certain acts. However, consensual harm is the type of harm that is permitted while non-consensual harm is perpetrated with the consent of the victim. Any act could fit into both categories, but each individual determines what constitutes harm or not. Therefore, each individual formulates acts that fall into their definition of harm. It is based on the knowledge of what constitutes harm or not that individuals agree to the level of harm they can accept.
By replacing Mill’s ‘harm’ with ‘consensual harm,’ the principle could be restated as: “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 a sufficient warrant.” With this new version, people should only be prevented to inflicting non-consensual harm on others. If power is to exercised even against the individual, it must be to prevent non-consensual harm because non-authorized harm would not be tolerated in the first place. Drawing from this, it can be argued that the point at which non-consensual harm is to be inflicted on people is the point they should no longer tolerate any violating act. With such improvement, the vagueness regarding the definition of harm is Mill’s harm principle is correctly addressed.
To conclude, this paper explored Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ and how effective it is in identifying the line between what should be tolerated and what should not. Within the context of this paper, Mill’s harm principle was summarized as the right of an individual to act without hindrance except when the exercise of freedom harms others. It was mentioned in this paper that the main problem with the principle is the imprecise and vague definition of harm. It was stated that Mill failed to clearly offer a distinguishable definition of harm, and these cripples the applicability of this principle to distinguish acts of offence and acts of harm. Two recommendations were made in this paper to correct the obvious inconsistencies inherent in the principle. The first one was to have precise definition of harm is necessary to puts things in the right order. Another way mentioned in the paper to amend and improve Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ is to focus on reinterpreting the supposed premise of the principle that rests on the distinction between self-regarding actions and other-regarding actions.
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