Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Why the ‘harm principle’ may do more harm than good

Reproduced from with permission.

Andrew Steele, Christ Church

(Not a Liberal Democrat)

Why did the libertarian cross the road? ‘Because I bloody well wanted to, and it’s not your job to go and interfere in what I do, so long as it doesn’t cause anyone any trouble!’

This sentiment, beloved of the political right and free marketeers, is known as the ‘harm principle’: that we do not have the right to stop people doing something if doing it does not harm anyone else. It was expressed rather better in John Stuart Mill’s seminal political philosophy text On Liberty, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Check this out:

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a 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 otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Rousing stuff, especially given the stern, paternalistic Victorian tone. (I’m not being sarcastic—I do think this kind of writing draws warmth and authority from its archaic eloquence.) However, as a manifesto for morality, this tub-thumping libertarianism is inherently, irredeemably inconsistent.

The most common problem with the libertarian outlook is that it’s very rare for any action to not have consequences for the other individuals in society. For example, even if your free choice to take up juggling electrified knives in the bath only poses a danger to yourself, and you have no friends or relatives to be left grieving, someone is going to have to come and clean up when you die in a bloodied, electrocuted pile. Worse, you’re depriving society of your contributions to it which, unless you’re either completely useless or a total bastard, we would hope will come out net positive.

Even worse still, it’s not just fabricated, exaggeratedly dangerous leisure activities which have unexpected moral knock-on effects; your decision to piddle away Sunday afternoon reading a trashy novel means that you weren’t spending the time doing something morally useful, such as trying to help the poor and deprived. Suggesting that we should be compelled to spend all our free time bettering the disadvantaged rather than engaging in hobbies makes us Westerners, as self-determined champions of the individual, squeamish; moral philosophers would bemoan that this conclusion does not accord with our moral intuitions, as though our ill-founded, socially-constrained first guesses are a yardstick by which ethical theories should be assessed. However, regardless of whether the ethical equivalence of inaction drops a moral imperative in our laps, it does illustrate that there is almost no activity which takes place in a moral vacuum where it does not affect others, rather making a mockery of the ‘harm principle’ as stated by Mill.

Even if you do regard necessitating consideration of others in these indirect ways as too prescriptive, or contrive an act in somehow insulated such that you can perform it with no impact on your peers, though, the harm principle still falls down. The reason it falls down is the less flippant punchline to the joke I opened with: imagine a libertarian (let’s call him John) and I are crossing the road.

John is an adult, quite a bright bloke, and is alert, sober, wide awake, and fully compos mentis by any measure you choose to take. In spite of this, for whatever reason he doesn’t see the car which is careering around the corner and will, in a moment, flatten his head against the tarmacadam road surface. Would he rather I put my hand in front of him and stopped him from being run over? If the answer is yes, that’s the end of libertarianism.

John would probably want me to rugby-tackle him to the ground, or even chop his legs off with a samurai sword, in extreme enough circumstances (for example, if the car was an SUV travelling at just the right speed to cause an agonising, drawn-out death): if that’s not ‘compelling him, or visiting him with any evil’, it’s not clear what is.

He made the decision to cross the road, and ‘over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign’—but he did so with imperfect information. It seems to me abundantly clear therefore that there is some level of misjudgement of danger where it would be moral to intervene.

The most clear-cut examples of this exist at the nanny state level; from government health warnings on packets of cigarettes to legal minimum tyre tread depths, government has a moral duty to protect us, whose brains are so notoriously ill-equipped to comprehend statistics, from doing ourselves a nasty.

It would be wrong to take this as a vindication of any intervention intended to protect people from themselves. Firstly, freedom is clearly of some importance to human happiness: whether free will is illusory or otherwise, it seems empirical fact that people have more fun when they’re granted the illusion, and allowed to make their own decisions. Secondly, in a world largely comprising shades of grey, the lack of rigorous statistical certainty on many issues leaves us unable to work out whether intervention is right or not; a problem which is especially vivid at the individual level. It’s much trickier to know with certainty how bad an impending road traffic accident is going to be, and thus what evil you should be allowed to visit John with to prevent it, especially in the fraction of second you have to make the decision. John would probably be pretty peeved if I cut his legs off with a samurai sword, and I’d have to be able to demonstrate that I’d saved him from a near-certain, horribly unpleasant fate.

Thus, though we do not know what a perfect moral theory might look like, I cannot see how Mill’s harm principle is a useful contribution to ethics. Indeed, it seems a great shame that Mill gives a heavyweight intellectual’s rubber-stamp to irksome ‘get-your-nanny-state-off-me!’ right-wing–ness. Plus, in tedious sociological recursion, it’s not clear whether our slavish devotion to free will is at least partly a social construct, built thanks to the appeal of the libertarian narrative.