What If the “Harm Principle” Is about Utility?

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Last week, we read Chapters III and IV of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and discussed about freedom of action in depth in both lectures and sections. One of the major controversy in Mill’s justification of freedom is that, people should be allowed to act freely if their action does not harm others. Many of my fellow bloggers have already expressed their thoughts on this “harm principle” proposed by Mill, and tremendously developed our discussions in class to help us better understand Mill and freedom. Among them, I find LBESS10‘s and NGOROD‘s blogs so thoughtful and stimulating that I would like to attempt to revise the “harm principle” into a “utility principle” and see how it might work with the issue of liberty.

How we should define liberty still remains in question after generations of philosophers’ discussions.

At the end of The “Harm Principle”: Who is Harmed? LBESS10 states that “it’s not easy to distinguish who is affected by people’s actions because it is completely dependent upon the person,” and this might be the central problem of Mill’s harm principle. There is no strict conception of harm in the first place, which is reflected by the results of a poll we did in lecture on Nov. 20.

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POLSCI 101 LectureTools Poll on Students’ Perception of Harm

From the figure, we can see clearly that some of us consider feeling uncomfortable as a harm while others think minor physical damage is where we should draw the line, and many of us choose somewhere in middle. Making the problem even more complicated, our perception of harm could evolve over time, so that a non-harmful action we assume might become a harmful one later in our life. The distinction of whether an action exert harm to others is crucial because Mill suggests that “when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like…there should be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences.” However, can we really draw a precise line between harmful and non-harmful actions?

We went into great depth discussing how we should define harm and what actions should be free in sections, and other bloggers have also reflected upon our vibrant discussions. Natan offers a multi-faceted analysis to the case of suicide, physician-assisted suicide (or euthanasia) specifically, which is a hot topic around the world. He concludes that physician-assisted should be allowed under some circumstances: “if the patient has expressed consent, along with the patient’s family, and the patient has been diagnosed as terminally ill with a specific amount of time left to live.”

Pro-euthanasia activists in Australia

The conditions Natan suggests in his blog seem very reasonable to me, which leads me to think about cases where freedom of action outweighs the “harm principle” Mill proposes. Mill is a supporter of utilitarianism, as Prof. LaVaque-Manty mentioned briefly during lecture. Therefore, he mainly cares about people’s utility when considering whether an action is justified. As a result, when he talks about harming others, it is reasonable for us to infer that he is actually talking about aversely affecting others’ utility.

So if I have to come up with a definition of harm in the “harm principle”, I would say harm is a decrease in utility. Moreover, if Mill is a pure utilitarian, I would suggest him to transform his harm principle into a “utility principle.” In order to keep this claim simple, let’s just pretend that we have agreed on the definition of utility and the utility functions for individuals and the entire society. Even without the complications the definition of utility might cause, there are still two remaining problem needs to be solved. One is that harm for some people can become benefit for other people, and we can address this problem easily by considering social utility. The other problem is that, the utility of when should we consider? Some actions may improve social utility in the short run but hurt the social utility in the long run. Take ALEXDOLIK‘s example of doping in his latest blog, using performance enhancing drugs can promote the development of a sport since the games are more entertaining and the players seem to push limits, and thus improve social utility overall. However, once doping is discovered by the public, the image of that sport would be tremendously hurt, and it is hard to say whether the social utility goes up or down. An ultimate solution to the problems could be that an action should be allowed without punishment as long as the inter-temporal social utility is not hurt, but no one can predict what would happen in the future, so that there is no such thing as inter-temporal social utility.

All in all, there are flaws to the harm principle Mill suggests, but modifying the harm principle into a “utility principle” still cannot remove the grey areas in the justification of freedom of action. How we can address the controversy of freedom of action is still an open question.

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