Should Mill's harm principle be accepted?

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Should John Stuart Mill's harm principle be accepted? Thus, should the state be banned from using law as a means of restricting individual freedom with the justification that they protect the individual from causing harm to themselves, as happens e.g. in seat belt legislation?

Mill's harm principle should be accepted

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Arguments for

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  • Argument for The state should treat adults as adults instead of being paternalistic, acting as a parent protecting children from the harm. By contrast, parents do have the right to protect children.
    • Objection Even adults are like children to some extent. We do not think of adults as despotic for wanting to protect their children; we should not think of the state as despotic for wanting to protect its citizens. Some of the citizens are more like children than others; not all are equally wise and gifted and disciplined.
    • Objection Consider the case of fraudsters selling hugely overpriced goods to psychologically vulnerable old people. Under the Mill's harm principle, the old people should be free to cause harm to themselves by buying these overpriced goods.
      • Objection There is perhaps a better solution: since such an overpriced purchase of something that has no value can be seen as sign of damaged mind, the purchase may be thereby declared to be invalid as if signed by legally diminished person. There may be objections to that, but not ones following from Mill's principle.
  • Argument for The principle is the only sound one that leads to reasonable tolerance of individual freedom. The alternative is to ban all non-productive or not strictly necessary activities in which individual expose themselves to more risk of harm or death than necessary. Thus, we need to ban many sports including car racing and paragliding, Hillary must not climb Everest, the North Pole must not be attempted, and in fact, in so far as public transport is safer than individual cars, driving individual cars must be greatly restricted or disincentivized, unhealthy food must be banned, etc. The logical consequence would be a state with all-pervasive control of its citizens. Hardly any state is really serious about implementing the logical conclusion of rejecting Mill's principle, so what they do is haphazard and inconsistent.
    • Objection Could there perhaps be a middle ground?
      • Objection Perhaps, but then the opposition should submit that principle that presents the middle ground for consideration rather than positing its existence.
        • Objection Could we use quantitative criteria? Thus, should citizens perhaps be prohibited from engaging in Russian roulette since the probability of death resulting from the action is high?
          • Objection If so, should Himalaya mountain climbing be banned? The death rate in 20th century expeditions (Everest, Nanga Parbat) was so high that, based on frequencies, the death risk approached that of Russian roulette. Furthermore, that would do almost nothing to justify seat belt legislation since the risk of death from non-use of seat belt is really low, depending on the risk of an accident in the first place.
            • Objection Since seat belts apply to hugely many individuals, unlike mountain climbing, the social benefit accrues even at low risk rates.
              • Objection Unhealthy food also applies to hugely many individuals. Should Americans perhaps be banned from eating all their unhealthy food, demonstrably leading to obesity? That would perhaps have greater numerical effect than seat belt legislation.
                • Objection Practicability and public acceptance has to be taken into account. Banning such food could be beneficial but cannot be done until it is widely accepted. By contrast, seat belt legislation finds good support.
                  • Objection Perhaps, but what it means is that we abandon sound principles and replace them with a haphazard patchwork depending on haphazard acceptance and possibility of enforcement. Banning alcohol could also reduce harm on social level, if only it was practicable.
                    • Objection True, but it is perhaps better to have a haphazard patchwork providing some reduced harm than have no harm reduction. That is getting rather general, though: should we legislate in neat general binary categories or should we employ arbitrary limits and boundaries? We need to do the latter anyway, as in the arbitrary choice of driving speed limit and age of legal adulthood.
                      • Objection A disadvantage of that approach is that things become incoherent and unintuitive since no general principles are employed. Instead, citizens need to learn too many arbitrary rules. And a person who caused no harm to anyone but forgot to use a seat belt is treated rudely by an arrogant policeman.
              • Objection About seat belts and benefit accrual: greatly reducing private car transport would probably generate lives saved on the same order of magnitude as seat belts or even greater.
                • Objection True. However, a restriction of individual transport is much graver incursion into freedom than the requirement to use seat belts. The principle: if the reduction of freedom is small and the reduction of harm is great, then Mill's principle can be violated.
            • Objection One difference between mountain climbing and seat belts is that banning mountain climbing would prevent the activity entirely whereas seat belts only make driving more safe rather than banning it or severely limiting.
  • Argument for The ultimate implementation of the rejection of the principle is a system of continuous surveillance of individuals by artificial intelligence. The intelligence is going to evaluate whether the citizen is going to do something harmful to themselves, and prevent it. After all, the citizen is the resource of the state to pay taxes, and the state has a "legitimate" interest to protect its investment and property. Not.
    • Objection The requirement of privacy could still have some force, and not only the asset-protection interest by the state.
      • Objection Why should the requirement of autonomy of the individual have no force to override the asset-protection rationale?

Arguments against

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  • Argument against We may reach a middle ground and limit some harm. Thus, we may have mandatory seat belts in cars.
    • Objection Seat belts in cars are a fairly weak argument, and indeed, people not using seat belts should not be prosecuted. Making seat belts mandatory car equipment as a duty for carmakers is fine. If they harm no one but themselves, they should be able to do it.
  • Argument against The state makes a considerable investment into a human, starting on maternity ward, then in schools, subsidies, etc. The state has the right to protect the investment made.
    • Objection That sounds reasonable until one realizes its logical conclusion, as per arguments for: ban on car racing, mountain climbing, paragliding, etc.
  • Argument against Under Mill's harm principle, suicide should be legal. That seems unacceptable.
    • Objection It should be legal. One trying to commit suicide should be pitied and helped, not prosecuted. More in Should suicide be legal?
    • Objection Even if suicide should be made illegal, it is an extreme or boundary case. Since, in case of suicide, the intent of the action is death, unlike in the case of dangerous activities. Thus, seat belt legislation should be abolished.
  • Argument against The "only harm themselves" argument is naive. A parent who unnecessarily risks their life harms their children and causes harm to society that then needs to take care of the orphans. The death causes grief to friends and relatives.
    • Objection That sounds reasonable until one realizes its logical conclusion, as per arguments for: ban on car racing, mountain climbing, paragliding, etc. Should parents be banned from dangerous sports? When Reinhold Messner gets children, should he be banned from Himalaya mountain climbing? Himalaya mountain climbing is statistically very dangerous, given the number of people who died in the expeditions in 20th century; it is a semi-suicidal activity.
  • Argument against If we apply Mill's harm principle without exception, we must not prevent users of drugs such as heroine from harming themselves. That seems unacceptable.
    • Objection Not really. What we should not do is penalize the drug users. What we may do is penalize those who distribute poor-quality substances to drug users, causing harm, in no violation of Mill's principle. And we may provide access to high-quality drugs via medical prescription, but whether it is really a good idea is for a separate investigation. We may also investigate causal relations between drug use and tendency to violence, and if such a causal link is found, we may restrict drug use without violating Mill's principle, to protect not the drug users but other parties. Even then, the drug users should probably not be imprisoned but rather penalized in different ways. The discussion about illicit drugs is a more complicated subject of its own.
      • Objection That would mean that people should be allowed to grow their own marijuana and use it.
        • Objection They should, unless a causal link between use and violence or other harm is established. We may protect others from marijuana users, but not the users themselves by restricting their freedom. However, we are free to engage in public information campaign that explains marijuana users what risks they are exposing themselves to.
  • Argument against If we accept Mill's harm principle without reservation, we need to allow people to sell themselves into slavery, to sell their organs, to allow prostitution, all with the justification that people must not be prevented by law from self-harm.
    •  Comment A fair point. We may use law to restrict people's freedom to give up their freedom. And therefore, we must restrict freedom of contract since contracts all too often are acts of giving up one's freedom. Thus, when two freedoms are in conflict, we need to resolve the conflict in the most meaningful non-dogmatic way. Mill's principle is still useful but should be complemented or limited: the fundamental human rights are inalienable: they cannot be given up via a contract, whether contract of purchase for money or any other kind of contrast.
  • Argument against If we accept Mill's harm principle without reservation, we won't be able to do involuntary treatment (forced medication) of mentally ill patients. That is going to cause harm. See also W:Involuntary treatment.
    • Objection That is one of the strongest arguments for Mill's harm principle, not against it. Since, forced medication is one of the gravest imaginable violation of bodily autonomy, much worse than prison and worse than rape. In prison and rape, no mind-or-personality-altering substance is injected into the body, unlike in forced medication. The patient and the family have no control over the substance being put into the body; that is all under control of the psychiatric staff, some of whom are all too likely to be sadists and psychopaths rather than good samaritans.

See also

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Further reading

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