Is The Need To Prevent Individuals Harming Other Human Beings The Only Sound Justification For Government Action

Modern society invariably involves a system of laws that sets out the rights and duties bestowed upon the individuals that make up the society. By its nature a system of laws is restrictive, as it puts limits on what people are allowed to do and / or gives guidelines laying out what an individual must do. Individual liberty is therefore compromised but the question is – how far can individual liberty be compromised?

This essay will explore the liberal answers to this question, a view championed by John Stuart Mill, and evaluate the effectiveness of the harm principle when applied to both practical situations and ethical theory and will attempt to show that government intervention can stretch beyond the harm principle. This Liberal idea of the harm principle is put best by J. S. Mill who believes that the state should not prevent people from exercising their individual liberties so long as they do not harm other individuals.

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. ” [J. S. Mill, On Liberty – introduction p. 14] For Mill and other liberal thinkers like him there is no need to restrict the actions of an individual in any way so long as those actions do not impede on any other individual’s liberties.

For example if you don’t like drinking don’t drink and avoid drinking but it is not right to ban it. This view lays down limits to the level of government action that is permitted but most modern governments do have some aspects of prohibition that are motivated by benevolence. Mill and other liberals who would wish to limit government action to the harm principle, do so in order to protect the individual. For Mill individuality is an important element of well-being. Personal sovereignty has a great deal of significance when evaluating the rightness or wrongness of any coercion placed upon an individual.

From the liberal point of view, diversity and progress originates from individuality. “Mankind are not infallible; that their truths, for the most part, are only half truths; that unity unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions is not desirable, and diversity not an evil but a good” [J. S. Mill, On Liberty – Of Individuality, As One of the Elements of Well-Being p. 63] If individual freedom was suppressed by the state people would act in a more uniform way, cutting out inspiration, diversity and originality.

For Mill this is a greater evil than allowing the individual to suffer his own costs from his actions. However, Mill, in making this judgment, seems to have overlooked the empirical evidence that has shown throughout history creative and diverse cultures and figures have emerged from situations where there exists a regime that oppresses individuality. Despite the military discipline placed over the German and Russian peoples during the twentieth century, individuality and creativity still managed to survive. Mill goes on to add that suppression of the individual damages more than human diversity.

The well-being of a person depends, at least partly on how he is empowered to exercise his choices. If somebody is forced to do something for their own good it is not really to the benefit of their well being. How can a state decide what is better for an individual when people are satisfied by different things based on different beliefs and tastes? If somebody does not choose to live a certain way then it is not in the best interests of their well being to do so. This argument tries to show that individual liberty and choice is more valuable, as a principle, to well-being than any forced action that might leave somebody better off.

Aside from the consequences of paternalism to the individual there is also an argument that tries to show that paternalistic laws are often wrong. Individuals are far more likely to know what is good for themselves rather than any politician. When people have got different tastes, and different goals derived from these tastes it makes more sense that individuals are left alone to fulfil them because only they know what these goals are and this puts them in the best position to decide on a method to reach them.

No general law can achieve this for each and every individual, so the purpose of a general law cannot be designed to help everybody achieve their goal. The purpose of a law must be protection of an individual’s means to achieve well-being. The traditional criticisms of the liberal position come from two broad areas. Firstly the idea that this liberal society is impractical and far too hedonistic to be compatible with human nature. How can it be right to restrict Governmental actions that are motivated by concern for the good of the society and therefore the individual?

Surely there are situations where government can help people realise their potential and perhaps, in doing so offer them true freedom. Secondly there is criticism of the vagueness of the harm principle. The principle does not take into account harm that is passed to dependents or onlookers who may be offended by the actions of an individual. Mill himself says that “no person is an entirely isolated being”. How then can it be then that a certain action, considered to concern the individual alone, does not affect others to whom he is in some way indebted?

Surely the drug addict automatically extends harm to those who are close to him and depend on him like his children. Mill says that society is within rights to punish him for the fact that he did not live up to his obligation but not restrict him from indulging in the cause. Since it is conceivable that the drug addict could both provide for his family while occasionally using drugs you cannot restrict his freedom to do so. “If the resources which ought to have been devoted to them had been diverted from them for the most prudent investment the moral culpability would have been the same. [J. S. Mill – On Liberty, On the Limits of the Authority of Society the Individual p. 90]

If the investor were to lose the money society may well punish him for not fulfilling his obligations to dependents but could not ban the act of investing. Hence society has just a little right to ban drug use as it is the cause of the wrongness rather than the wrongness itself. However, this does not completely deal with the problems raised by the vagueness of the harm principle. How does one define harm?

Does it, for instance, include harming others’ feelings? If it does then all sorts of individual liberties would have to be ruled out. The differences in individuals’ tastes and beliefs also stretch to what they find offensive. Highly religious people may find blasphemy offensive. Mill did not believe that taking offence should count as serious harm but it cannot be so clear cut. Some may consider that blasphemy against their religion is far more harmful than to them than physical injury.

On what grounds can Mill say they are wrong while accepting that people are entitled to have different methods of obtaining well-being? It can be said that the purpose of a paternalistic law is to protect the individual from harm in that it protects him from harming his own means to well being. Arguments that attack paternalism from the point of view that we hold a subjective well-being that can only be reached through choice can be shown to be both practically and theoretically flawed. It is arguable that some drug restrictions are necessary.

If heroin and crack cocaine were looked upon in the same way as liberals look upon cigarettes and alcohol then corporations would manipulate the addictiveness of these drugs for monetary gain. If people were to make the same decisions, as individuals, that they have done with smoking then human efficiency would decline rapidly. If the government were to force a crack addict through a rehabilitation scheme which was successful the addict would be better off and would, with hindsight say he was better off.

He is healthier, more, independent and moreover he is more of an individual. This idea is put forward by Isaiah Berlin in his article “Two Concepts of Liberty”. Berlin distinguishes between two types of freedom. He calls them positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the type of freedom put forward by Mill where there is an absence of coercion. Although this definition does accept coercion insofar as it protects the individual from harm, there ought to be an area of individual liberty which is sacrosanct.

Berlin’s idea of positive freedom is one where the freedom is not just to govern yourself as Mill would have it but to extend this to having the power to make your decisions without any external forces acting upon them. “I wish to be the instrument of my own, not other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as if it were, from outside. ” [Isaiah Berlin – Four Essays on Liberty – Two Concepts of Liberty p. 131] The freedom to exercise control over your own life is arguably a much more important political goal.

Protection of this sort of freedom is therefore needed because judgment is not always clear as in the case of a smoker who wants to break free from the will of the cigarette companies and give up but can’t because of advertising and the addictive grip of nicotine. Such a person is not truly free until they realise their potential by overcoming those wayward tendencies which are, in truth not part of their free will judgment. This idea was expanded on by Robert E. Goodin in his article Permissible Paternalism: Saving Smokers from Themselves.

Goodin analyses people’s preferences and breaks them down into distinct categories in order to show when it is possible for a government to intervene. The first condition must be that it involves a “big decision” or those that are either a matter of life and death or those that “substantially shape your subsequent life prospects”. Goodin goes on to say that society may then go on to pass a paternalistic law if it believes that any one of the following four preferences are not being acted upon. Firstly one must know the facts about what they are going to do.

If advertising misleads somebody to believe something that is untrue or even if they are just ignorant of the facts and that individual decides based upon this knowledge then the decision is not really a true or “relevant preference”. Secondly the decision must be one that will not change or that is “settled”. If, as with addiction, people choose to take the drug, knowing full well the consequences of taking it, then it may be fair enough to allow them to do so but if, as with drug addiction, the likelihood is that they will change their mind when the consequences become a reality, i. . the shortened life that they had previously accepted, then their preferences are not “settled”. Goodin also notices the apparent conflict of preferences in people who use drugs. That is they both want to smoke and want to quit. Which ever is the “preferred preference” should be protected by law.

Finally, people’s choices must be their own. If people are making a preference for something based on peer pressure or based on advertising then it is not a choice in the truest sense of the word. So there we have a case, couched in terms of people’s own (past) preferences, for severely restricting the advertising and promotion of products – especially ones which people will later regret having grown to like, but which they will later be unable to resist” [Robert E. Goodin – Permissible Paternalism: Saving Smokers from Themselves – from Ethics in Practice – edited by Hugh LaFollette ch. 31, p. 311] The liberal argument would maintain that the positive conception of freedom as well as the defence laid out by R. Goodin can be used to licence all sorts of unjust coercion.

States may justify forcing you to behave in certain ways on the grounds that they are helping to increase your freedom. It is true that this idea of freedom has been abused in the past. However, this does not mean that it is intrinsically wrong just that it can be dangerous if misused. Whereas liberals would have it that this sort of promotion of well-being jeopardises a more important ideal of freedom, this essay would argue that a more important ideal of freedom is promoted through some of the paternalistic arguments and laws.