IB On Liberty Revision - Harm Principle notes

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Harm Principle

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18/10/2012 19:02
(Q) Explain and discuss the principle that the prevention of harm
to others is the only legitimate basis for the restriction of liberty
1) Explanation: Harm Principle = Mill's `one simple principle' in his ideas on liberty
"That principle is, that 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."
2) Yes, it is legitimate:
Many aspects of the harm principle are reflected in the societies of the past
and present : e.g. governments illegalise rape, murder, stealing, etc. i.e.
actions that harm others, the most recent example being the smoking ban
(also an example of a straightforward/easy application) : you are allowed to
smoke if it only harms you but not when it could harm others in a public
place ­ active application of harm principle, extra example: prisons, limit
prisoners freedom so as not to harm others, this is an example of where
liberty and utility complement each other.
Promotes liberty ­ (in theory) would stop governments from placing more
restrictions than just the harm principle, therefore it conserves liberty
3) No, it is not legitimate
How can we measure harm? (Quantity/quality/both?)
No clear distinction between self and other-regarding actions (Is society
too complex for any action to be purely self-regarding, we always seem to
harm others indirectly) Modern example: drug abuse, Mill would state that
as long it doesn't harm others the drug user shouldn't be interfered with,
however with institutions such as the NHS being funded by the taxpayer
it's likely that the drug user could harm others indirectly, either by
undermining the service of the NHS or by taking up space for others. This
is one example where liberty and utility conflict: in `liberty' the drug
abuser should be left alone but in `utility' the drug abuser should be
stopped as it is likely it would be better for the majority.
It seems to ignore verbal `harm' (emotional/psychological) ­ only our
liberty with actions is judged on a harmful scale
Why is there a need for a Harm Principle? It seems paradoxical to propose a
new Principle to which to judge maxims by, when such a Principle is not
only different from the Principle of Utility, but would require that anyone
who adopted it to ignore the implications of that Principle, unless their
actions involved harming another person.
There is a conflict between utility and liberty: utilitarian decisions can affect
people's liberty, we question Mill's commitment to utility (and consequently in
general to his own ideas) as the two ideas do not fit together ­ "I regard utility as
the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions... " yeah, but do you really? Mill
condemns the `tyranny of the majority' but it is this majority that he says we must
try to benefit in order to be moral citizens ("the doctrine that actions are right if
they benefit the majority")
We have to question whether liberty is actually/always the best way for man to
progress? Should we always focus on the individual instead of the collective? (In a

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For all these reasons above, in reality the harm principle becomes difficult to
apply, especially in complex situations (HOWEVER, Mill is willing to attempt in his
`applications' to combat such complex situations as gambling and slavery, and
admits that there are grey areas where it is difficult to know whether to
intervene, etc)
Conclusion: A good idea (in theory) with good intentions, in order to maximise
liberty but at the same time limit the troubles that come with a lack of control,
however it would…read more

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