Against Mill’s harm principle

The concept of self-ownership, as Mill would have it, at first seems to be the most reasonable and the most commonsensical principle. What follows from his ideas of individual sovereignty surely are attractive, but the coherence of parts of his thought, namely the distinction between private and public acts, as well as the exact, precise definition of harm is questionable.

Mill holds unequivocally to individual sovereignty and negative conceptions of liberty, that is, that man is free to do as he pleases, so long as he does not harm or prejudicially affect the interests of others. Though this at first sounds desirable, there are a number of difficulties highlighted by Patrick Devlin and James Fitzjames Stephen. But first Mill’s doctrine must be further developed. Man must be free from coercion, regardless of whether his life plans seem eccentric or offend our sensibilities. Neither his own harm, nor our perceptions of his actions give us sufficient warrant to force him to do otherwise. Although not yet introduced during his time, Mill would likely find fault with the idea of an autonomous self as distinct from the empirical self. The autonomous self as suspiciously coinciding with the whims of society would be viewed by Mill as having no empirical basis, whatsoever. Moreover, how could it be conclusively shown that one’s autonomous self is vastly different than one’s empirical self? It is extraordinarily difficult given that one’s access to one’s self is incorrigible. If something is good for man’s individual health or morally good, it is still inappropriate to force the individual to conform. He must be free in his speech, his conscience, his choice of life plans, his choices, in general, his freedom of association, etc. He may only be punished if his actions directly harm another.

James Fitzjames Stephen attempts to deduce the consequences which follow from Mill’s harm principle, in order to reduce it to the absurd. Associations could readily form to incite the masses to immoral acts, such as adultery, and a host of other reprehensible acts. Stephen thinks it incomprehensible to think that our judgments could or should be kept to the arena of clucking disapproval at another’s choices or life plans. Instead, he thinks Mill’s position is so artificially contrived as to fall apart when applied to civil society. Is it not self-evident that the men and women with which we are in association everyday not only care very deeply about the content of choices, desires, and passions? Mill appears to conceive of humans as overly dispassionate, but this is not at all the case.

Now it may indeed be true that we ought not to care or ought not to interfere, but even if this were granted, it would not change the fact that people do care and they do interference relentlessly over matters that they think appear to concern them, especially when the negative externalities of X’s actions are unknown. So this autonomous conception of man seems to be false, in that man is not man alone and separate from society. Of course, in order to get around the ambiguity of the world ‘harm,’ Mill claims that the harm in the case of a self-regarding vice must violate a distinct and assignable obligation to another, which is why it could never be said under Mill’s principle that we could punish someone purely for debauchery, for instance. As Stephen’s example goes, the burden of proof, according to Mill, ought to be placed on the accuser to clearly demonstrate that one’s debauchery did indeed violate a distinct and assignable obligation. Suppose that one’s debauchery, for whatever reason, led one to break a contract. That man could thus be punished, but not just for this debauchery alone. Any other course of action would be a violation of liberty.

Stephen simply disagrees. In pointing out that it is impossible to accurately track all violations of distinct and assignable obligation that occur as a result of leaving people to their freedoms, Stephen also states that the law does have an interest in one’s actions not because they have just demonstrably harmed someone, but because the act is wrong in and of itself. And so the difference between these two thinkers occurs over government jurisdiction, over what is deserving of punishment and coercion. Certainly Mill’s autonomous man is false on a practical level, but that alone does not defeat his case for its moral appropriateness.

Devlin’s criticism of Mill, like Stephen’s, focuses on the objective of law and what it ought to be used for. The law, for instance, has never allowed the defense of consent to be used in the its prosecution of morally deviant persons—the idea that consent is enough is spurious, and the idea that one would have to violate a distinct and assignable obligation first before being punished presupposes that only individuals are real entities. The reason one may be punished for moral deviancy, Devlin thinks, is because one commits this crime against society. Consent is irrelevant, then, but not a terrible principle in and of itself; it simply plays no role here in deciding whether an act ought to be punished. In violating the basic moral principles to which a given society holds, an individual is guilty of transgressing against society, and therefore harms it. While Mill’s principle would end a number of crimes and make legal such acts as dueling, incest, suicide, euthanasia, abortion, etc., Devlin holds that the main reason for the existence of the law is to legislate morality. The moral bonds of a society are what permit its continued existence, which is why to allow the flouting of moral standards, whether in public or in private, contributes to the decline of society. Devlin gives the final example of one man getting drunk in his home. Surely that is wrong, but should the law intervene? It may seem heavy-handed and unwarranted, but Devlin asks us to imagine what would happen to the fabric of society if a quarter or half of the population got drunk each night—the very existence of such a society, and consequently one’s ability exercise freedom within it would be gravely threatened.

Both Stephen and Devlin have given good reasons to doubt the coherence of Mill’s harm principle. Man is not autonomous. Men do care very deeply about each other’s affairs, and the negative externalities that result from permitting rampant vice may not be quantifiable until a society falls apart. Furthermore, since the undoubted objective of law is to enforce morality, then the only question left to decide is: how much? As Mill would certainly think of his system as promoting the good and that protection ought to be in place, Devlin’s criticisms do seem to apply if they both agree that morality ought to be legislated. They only disagree on the extent that it ought to be legislated or applied. Given that Mill agrees that he clearly regards some of the listed vices as corrupt and perverse, then he might have to hold that society is a non-existent entity, a non-person, something that is incapable of being harmed or violated. In this case, there is much more to be said, but insofar as the distinction between the public and the private spheres are concerned, as well as other objections offered by Stephen, the coherence of Mill’s position as it now stands seems lacking.

An argument for God’s logically necessary existence

(I don’t actually buy this argument; I just think it’s funny).

For every concept, that concept logically implies its opposite. The concept of an ingroup logically implies the existence of an outgroup by the very definition of an ingroup, since an ingroup cannot exist unless there is something it is distinguishing itself from. Similarly, evil logically implies the existence of ‘good,’ since the definition of evil is failing to conform to a certain set standard, which is what we refer to as ‘the good’.

But in order from concepts to be able to be derived, that process of deriving must result in a logically possible result. There’s nothing logically impossible about the existence of an outgroup. Again, there’s nothing logically impossible about the existence of ‘good’.

But what if we take the terms of ‘all’ or ‘none’? Let’s look at ‘all’. Can we conceive of a scenario in which its opposite ‘none’ can be made sense of? Can we derive ‘none’ or ‘nothing’ from an understanding of ‘all’?

1. For something to be logically possible, it has to be capable of being actualized.

2. ‘None’ or ‘nothing’ are not capable of being actualized.

3. Therefore, neither ‘none’ nor ‘nothing’ are logically possible.

4. If neither ‘none’ nor ‘nothing’ are logically possible, then there must always be something in existence.

5. If there is always something in existence, then at least one thing is eternal.

6. For something to be eternal, it has to be incapable of going out of existence.

7. If it is incapable of going out of existence, it cannot be material.

8. Therefore, X is incapable of going out of existence.  (6, 7)

9. The only object that cannot be material, yet exist, is a mind, since abstract objects don’t exist.

10. Therefore, an eternal mind exists. And that is what we call God.

Ancient vs modern liberty

Benjamin Constant, Isaiah Berlin, and Charles Taylor have radically different notions of freedom, which are concentrated mostly around negative versus positive freedom, and even what qualifies as liberty. Constant, for instance, contrasts the liberty of the ancients with the liberty of the moderns and concludes that we shouldn’t emphasize one at the expense of the other. He argues that they’re both integral to a proper notion of liberty. Berlin, on the other hand, critiques the concept of positive liberty as almost self-contradictory, since the very idea of positive liberty as bringing man to a higher freedom by abrogating his freedom is strange and prima facie contradictory. Taylor concerns himself with the internal struggles that individuals face as distinct from being free from outside influence or coercion.

Constant’s definition of liberty contrasts the liberty of the ancients with the liberty of the moderns. He conceives of the liberty of the ancients as concerning an individual’s relation to the community and his ability to take part in political and social life. Here, Constant’s distinction is sound; while philosophers tend to all use the word liberty, they mean radically different things by it. So the liberty of the ancients consists of collective participation in affecting the direction of the community, specifically by debating and deliberating in the public square, voting on laws, holding public officials accountable, pronouncing judgments, examining accounts, and making alliances with other governments, etc. This was the collective liberty that the liberty of the ancients refers to. It was the sharing of social power. Constant laments the fractionalization that has occurred through the liberty of the moderns. He thinks that the emphasis on strict individualism has ignored the importance of collective influence on the community in favor of a negative freedom, that is, the freedom from coercion. But this is exactly what we should not forget, Constant says. Leaving governing decisions in the hands of governors without the checks and balances provided by the people through the liberty of the ancients, the modern conception of liberty as being free from coercion will be in name only. We should hold fast to the former, the liberty of the ancients, without forgetting the latter, the liberty of the moderns. These two in conjunction are essential. If the liberty of the ancients is pursued exclusively, then individual liberty will have little meaning. But if we pursue the liberty of the moderns, then those in authority will only be happy to let us do so, since they will be virtually unchecked and unaccountable in their decisions. In this way, Constant aims to present an important synthesis by acknowledging that both types of liberty are essential to the human person.

Isaiah Berlin begins with a critique of coercion as being defined as anything other than the absence of freedom as a result of the interference of other human beings. He thinks it nonsensical to hold that, for instance, the inability to comprehend Hegel or the inability to jump six feet in the air is an instance of coercion. The English political philosopher, he writes, meant that political liberty is the area in which men can act absent interference from others. This liberty must be limited in some way because of the conflicting desires and interests of men that cannot be reconciled, for there can otherwise be no civil society. However, this does not mean that this provides a license for coercion. Instead, it has been held that there is a certain domain of political liberty that must never be violated because it would frustrate the natural development of the faculties. So political liberty is essential, but implicit in that definition is room for some level of coercion, and so there must be some distinction drawn between public and private life. Berlin acknowledges the difficulty in holding to a private life that is completely autonomous from public life. Interdependence, not independence, is the obvious characterization of men in relation to one another. This, of course, leads to the difficulty in drawing a fine line between negative and positive liberty, since on a purely negative view of liberty, the liberty of a professor is vastly different than that of a peasant. And so some from the persuasion of positive liberty say that negative liberty alone does not allow the full development of the natural faculties, and that those who do gain superiority in wealth and social status have done so through exploitation. However, Berlin comments that that is not at all liberty per se—it may be economic well-being, or it may be equality and justice, but liberty is liberty and none of those alternate goods may be deemed liberty. This is precisely how Berlin deals with the difficulty in distinguishing between positive and negative liberty. The paradox, then, is that while negative liberty coerces no one, positive liberty, in striving for self-sufficiency, mastery, and autonomy, must abrogate freedoms, in order pursue higher freedoms. The positive school would distinguish between the autonomous self and the empirical self, where the autonomous self is one’s higher nature, while the empirical self is the self that is readily manifest in society as being one that is a slave to passion and desire and is unable to discern its highest good. So Berlin thinks that in the provision of certain goods by society, men must be coerced through the appeal to what their rational or autonomous self would clearly want if the empirical self was capable of discernment. But Berlin thinks that the appeal to this entity, the autonomous self, is spurious. We may be coerced for our benefit, even if we clearly will against it, but it cannot be claimed that we actually do will it in the face of one’s intense protests.

Taylor’s approach argues for positive freedom. If negative freedom is wholly sufficient, then countries ought to be ranked in terms of quantitative instances of coercion. But if we were to do this, all sorts of absurdities would arise. For instance, Albania, as Taylor points out, would be freer than Britain because Albania has only banned religion, which largely practiced in the private sphere and all that often, while Britain has innumerable traffic lights. In showing this reductio ad absurdum, Taylor hopes to convince his readers that since men are purposive beings, we differentiate on qualitative grounds, and not simply quantitative grounds. Taylor emphasizes the struggle that occurs in persons over desire fulfillment. We readily acknowledge that some desires are better than others, but too often we pursue the wrong desires. In effect, although we know what ought to be done, we are a slave to our passions and competing desires, and so cannot. S on this view, the naïve definition of negative freedom is not enough. Even if there are no outside obstacles, there may be internal ones. And even internally we may be mistaken about what our ultimate end is, and so negative freedom is insufficient. We ought to have positive freedom, as well.

The differences between these thinkers are largely relegated to Berlin and Taylor. Likely, both would recognize the distinction between ancient and modern liberty. Berlin and Taylor, however, clash on negative and positive liberty. Berlin thinks that liberty is liberty, not equality and justice. He also thinks that the positing of the autonomous self as willing (despite the protests of the empirical self) whatever society will is spurious.

Locke on property

Locke’s account of private property begins with the supposition that God has given men, through Adam, the earth to all—at least, that is its intended original state. Since Locke already rejects that anyone has a natural right to rule, e.g., the divine right of kings, he therefore rejects the idea that all land was originally owned privately and bestowed by God upon some universal monarch. But even though we are also created by God, we are distinct from nature in that we have the ability to reason abstractly and formulate ends/means, and can thus be called self-owners, as though mind and body were two distinct objects. The mind as subject has exclusive control of the body (the object), which is how the statement that one owns oneself can be made to be coherent. As one owns oneself exclusively, it apparently follows that one’s labor is also under the domain of self-ownership.

But here we have a dilemma under Locke’s thought. If all immovable property, i.e., land, etc., is originally in the commons, yet man is self-owned, how does he come to extend his control over a specific parcel of land, in order to claim that it is his, that it is under his exclusive authority much in the same was as is his body? Locke maintains that there is such a method of appropriating property—there must be, for its absence would entail various absurdities. If there were no way to appropriate property, then mankind would perish, according to Locke. God, of course in his infinite wisdom, did not intend this. If his beginning account of God’s grant of the Earth into the commons is accurate, then it follows that there must be some way of obtaining property out of the commons. Here Locke provides an answer: as it has been already mentioned that we own our own labor, we can come to own property through mixing labor with it.

Once an individual labors with a piece of property that is in the commons, he adds value to it and thus removes the common right of others to the property. The process is one of conjoining—a thing is conjoined and falls under the predicate ‘things owned by X,’ when an individual adds something that was not previously present in nature. Natures do not have the power, for instance, to carry things, digest things, or move things, with intent attached. Anything that imbues an object with intentionality is sufficient to own it as well. This is why Locke addresses the question as to what exactly qualifies under the doctrine of mixing labor, when he asks whether merely picking apples from trees is enough. Must he also carry them, digest them, set them up in a row, or chop them into pieces, in order to call them his? The question is not a frivolous one and will become important when more rigor is applied to Locke’s conception of private property. Locke, however, does address one of the objections that is immediately obvious. It does not mean that because one has the right to appropriate some property, that he therefore has the right to property to the extent that he impoverishes or negatively affects others. God clearly intended that all should enjoy what he gave in abundance. It is unjust for anyone to take so much that it either spoils, is destroyed, or leaves others with non. There is enough for all to enjoy to the fullest—there is enough land enough water to satisfy the desires of all.

But there are a couple problems with this account. The first difficult is a continuum problem, that is, when an individual mixes his labor with a plot of land, then who is to say how much land he has? Is it only that which an individual has clearly and obviously mixed his labor with? If it is, then there appear to be some difficulties that arise. Usually within any given claimed area, it is impossible for each and every section of that property to have one’s labor mixed with it. So are we left with patches of un-owned property that exist within a fenced off area? Could people theoretically teleport onto those sections and avoid the charge of trespassing? On the opposite side, suppose an individual mixes his labor with a plot of land—does that entitle him to the whole area or just a small section? Does that entitle him to everything above (air rights) and everything below, eve to the other side of the earth? If stars came into alignment with one’s property, does one also own them as well? Moreover, there is another problem with the technological challenges that we face today that would have been utterly foreign to Locke. Can an individual, for instance, fly a crop duster over a vast area that he could never practically use and claim it for himself by virtue of him adding something to nature that was not previously there? This seems to be little more than gratuitous flag planting, rather than the establishment of a legitimate claim. And another similar objection forwarded by Nozick is: does my pouring of radioactive tomato juice into the ocean entitle me to the entire ocean, or does it mean that I have relinquished my tomato juice? I don’t take continuum problems seriously.

If Locke wants to limit acquisition to specific instances of physical interaction with nature, it may avoid some important objections, but then it falls on previously listed difficulties, such as the teleportation problem, in which it’s not possible to really claim absolute dominion over a fenced area. Moreover, there is the problem with Locke’s proviso, which states that one may appropriate property so long as it does not worsen the condition of others. In order for a theory of private property to be sound, we should expect a more readily objective and quantifiable standard, for otherwise we are confronted with the vagaries of what exactly worsens the conditions of others. Is each claim to land brought before a bureaucratic board that arbitrarily decides what property qualifies a worsening of a condition? Of course, we can readily differentiate between obvious examples when juxtaposed, but not every case will be so easy. Furthermore, there will be a host of variables unaccounted for. For instance, what happens if the initial land claim is granted, but the board finds five years later that it is indeed responsible for worsening the condition of others. Is property always subject, then, to review and revocation? It would seem that this is not what Locke had in mind, although this is what might follow, given the undeveloped features of his theory that are exploitable.

End note: maybe one of these criticisms is meaningful—most everything else can dealt with using concrete judgment on particulars.

Business Cycles

The idea of a business cycle in the economy functions as a straightforward narrative to explain why things occasionally go wrong in capitalist countries.

It works something like this: the business cycle begins when banks start expanding the amount of available credit in the economy by pushing down interest rates. This, so the argument goes, has the effect of turning ventures that would have otherwise been unprofitable under a higher interest rate into profitable ones. As a result of the new investment in the economy, the price of labor and capital rise. In the cycle, this is the boom phase. But credit expansion can’t keep going on forever. At some point, the general public will come to the conclusion that endless credit is leading to inflation, which then further leads to desperate attempts to dump the increasingly valueless money in exchange for other assets. This is the hyperinflation. As soon as banks cut off the credit spigot, the natural rate of interest kicks back into gear, making some number of profitable projects unprofitable. We’ve now reached the bust part of the cycle.

But there are at least several problems with this:

  1. Lowered interest rates don’t always mean more credit is introduced into the economy
  2. The economy is not necessarily in equilibrium
  3. Continuous inflation often occurs for decades without general panic and currency dumping