Sunday, September 15, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Mill and the Harm Principle

Explore Mill's harm principle : Do you find the principal attractive or problematic? Explain why. Discuss the application of the harm principal to the issue of drug legalization.

From wiki

-- No one should be forcibly prevented from acting in any way he chooses provided his acts are not invasive of the free acts of others. --

-- Mill sees harm and wrongdoing as synonymous. --

-- That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. -- Mill

These three statements sum up Mill's position on preventing harm as a basic moral action. In other words, it is wrong for a government to forbid any action unless it can be shown that the forbidden action would harm someone else if committed.

Considering how hard I've been on philosophers in general, it might surprise you to find out that this is one of the basic principles of my theory of government. Mill goes further than I do. He says that unless an action harms someone else, it is not immoral. I say that if the person you're harming is yourself, the act is still in immoral, however, I do not believe it should be illegal. Mill feels that immoral acts should be illegal. I do not. Morality is matter for you and your religion, states should stay out of it.

However, here I go again, as nice and simple as this sounds when Mill or when I say it, in practice: yeah, it gets messy.

Here's an interesting case. A man in Germany posted on the Internet a request to have someone come to him, have sex, then be killed and eaten. It may be hard to believe, but he got an answer. The man who responded helped the poster cut off part of his own arm. The two of them cooked and ate it. Then the poster killed the other individual, as he wished him to, and proceeded to preparing other parts of his body. According to Mill, it seems as if there's nothing wrong with that. The two men both did what they wanted to do. They didn't harm anyone else.

But Mill had an answer for this. Not this in particular, of course, but for odd situations where no individual seems to be harmed except as he wants to be.

Mill said there are two kinds of harm, harm to an individual and harm to society. So it is possible for a person to perform an act which harms no individual, maybe not even himself, but does harm society. Consider Anthony Snowden. He released huge numbers of American documents, secret documents. The government says he may harm secret agents by doing so, but he denies that. The government also claims that he hurt society simply by releasing the documents, even if he didn't hurt any individuals.

Both Mill and I agree that that kind of general harm can be banned and punished, if necessary. And here's the problem, has Snowden done harm? Many say he's done good by revealing secret government spying programs.

Here's another one. If Walmart opens a store that sells things at cut rate prices, other stores are hurt by this action. Shouldn't we arrest the owners of Walmart?

And back to the question, what about drug abuse? Consider the case of the abuse of drugs in the light of Prohibition. Back in the 60s when Richard Nixon started the war on drugs, almost my first reaction was, but what about Prohibition? Aren't we just helping to drug dealers get rich and hurting the rest of us? I'd like to brag, but I wasn't the only one asking those questions. A lot of people did back at the beginning of the War on Drugs.

I don't love drugs. A lot of people I love, including myself, have been hurt by drug addiction in those we care about. But I really think treating it as a crime rather than as a public health problem is a very self-destructive mistake. We often refer to drug abusers and alcoholics as engaging in self-destructive behavior. I think we are addicted to the War on Drugs as a nation and our entire country is engaged in self-destructive behavior.

And again we're back to the problem of public versus private harm. If a person really believes that addicts cause injury to society, then this should be illegal and punished, both Mill's and my opinion justify that action. If you believe that conducting such action causes more harm than does good, then you need to be against it, because you believe that the individual using drugs is causing harm to mainly himself rather than to others --Or at least less harm than would be created by a war on drugs.

As for me, as usual, I take a course between the two extremes. I don't think drugs should simply be legalized. But I do think we should decriminalize them. That is, we forbid dangerous acts such as public intoxication, driving under the influence, and etc. At the same time, we insist on treatment for drug addicts as if they were ill. Which they are.

Of course, this treatment would be mandatory. That is, required by law. That means I do not believe in drug legalization, I believe in drug decriminalization. There are legal consequences for using it. Those do not, however, include turning ordinary people into felons. It is against the law, but violators are not criminals. This is similar to most traffic violations today.

There really are no easy answers. It doesn't take a lot of thinking to come up with even better examples that are more confusing and harder to figure out. Just because you have established some very good guidelines for government, does not mean that your work is done. In the real, complicated world in which we live, you have to constantly keep working at it. There will always be disagreements. There will never be any simple, easy answers. At least no good ones.

We just need to keep our minds clear, think carefully, and keep doing our very best. That's the only way to maintain balance.

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