Jun 7, 2019 in Exploratory

Ethics and Law

Famous English philosopher of the 19th century John Stuart Mill formulated his views on the personal liberty and the role of government, majority and individualism in a social order. In his work “On Liberty”, Mill argues that people’s actions should be guided by the “harm principle” that is the basic category in understanding the personal liberty (Dyzenhaus, Moreau, & Ripstein, 2007). Whereas the concept of Mill’s “harm principle” has some fallacies in its application, the views of modern philosopher Charles Taylor offered in his essay “What's Wrong with Negative Liberty” add new understanding to Mill’s concept of liberty and articulate the more sophisticated approach (Dyzenhaus et al., 2007). Mill’s ideas cannot be realized it today’s world as modern society is a complex system where all the members and actions are interconnected.   

In order to understand the logic standing behind the “harm principle”, it is essential to put the light on the general idea of liberty introduced by John Stuart Mill. The philosopher provides a broad definition of personal liberty by formulating three main types of it (Dyzenhaus et al., 2007). The first type is the liberty of thought. Mill argues that it is absolute and any person is free to have his/her own opinion. The philosopher distinguishes between the though and the real action. While the liberty of though cannot make harm to other people, the real actions of a person may be harmful. The thought may be offensive with respect to one’s feelings and emotions; however it cannot cause an actual harm (injury). The second liberty is the liberty of planning one’s life. A person is free to organize his/her life in accordance with personal tastes and preferences. The third liberty is the freedom in uniting with other individuals. Mill’s key idea on the personal liberty is that every individual has a natural freedom to think, live and gather as long as this freedom does not endanger other people. The same rule is applied to the actions. Mill argues that a person is free to act according to the individual preferences as long as those actions are harmless to other people. Consequently, if the actions of one individual bring harm to others, the society should react in a form of conviction. Particular sentence may be imposed by the legal bodies (authorities, court, and government) as well as by the society (some groups of action). Thus, Mill argues that the only limiting power for the personal liberty is the “harm principle”.  


Mill’s view is not totally right and following there are several examples that show the inconsistence of Mill’s logic. First and foremost, the “harm principle” is a relative category. The one thing can be good for one person and detrimental for others. Mill understands the flaws in own logic and even provides several examples of exceptions. For instance, selling poison should not be limited as venoms are used for some medical purposes. At the same time, the product should have the warning label so that people know the possible negative effect of it. However, the philosopher does not come to the general idea that the harm is the very relative category. For example, American immigration problem has a long story. Some politicians, economists and sociologists argue that the immigration has a negative effect on the American society as a whole, its economics and culture. Particular negative impact is seen in increased rate of poverty, high illegal drug use, number of HIV-positive people among immigrant communities, poor education, lack of medical treatment and high associated social benefits expenses. Thus, those who oppose immigration mildness are ruled by Mill’s “harm principle”. They consider that the government should restrict immigration policies because the unlimited immigration endangers the US society and poses threat to a current social mechanism. However, there is an opposite view on the issue in question. The group of supporters argues that immigration is a positive phenomenon because immigrants bring diversity, add competition among employees fostering productivity growth and enrich the culture. Consequently, placing some restrictions on immigration also harms the society. According to Mill, one needs to measure and compare the harm from imposing restrictions and the harm from opening the boarders and act in favor of the less harm. However, it is unclear who is to judge the severity of the particular harm or how can one define what causes more harm – immigration mildness or immigration restrictions. In the particular case, Mill’s principle of harm fails to give the correct solution. In fact, modern global order and international relations pose new questions to the philosophers. The current world is more complex and needs more sophisticated approaches to deal with social issues.

The second inconsistence with the “harm principle” derives from Mill’s classification of actions. The philosopher believes that if the person performs self-regarding actions (the actions that affect only this individual) the society has no right to impose restrictions. However, if the actions of a human affect others the society should place a control (Dyzenhaus et al., 2007). For example, if a person is a drug-addict, he/she makes harm only to himself/herself and cannot be penalized. However, if one distributes illegal drugs, he/she makes harm to others and the society has a right to intervene. Such type of logic has a significant flaw. Today, people are interdependent and interrelated. No one lives separately, so the actions of one person directly or indirectly affect the neighboring community. The drug-addict may harm others by serving as the negative role-model to children and teenagers. Besides, the person should buy drugs somewhere. Thus, by purchasing the illegal substances such individual facilitates the illegal drug-business. The last brings harm to the state, as it does not receive the taxes. The example shows that in today’s society every action has an effect on other people. Consequently, using Mill’s terminology one may say that there is no place for self-regarding actions in modern world. 

An answer to Mill’s philosophy is the concept of Charles Taylor. The philosopher distinguishes the two types of liberty – negative and positive – and concludes that the concept of positive liberty should be utilized for establishing the proper societal order (Dyzenhaus et al., 2007). According to his theory, the negative liberty (or freedom) is the absence of any external constrains and the equal access to the natural resources. The positive freedom is the stage of internal liberty with no internal constraints (fears or weaknesses). When one analyzes Mill’s “harm principle” from Taylor’s point of view, one may say that Mill articulates the value of positive freedom, while the negative freedom of the person may be restricted if it causes harm to society. Mill’s theory suggests that an individual should act according to his/her positive liberty principle. 

Whereas the logic of Mill is the result of utilitarian point of view, Taylor reaches makes his conclusions using the different logic. Taylor argues that a negative freedom is not enough for the person to be free. Every individual, being the part of the society, should experience the highest level of positive liberty in order to maximize the freedom of the society. This liberty is ruled by self-realization and personal motivation. The philosopher sees the personal purpose as the most important constituent of freedom. Thus, the possibility to serve the highest purpose of self-realization maximizes the personal liberty. The fail to reach the personal freedom may be the result of both positive and negative freedom constraints. However, Taylor mentions that negative liberty may be controlled by some rules of the governors to ensure the proper order. He comes to a conclusion that sometimes the restrictions of negative liberty have positive effect on the entire societal wellbeing. For example, the trivial constraint of traffic lights on roads is the relevant constraint. In this case, one may see how external restriction helps people feel safe and, consequently, experience more freedom. In other words, Taylor utilizes the idea of Mill’s “harm principle” and applies it to the new philosophy of liberty. According to Taylor, the constraints on the liberty (negative one) may be posed if particular restrictions contribute to the freedom of the society as a whole. 

To conclude, it is important to reaffirm that Mill formulated his view on personal liberty where the actions and thoughts of a person are free as long as they do not cause harm to others. However, there are many cases where the “harm principle” of Mill cannot provide a solution (the problem with immigration restrictions) or even provides the inconsistent views (the situation with drug addicts). In fact, modern society is a live mechanism where every part interferes with the rest. Consequently, philosophical definitions and theories must become more sophisticated. The more relevant for today society approach is offered by Charles Taylor. The philosopher utilizes Mill’s ideas but applies them in a different way. Taylor distinguishes between the positive freedom that is possessed by internal features and negative liberty, a freedom from external constraints, which is the application of Mill’s “harm principle”. The philosopher argues that the positive freedom is universal, while the negative liberty should be restricted by the society in order to maximize the total freedom of the person and a society.

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