Why Do We Need Human Rights? (8): The Harm Principle and the Freedom to Damn Yourself

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 sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. John Stuart Mill

This is the so-called “harm principle“, for which Mill has become famous. In other words, people have the right to “damn themselves”, as long as they don’t hurt others in the process. If being an alcoholic or drug addict is part of a person’s vision of the good life, and if it doesn’t make him beat his wife or children, steal from others etc., then no government should intervene.

Obviously, this is limited to people who act rationally and are sane. Who, in other words, know the consequences of their actions, and then primarily the consequences for themselves. In some cases it must be possible to ignore someone’s desires for the sake of his or her own well-being. Some people have to be coerced for their own good because they fail to understand and to pursue their good or their interest autonomously. I’m thinking of children for example. No one would sincerely believe that we would hurt their freedom if we allowed them to engage in unsafe sex or to abandon their studies. They cannot assess the consequences of their actions and the harm they inflict on themselves.

In general, however, we should allow people to decide for themselves, to determine their own way of life and their own interests, as long as their choices don’t impact other people. We should do so even if we believe that the people in question have chosen a wrong, inferior or offensive way of life and harm themselves as a consequence of the way in which they understand their interests.

We can, of course, advise people and try to convince them, but we should be very careful if we want to impose a way of life on people, no matter how reasonable and beneficial this way of life seems to us. What is best for me is not necessarily best for everybody. Most people value the possibility to decide for themselves. It is much more dangerous to enact laws that only deal with people’s own lives than it is to enact laws that deal with social relations.

Even if the state can encourage or force people to pursue the most valuable ways of life, it cannot get people to pursue them for the right reasons. Someone who changes their lifestyle in order to avoid state punishment, or to gain state subsidies, is not guided by an understanding of the genuine value of the new activity. … We can coerce someone into going to church but we will not make her life better that way. It will not work, even if the coerced person is mistaken in her belief that praying to God is a waste of time, because a valuable life has to be led from the inside. A perfectionist policy is self-defeating. It may succeed in getting people to pursue valuable activities, but is does so under conditions in which the activities cease to have value for the individuals involved. If I do not see the point of an activity, then I will gain nothing from it. Hence paternalism creates the very sort of pointless activity that it was designed to prevent. We have to lead our life from the inside, in accordance with our beliefs about what gives value to life. Will Kymlicka

That is why we can only propose the “good way of life” (if we have an idea of what it is) and argue for it (and we need democracy and human rights to do that). Except in very exceptional cases, we should not impose this way of life and we should accept other ways of life, not because these ways of life are better, but because they are other people’s autonomous choices. The good way of life should be led from the inside. It should be a choice, a conviction, not something that is imposed from the outside. If your life is not your choice, it can never be good.

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5 thoughts on “Why Do We Need Human Rights? (8): The Harm Principle and the Freedom to Damn Yourself”

  1. […] The gray area in the figure represents the scope of legitimate legislation, again ideally speaking. The whole of the state’s activity should be legislated. No state activity should take place outside of the law. This is the concept of the rule of law. All other parts of life can be partially regulated by law, apart from the purely personal, the activities which do not regard other people and which can never inflict harm on other people (for example thoughts, convictions, suicide, euthanasia etc.). This is John Stuart Mill ‘s Harm Principle. […]

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