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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Idea Of Freedom....

‘Harm’ is a political buzzword of our age. The spectre of harm is used to justify smoking bans in public places (to protect people from the harm of smoke), ‘anti-stalking’ measures against people who get involved in shouting matches with their partner or a workmate (in the name of protecting individuals from ‘emotional harm’), censorship (offensive words are said to ‘harm’ our self-esteem) and opposition to consumerism (apparently it ‘harms’ the environment).......

All sorts of activities, from boozing to gambling to sexual relationships, are now said to involve harm - either to the person carrying them out or to people caught up in these whirlwinds of harmful behaviour. And thus, it is argued, government intervention into these intimate areas of our lives is not only justifiable, it is necessary. It’s as if we’re all supposed to be like Woody Allen’s neurotic characters, always asking ‘what about the harm?’ about everything we do, think and say.

At the same time - just to make matters even more confusing - some of those who question the use of the harm principle to censor certain words or police people’s relationships also use the idea of ‘harm’ to back up their arguments. They claim that government intervention ‘harms’ human rights or individual self-esteem. Arguments about ‘harm’ are fast becoming a public farce.

What would John Stuart Mill, the Victorian philosopher and political radical (1806-1873), have made of all of this? After all, Mill’s own ‘harm principle’ is frequently cited to justify bans and restrictions today. He invented the ‘harm principle’ in his political tract On Liberty in 1859, where he argues: ‘The only purpose for which power can rightfully be 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.’ (1)

In his excellent, well-timed biography of Mill, British author and commentator Richard Reeves argues that being quoted by both sides in something like the smoking debate ‘would have pleased’ Mill (2). Mill was the public intellectual who believed that truth is discovered through argument rather than being established from on high, so that ideas become a ‘living truth’ through debate rather than a ‘dead dogma’ handed down by our superiors. And as Reeves draws out in his biography, Mill also revelled in intellectual eclecticism. He thought the truth lay somewhere in opposing arguments. As he wrote in On Liberty: ‘Conflicting doctrines, instead of the one being true and the other false, share the truth between them.’ (3) Just for the record, he didn’t mean, in a pre-PC relativistic fashion, that ‘all truths are equal’, but rather that truth is arrived at through the clash of ideas, the changing and tempering of views through open debate, rather than being set in authoritarian stone.
Reeves notes that Mill’s views on liberty have been misappropriated by some on the government-suspicious right, who tend to caricature Mill as only celebrating freedom from the state. In fact, Mill’s ire in On Liberty was mainly targeted against the stifling effects of majority-led culture and custom and not just against the state. As John Fitzpatrick argues in this issue of the spiked review of books, this ‘defence of liberty against public opinion (as well as law) is advanced also by means of an urgent plea for toleration and respect for diversity on the part of all those individuals who comprise the public as they in turn freely form and express their opinions’ (see Against conformity, by John Fitzpatrick). Mill was against unwarranted state intrusion and also the conformism of an unthinking public outlook.


Posted by Ajay :: 5:44 PM :: 0 comments

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