Monday, August 06, 2007


Hattersley Wrong on Mill Being Obsolete

I've always enjoyed Roy Hattersley's pieces in The Guardian and mostly found myself agreeing with him. Not today. In a piece entitled 'Liberty is not what it was' he asserts the basic premise of Mill's views on liberty are 'no longer valid'. He aims his critique right at the heart of Mill's 'harm' principle: 'we are free to damage ourselves but are not at liberty to harm other people', arguing thus:

Just accept the incontrovertible fact that today, almost everything we do for good or ill has an effect on the rest of society. Progress has made us members one of another. Our interdependence has increased with every economic and scientific advance and it now embraces matters both general and specific, from conduct that is likely to destroy the whole planet, to the sickness caused to publicans by tobacco smoke drifting across the bar... The philosophy for our time ought to concern a consensus about civilised conduct, not extol irresponsible individualism.

I'm no Mill scholar but I imagine those Guardian readers who are, might be sharpening their quills at these assertions. Hattersley may be right that we need to build a 'consensus of civilised conduct'- how we should live together in harmony- but will such a consensus exclude the notion of the private? We do not live our lives as collective entities but as individuals. ? Surely as we become more and more interdependent, we need to protect more and more the sphere of the private?

And as our actions inevitably have implications for others, I would have thought that Mill's harm principle-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.(On Liberty Ch1)-is still as valid as ever. And surely one of the founding arguments in favour of removing discrimination against people of different sexual inclinations is Millian?

Gay people basically want to be gay with their own kind and the contention that they did no harm to others was central to eventual public acceptance, as indeed, it would be to any other case of sexual deviation which did no harm to anyone else. Mill's views on freedom are alive and well are as essential to the future as they have been in the past.

I resent Hattersley's attempt to close down the debate by pretending that alternative possibilities don't exist.

"Only cranks believe that now. If it were a generally held view, we would not prohibit the use of recreational drugs or require passengers in the back seats of motor cars to wear safety belts."
I wonder where Mill would stand on the recent case of the gays who were prosecuted for sandpapering each other's bollocks? They were certainly inflicting what most of us would consider as pain on each other - but doing so voluntarily, and even more amazingly, in the pursuit of what they would call pleasure.

Mill's philosophy demands that self-regarding and consensual acts undertaken by (rational?) adults should not be censored. But Mill himself was slightly prudish in matters of sandpaper-play - he certainly wouldn't like them doing it outdoors.
Hattersley’s tone is unfortunate; complementing Mill on supporting women’s rights in 1869, while attacking him for sticking to the conventions of his time; labelling people cranks.

But I wonder if his wider point is valid.

We should be wary of those who seek to restrict the lifestyle choices and pleasurable pursuits of others (those who would restrict gambling, say), but society is far more interdependent than in Mill’s time. That we all, rightly, contribute to the NHS means that those who place a burden on that service indirectly burden us all. That alone creates a ‘harm’ that we can use to justify intrusion into each other’s private lives.

The harm principle inadvertently allows us too much leeway to restrict the liberty of others and even to impose our own ideas of a healthy lifestyle upon them.
I do think his wider point is valid but don't want to throw out the Millian baby with any bathwater. Nor do I think the two things are necessarily in contradiction top each other.
Roy H is right, as someone who is constantly told by bloodthirsty animal abusers, aka Kate Hoey and Simon Hart, that their 'liberty' to chase wild animals and rip them apart with a pack of dogs has been infringed, I am in total agreement with Roy about the libertrian brigade.
Chris Gale - It is perfectly possibly to conceive humanism as incorporating respect for animals within utilitarianism (eg society is debased by bloodthirsty), or even create a separate doctrine of animals' rights - although to my knowledge Mill doesn't expound either of these possibilities.

Stephen - I think you're right that our society is more inderdependent. But making this point is not sufficient cause to reject Mill's harm principle - it may transpire that the status quo (of, eg, the NHS) is itself in contradiction with Mill's theories on liberty, and therefore must be opposed.
I disagree with that libertarian argument on hunting too and would argue that it breaches Mill's 'harm' principle anyway- OK not to humans but very definitely harm to animals who should not be subject to such brutality. Also hunting was used by the traditional ruling class to 'toughen up' their sons so that they would be valiant warriors on the battle field- you could say that by brutalising its participants, it is inflicting harm of a different kind.
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