I can't help but notice, these days, that many people do not have an understanding of what Liberalism is. Others often have their understanding altered by the USian usage of the word, which is more akin to what we in the UK would call socialism. So I asked on twitter this morning whether people would welcome a series of blog posts on the very basic tenets... And was met with a resounding yes.
Because this is me, these pieces are going to be conversational rather than academic in tone, and posted sporadically rather than to a schedule; hopefully that won't put off too many people. It's also, obviously, going to be just my take on it. Your mileage may vary. Other people may have equally valid viewpoints. And all the other stuff one puts in the standard Liberal disclaimer.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was John Stuart Mill*
I have deliberately chosen a religious form of words for that heading, because that what it felt like to me. I was in my second year of university, having studied various philosophers from the age of 15**, when I took a module called State, Self and Society. It had one set text, and that set text was this
At the time, all I knew of JS Mill was that he had a line in the Drunken Philosophers Song
***. I was at the time rather fond of Kant, but knew that a lot of philosophy could be rather dry****, so I wasn't particularly looking forward to reading On Liberty
. And then I read it.
It was - still is - the closest thing to a religious experience I have ever had.
Now, for those of you who don't have the time or the inclination to read Mill and Taylor's beautifully constructed, logical and passionate prose, and want a Cliff's Notes version... Well, I feel sad for you, but I can understand. If you do get the time, sit down and read the whole thing, it's not long and it is
gorgeous. But the bit we are going to concentrate on today is...
The Harm Principle
The Harm Principle, exactly as stated in On Liberty
, goes like this:
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. 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.
Now, rather like SEFS*****, people will quite often quote the first clause of this without bearing in mind the most important bit. In my view the pivotal part is
His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant
- pivotal because it leads onto the bit about the opinions of others. Many people read the first part of the harm prinicple and think that it means you can't do anything that might upset other people because you would be harming them by upsetting them; this is why the second, emphasising, sentence is so important. If you are upsetting someone else by harming yourself, they still do not have the right to force you to stop******.
This is the bedrock of Liberalism, as far as I am concerned
You should be able to do what you want, as long as you're not hurting anyone else. Nobody should be able to force you to stop doing something because they disapprove of it, or because they find it distasteful. The only reason you should be stopped from performing any action is to prevent you from harming somebody else.
There are, of course, other principles which Liberals hold dear, and which apply in many or most situations, but for me the Harm Principle is the absolute basic test that everything must pass. Thus, I am in favour of the legalisation of all drugs. I have no problem with any person having whatever relationship structures they wish to have, so long as everyone involved is fully informed and consenting. I am in favour of assisted dying, because anyone denying you your right to die at a time and place of your choosing is doing you far more harm than you are doing them by asking them to help you*******.
...And I am looking forward to having spirited discussions about those three, and any other examples people wish to come up with in the comments, because I'm a Liberal and we love
to debate :)
Coming Soon (not necessarily in this order):
- Free Speech: what it is and what it isn't
- The Liberal approach to Education, and why Education is fundamental to Liberalism
- Non-Conformity, and why celebrating it rather than just tolerating it matters to Liberals
- Why Liberalism is Intrinsically feminist, anti-racist, pro-LGBT+-rights, etc.
- The Liberal Approach to the Elimination of Poverty********
- The Rule of Law, or why Liberalism is not Anarchism
- Bodily Autonomy and Consent: not just about sex.
- Weatherwaxian Liberalism: "Treating People As Things" as a Root of Social Evil
- Solving The UNIT Dating Controversy: or why Liberalism Appeals to Geeks and Why Most of Us Are Obsessed With Scifi
* And, of course, Harriet Taylor, but to go too deeply into her contributions in this post would be to go off on one tangent too many, even for me. Lets put it this way: there is a pretty solid and compelling view that Harriet did as much of the stuff Mill is credited with as he did, and was only not credited herself due to overwhelming patriarchy, patriarchy which Mill himself abhorred.
** thank you Mr Rushton for including the Ethical Theory and Practical Ethics modules in A-level RE :)
*** Clearly dear old JS was only poorly after half a pint of shandy because they'd watered his beer down with nasty lemonade.
**** especially philosophy written by English lawyers and politicians, having tried and failed many times to get through more than a page of HLA Hart's The Concept of Law without falling asleep.
***** Stronger economy, Fairer Society ENABLING EVERYONE TO GET ON IN LIFE
****** Mill and Taylor do, of course, make some exceptions for those not capable of self-determination due to mental incapacity or youth, but even then, argue that these people should be allowed to self-determine in so far as is possible within the limits of safety.
******* although of course, you only have the right to ask; the person you are asking absolutely has the right to say no, particularly under the current law where helping someone to die could result in you going to prison for murder, which is a pretty serious potential harm to yourself.
******** NB: this is different from Vlad the Impaler's approach to the elimination of poverty, which was to put all the poor people in a barn, lock the doors, and set fire to it.