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According to the so-called harm principle, most actions that cause no harm to others should be permitted by law.  This may be true, if we don’t take it as a definition of morality.  But even if it is only about the law, it settles fewer questions than one might think.

I pointed out in a previous post that the harm principle is ancient.  Contrary to popular belief, it was not invented by John Stuart Mill.  He invented only a particular brand of the principle, according to which almost nothing counts as harm.

In Mill’s view, harm to which a person consents is not harm; destroying one’s abilities to fulfill his duties to others is not harm; seduction to evil is not harm; and so on.

Today we see that those who are wrapped up in racial and sexual identity politics have their own brand of the Harm Principle, one according to which a great many things count as harm.

In their view, having their feelings hurt is harm; having their identities questioned is harm; having to take notice that others disagree with them is harm; and so on.

We might call Mill’s brand the “get out of my space” harm principle, and the identity politics brand “don’t tread on my snowflake” harm principle.

 Sometimes people imagine that if only we follow the harm principle, we don’t need an agreed-upon standard of morality.  Actually, without an agreed-upon standard of morality, we can’t agree about which brand of the harm principle to use either.  The brand we deploy becomes a stalking horse for deeper moral views – often not openly expressed -- which tell us what harm is.

This is why protests about the violation of free speech get so little traction in the public square.  No matter how repressive one is, one can always define harm in such a way as to paint the other fellow as the true enemy of liberty.  I’m not harming him.  He’s harming me!


The Branding of John Stuart Mill

Gentle Readers:

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