Ever heard of John Stuart Mill’s famous Harm Principle? Maybe you don’t recognize Mill’s name, but my guess is that you hear this principle really often. In his treatise On Liberty Mill says, “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.”
This principle has been absorbed into the modern psyche as, “You can do whatever you want to do in life as long as it does not hurt other people.” Today this philosophy ends up being the defining moral assumption of college students. I often hear from students here in New York that they are free to do as they please as long as they do not injure others. What I do in the privacy of my own home or with people that are consenting adults doesn’t matter to people who aren’t being directly affected by my behavior. So what if I eat what I want to eat, or act the way I want to act? If it doesn’t harm others, why do people care?
College students like the harm principle because it professes to be self-evident. This principle suggests that we can all see what is good and bad equally, and therefore, we need no particular history, heritage, or religious assumption to navigate moral choices. This was John Stuart Mill’s whole premise: we can be free from religious or social norms that bind us to a particular moral structure, because truth and morality are self-evident and common in all humans.
The principle actually works quite well until we realize that we all mean different things when it comes to “harming others.” What one person defines as harm may be rejected by another. One college student thinks looking at pornography in his dorm room does no harm to others, while another individual will insist that, in fact, it does do harm because it changes the viewer’s attitude towards the opposite sex by objectifying and commercializing the human body. The way you eat does no harm to others, until your weight cause healthcare problems that the state and those who pay taxes to it have to support. Our simple individualistic actions end up being a lot more complex then with thought. Whose definition of harm do we go by? Who gets to say what it means to hurt others? In other words, what is supposed to be self-evident ends up not being so clear after all. Not only are our actions more complex then we tend to believe, but our ability to agree on what harms society is also suspect.
What is one to do? Clearly morality and truth are not as self-evident and obvious as we once thought. While it seems simple enough—do the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, and do the least amount of harm as possible to others—this is not so simple. Multiculturalism—the idea that cultures can co-exist next to each other and be promoted equally is an offshoot of this principle. World leaders today agree (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9s5zmOuVmc) it hasn’t worked as well. Let’s acknowledge this experiment has failed—self-evident truths are actually not self-evident but rooted in particular competing and different historical locations. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can decide, which particular cultural set of assumptions is best suited to love and care for others.