Chapter 12 Liberty and its Limits

As we have seen in a variety of contexts, one way of understanding ethics is as an attempt to justify certain restrictions on our freedom. In general freedom is a good thing. But then there are some things that we just shouldn’t do. The most obvious things we shouldn’t do are things that involve deliberately hurting others. For example we would think that a bus driver who deliberately ran his bus full of passengers off of the side of a cliff did something that he shouldn’t have done. It also seems clear that he would be morally and legally responsible for hurting others if he were to get drunk before showing up for work as a bus driver since he would be endangering the lives of the passengers as well as of other people who happened to be driving on the road with him. In such cases we seem to have every right to restrict the driver’s freedom to do things like this. But what if this same driver decides to risk his own life by driving alone across a vast road-less area of the Sahara desert without enough fuel in the bus? Or what if he decides to get drunk while driving alone across the uninhabited desert where no one besides himself could possibly get hurt? These two cases might be cases of just plain stupid behavior, but can we, or should we, be able to restrict his behavior simply on the grounds that he himself might get hurt? These kinds of questions are at the root of the current controversy about the use of illicit drugs. Depending on how we would answer them, we will either end up siding with one of two different positions: libertarianism or paternalism. Libertarianism is the view that we should have the maximum amount of individual liberty possible – whatever we see fit to do, for whatever reasons, we should be permitted to do, as long as it harms nobody but ourselves. Paternalism, on the other hand, is the view that we need protection from ourselves and that there are others, such as experts, legislators and policy-makers, who know what is best for us, and should decide for us the limits of our individual liberty even in such cases where we are the only ones likely to get hurt.

One way to address these alternatives is in terms of a number of different principles for limiting liberty. These principles have been endorsed by various philosophers and political thinkers over the centuries.

  • The harm principle: originally proposed by John Stuart Mill, this principle states that the only permissible limitations on liberty should be those that prevent us from directly harming others. Thus, although it would be wrong for me to practice my target shooting in a very crowded part of Boston, it would be acceptable for me to experiment with the injection of household chemicals into my veins according to the harm principle. Libertarians accept this view since it allows for the greatest amount of liberty.
  • The social harm principle: a more restrictive principle that is based on the recognition that we can harm others in indirect ways through the impact of our actions on society as a whole. Thus it may be socially harmful, and so, according to this principle at least, wrong, to sell pornography to consenting adults if it were to be shown that the sale of pornography encourages domestic abuse on the part of the purchaser, even if in some particular cases there is no abuse.
  • The personal harm principle: a yet more restrictive view that claims that it is wrong to use your liberty in ways that hurt oneself. Paternalists endorse this principle claiming that it is wrong to deliberately do things to oneself that it would be wrong to do to others.
  • The offense principle: the most restrictive view, which claims that it is wrong to exercise one’s liberty in ways that cause offense to others. For example, it would be wrong for a woman to wear skimpy clothes in public if the local population is sufficiently conservative, or wrong to use language in a manner that people within earshot would find offensive. In spite of the restrictive character of this last principle, it does not necessarily capture the view of paternalists since it makes no mention of harm to oneself as being inherently offensive to others. Extreme social conservatives might adopt this view.