There have been many great political thinkers and philosophers across history who have written books, essays, and journals on societal organizations, human rights, and social interactions. Some of these thinkers, like Kautilya and Socrates put forth their ideas thousands of years ago, others, like John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and John Locke came up around the time of the Enlightenment.
In this blog, I have talked about some prominent theories and concepts put forward by these thinkers in the arena of societal institutions.
John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle
One of man’s most important rights is freedom, freedom to do so he pleases, to act in a way most desirable to him. Mill’s Harm Principle introduces an interesting nuance to what is, in my opinion, man’s most important right.
JS Mill, in his essay On Liberty, introduced a concept known as the “Harm Principle”. Central to the concept is a clear distinction between self-regarding actions and other-regarding actions.
Self-regarding actions, as the name suggests, refer to actions that concern only oneself, those that cannot in any way have a (usually negative) effect on anyone else. Examples include going for a walk, or writing in one’s diary. Other-regarding actions are those which concern not just oneself, but also others, or society as a whole. Examples include listening to loud music on a speaker, or shoplifting.
Mill argued that for those actions that concern only oneself, human freedom must remain paramount: one must be free to take any action he so chooses, without any barriers. He must not be judged or prosecuted, and no effort must be made to stop him, whether informally or through law enforcement.
For other-regarding actions, Mill stated that there is some argument for intervention. These actions have the potential to cause harm to others, and as such may not be permitted.
However, Mill still argued that human freedom was of utmost significance, and thus suggested that other-regarding actions, which only lead to minor inconveniences must only be met by informal disapproval, and not through formal litigation. For instance, a loud group at a café should be told to lower their volume calmly, instead of apprehended by the police.
Mill’s theory remains as a matter of debate, with succeeding thinkers and common folk debating the extent to which freedom is one’s right, what constitutes “harm” to others, and what the correct approach to dealing with miscreants is. Nevertheless, it remains an incredibly interesting, yet intuitive concept to understand.
John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance
John Rawls talked about a concept known as the “Veil of Ignorance” in his book Theory of Justice (1971). The book talks about how laws in a society should be formulated, and what lawmakers should and should not consider while making these laws.
Rawls argued that there is a tendency for laws to favor the dominant group in society, and on a smaller scale, the dominant group within the makers of the laws. Such laws then, would fail to serve the purpose of maintaining justice and order.
Rawls argued that the only way to create “good” laws was to place oneself under a veil of ignorance. He argued that the lawmakers must forget about their personal circumstances in society, their race, caste, and class, while suggesting laws. In this manner, since no lawmaker could be sure of their own position within the society they were creating, the laws would be fair and just to every stratum of society. The lawmakers would not be inclined to create rules that would favor one group over the others, since they would themselves be unsure of which social group they belong to. Making inherently biased regulations would carry that risk factor of the lawmakers themselves being on the disadvantaged side of the spectrum, in addition to the chance of them being favored.
The main strength of Rawls’ theory is that it allows humans to act according to their natural tendencies: in their own interest. Rawls argued that humans are prone to acting in self-interest. Thus, by placing themselves under a veil of ignorance, they would end up making fair laws while still acting in their own interests, since they would not now make laws that may be used to exploit them in the future.
Rawls’ theory allowed the linkup between societal good and natural human tendency and hence gained much notoriety.
Nevertheless, it is obviously much less practical: it is not that easy to ignore one’s place in society, even for a lawmaker who is supposed to be unbiased. Some biases, minuscule or major, tend to slip through.
John Stuart Mill’s Conception of Freedom
In addition to the Harm Principle, John Stuart Mill, in his essay On Liberty, also gave a fierce defense for the allowance of Freedom of Expression, even for ideas that today seem morally dubious or factually incorrect.
His argument was centered around an analysis of changing ideas throughout human history, how ideas that were once considered false and blasphemous are today accepted as universally just. For example, in older societies, it was felt that women being subservient to men was natural and right, however, today it is well known that women are equal to men, largely due to ideas of feminism that directly called for the implementation of ideas that were banished from society.
Mill gave four broad reasons in his passionate argument that freedom of expression must be protected at all costs.
The first such reason was that no idea was completely false. If we disallowed ideas that seem false to us, we would end up being ignorant to elements of truth contained within those same ideas.
The second reason was that what is true does not come out by itself. It is only through the interchanging of ideas, that may be in direct conflict to each other, can truth start to appear. Therefore, all opposing ideas must be permitted.
Thirdly, it is only through the existence of “wrong” ideas that we can know what is right, is right for sure. If the previously held ideas were erased from history, we would lose our confidence on the currently prevailing ideas, and be blind to how they were conceived.
Lastly. Mill argues that what is considered true today might not be considered so in the future. Therefore, it is highly risky and unproductive to establish the current ideas as truth and remove all other ideas, as today’s ideas were once considered idiocy.
Mill provides a convincing argument for allowing the freedom of expression that has been adopted by all democracies today.
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