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In On Liberty, J.S Mill lays out the harm principle, which distinguishes between actions that only affect you (self-regarding) and actions which affect others (other-regarding). Whether or not this distinction is justifiable is up for debate. In this essay, I will examine the fact that many cases fit into both categories, the lack of clarity of the actions, as well as looking at work from Morley, Rees and Wolff on On Liberty, in order to determine whether the distinction between the two is justifiable.Before looking at self-regarding and other-regarding actions, one must first better understand the harm principle. It states that harm can be both physical or psychological, but must be more than an inconvenience or dislike, no matter how intense. In this sense, for an action to change from self-regarding to other-regarding, one cannot simply be inconvenienced, but must feel some form of harm whether mental or real. This creates a clear distinction between the two actions, but what annoys some may harm others, so it could be said that the distinction lacks clarity. One reason why Mill’s distinction between self-regarding actions and other-regarding actions is justified is because actions that simply concern or affect oneself should be free from intervention. According to the harm principle, these actions are those of liberty; and therefore should be free from state intervention. This means that a state cannot tell a person how to live their life, regardless of whether they agree with the action. However, when that action begins to impact the lives of others, intervention is not only allowed, but necessary. This is because, in becoming an other-regarding action, other people’s interests become concerned, meaning that intervention is a necessity to stop harm being caused to the masses. This shows that the distinction between the two actions is justifiable as different reactions are required for different actions, and the decision on whether to intervene is a large one.Another reason why it could be argued that the distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions is justifiable can be seen in Morley’s defence of Mill’s principle. Morley wrote that we should set a limit to what may properly be considered as the effects of an act such that the remote effect on others should not be counted (252). This suggests that a clear distinction between actions that affect the person undertaking the act, and society is needed so that individual liberty with regards to making choices that only affect oneself is not only necessary, but justified. Morley went on to say that it is unreasonable to bring in the ‘indirect negative consequences of the act which consist of the agent’s neglect of some socially useful activities while he is performing an act which otherwise affects himself’ (253). This shows that the distinction between the two actions is justified, as well as stating that indirect consequences of an action should not change an act from a self-regarding action to an other-regarding action. On the other hand, it could be argued that the distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions is unjustified. One reason for this is that there are many cases that can be seen as both self-regarding and other regarding actions. An example of this is the act of getting drunk. On the one hand, it is simply a self-regarding action as you are drinking the alcohol in order to get into a state of inebriation, and this affects nobody else. However, if you become violent as a consequence of being drunk, or your actions begin to have an affect upon others, it becomes an other-regarding action. This questions the justification between self-regarding and other-regarding actions because one case can fall into both categories. Mill states that ‘no person ought to punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty’, (Mill, On Liberty, 138), which shows that the same act can be seen in both categories. This is backed up by Mill’s mention of coercion, which states that ‘as soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it’ (142).Mill also states that ‘no person is an entirely isolated being’ (146) which infers that it is almost impossible not to harm others with the action that one takes. For example, if one abuses his or her finances and loses all their money, this not only harms them, but also the people who rely on them for support such as their family. This again shows that the distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions is not justified as there is confusion about which category an action applies to. Also, Mill states that harming oneself can affect others, but he doesn’t say that all self harm should be allowed. This shows that the distinction is not justified because Mill himself recognises that self-regarding actions can cause harm to others. Next, one could examine Mill’s admission that self-regarding acts affects others. This suggests that the distinction between the two acts is unjustified. He states that ‘the mischief which a person does to himself may seriously affect, both through their sympathies and their interests, those nearly connected with him and, in a minor degree, society at large’ (137). This statement infers that the distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions is not justified as one action can spill into the other-regarding category from the self-regarding one. This point is strengthened by Mill writing that a person’s self-regarding action which affects him directly, ‘may affect others through himself’ (75). 

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