Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Anything goes as long as no harm on others?

"The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty)

In other word, Mill is saying that an individual can do anything as long as his/her action does not harm others. That 'anything' includes anything that he/she does on his/herself.

A postfoundationalist like 'lim peh'(Hokkien: myself) will say that one cannot make a sure judgment on the (butterfly) effects of one's action have on others, especially within our myriad existent. And this is our inability. Hence that means one's action cannot be justified by our inability to conceive the effect.

Mill's suggestion is only true if the individual has absolute certainty over the effects of one's action. This presupposition is not unusual among pre-postmodern (not necessary 'modern') discourse.

Given our current awareness (thanks to postmodern thinkers) of context and the essentially interdependent socio-political forces operating in society, we can hardly and simply be 'independent'.

Let me draw an illustration from current economic crisis.

It started with Mr. and Mrs. Individuals who lives at a certain town in America. They have some saving and they aspire to enlarge their savings by investing in property. So they took up a loan from a local bank for the mortgage of the property.

The local bank mortgage manager, typically by the same name Ms. Individual, approved the loan of the couple. "What's wrong by loaning out money to those who need it to acquire a property? It helps them, the company that I'm working in, and a good appraisal for myself at the end of the year," thought Ms. Individual.

The mortgage manager's superior is happy with her excelling in her job. The superior feedback to the director of the company. The director is happy with the job and told his congressman friends. The congressmen delighted over the system of giving loan to help Mr. and Mrs. Individuals to acquire asset.

Such generousity spread through the layers of the society, from the congress to the director, to the superior, to the mortgage manager, to Mr. and Mrs. Individuals.

Little did everyone along this line of 'generousity' take note that there are millions of others who are like Mr. and Mrs. Individuals, hundred of thousands of others who are like Ms. Individual, thousands of other who are like Ms. Individual's superior, and hundreds of others who are like the director of the company doing the same thing.

All of these people acted in their own independent way, without intending harm on any one. Realizing Mill's dream.

And the rest is a long chain of effects. First we had the property bubble in America for about 2 years. Then followed by financial crisis in the states. Then Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on 15 September 2008 at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York. Then just approximately two months later the strongest bank in South East Asia, the DBS Bank located at the Shenton Way reported that it has retrenched 900 of its staffs.

And unknowingly to Mr. and Mrs. Individuals in the U.S, there is also an expatriate by the same name lost his job at DBS.

Get it?

The example is just to modestly illustrate that we just could not be certain of the (butterfly) effects that an individual's sovereign act over him/herself have on others. Therefore Mill's suggestion that an individual's liberty should be measured and limited by its effects is invalid and unhelpful, especially in political discourse.

Simply put, Mill said that our ethics should hinge on the no-harm-on-others principle. He presupposed that we are able to conceive the effects of our individual's actions.

But I say to Mill that you can't be sure of the limit and degree of the harm, and you may not see its harmful effect at all. Hence your suggestion is not justifiable. Shouldn't that hold us back rather than opening up the gates of free-action?

12 comments:

Steven Sim said...

Hmmm...butterfly effect may just be a myth, like the concept of "total freedom".

Perhaps another post on what then should be the basis on our judgement for doing something...

Steven Sim

Sze Zeng said...

Yes, 'butterfly effect' could be a myth, but I think most of the time not because it can't be observed but we just can't do it except through hindsight.

Basis of our judgement... u mean a book rather than a blog post?

I'm thinkin along the line of communal ethics, building on Alastair McIntyre's work on traditioned-ethics.

Steven Sim said...

If u can summarize J.S.M in a blog post, I am sure you can summarize a book into a blog post.

Just as we are not completely sovereign over our life, we should not imagine that we cannot have any rights over our own life.

In a sense, I am thinking of Victor Frankl's quote:

"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

"to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances"...maybe that was what Mill meant. That includes perhaps, starving oneself to give the one piece of bread to a fellow human being who is more needy - in that action alone, there are examples of a person exercising sovereign over his own mind-decision and his bodily pain.

Mill definitely didn't mean that even if my own choice to exercise my rights offend another person, it is still right to proceed. In fact, his utilitarianism would demand the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.

To say that butterfly effect, whether with hindsight or without, should be taken to consideration when making a decision is like a graph going on infinity.

I think you can choose any forms of consideration as basis for moral judgement (deontological ethics, utilitarian, or your communal ethics), but the above post is just confusing the two issue, 1) whether we have some form of sovereign over our own life, which Mill argue we ought to have, and 2) what is the basis of us exercising that sovereign right.

Steven Sim

Rubati Rabbit said...

What I find more strange about Mill's definition is that he assumes that "harm" is a sui generis concept that everyone would know what it means.

But I think this assumption of the "obviousness" of harm must be called into question. How broadly do we want "harm" to cover? Should be merely cover bodily and physical harming? i.e. freedom from murder and assult? How about harms to one's property, or one sense of personal/social identity, etc? i.e. molestation, rape, etc. (Obviously there is no real physical harm from molestation, it is a violation of one's sense of personal space and identity)Then it can very well be extended to blasphemy laws which protects one's sense of personal/religious identity from "harm".

Questions of what constitutes harm is not as obvious as Mill would like to pretend it is, and this assumption needs to be called into question and addressed accordingly.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Steven,

Don't get me wrong. I'm not at all saying that humans have no rights.

Mill's utilitarianism fails not only because his argument for individual's right based on 'no-harm' principle. It fails also because it is invalid to say that individuals 'ought' to maximize happiness of everyone/majority. Mill just assume that individuals 'ought' to be utilitarian without justifying why should we be like that.

Of cos Mill argue because 'psychologically' humans pursue happiness. Hence humans should pursue the happiness of all humans. Yet the idea of 'happiness' is subjective to individuals. Hence the utilitarian principle that anyone can pursue their own happiness has causes harm far extended beyond the individuals. And my illustration drawing from current economic crunch has make this point clear.

I'm not saying that I have something better to offer. That perhaps is latter days' work. Yet at this moment, I'm alerting us to see the problem of such discourse. I'm diagnosing the problem here.

In our current world, everyone from every aspiration arguing for all their 'rights' (eg.suicidals ask for right to kill themselves; wife/husband ask for defends extra marital affair in the name of 'sexual right', etc). Hence Zizek and N.T Wright are right that we need a new interpretation or story for such discourses over 'rights'. Until we do that, we have to make sure that the current prevalent story is flawed and unhelpful.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Rubati,

I agree with you on Mill. It is problematic and we need to draw from other reasoning in our ethic valuation on issues like 'rights'.

Thanks for the thoughtful and illuminating comments.

Steven Sim said...

I wrote a long comment, but lost it due to internet connection,

but the gist is both Rubati and Josh u sounded like you were saying harm is too subjective in two ways, 1) different ppl have different standards of what constitute a harm and 2) an infinitely trickled down harm is also harm and in a way which is inconcieveable to us (and therefore subjective)

And based on that Mill was to be "invalid and unhelpful"

But then again, if Rubati is right, and I suspect he is...then, he should be applied more to Josh than to Mill. Because it was Josh who seemed to be quite confident that what I do when exercising my rights have harmful effects on others, albeit a trickled down one. That "harm" is a rather objective harm, it seemed compared to Mill's.

As for Mill, I do not pretend to speak for utilitarians, it is precisely because of the inadequacy and in lieau of an agreement on what is good, harm and happiness, it was proposed that the greatest sum of satisfaction of the greatest sum of individuals be the yardstick to what is good. It is much more existential, without implying enforcing what is happiness and harm on an individual person.

And I do not think utilitarianism merely say that everyone ought to pursue their own happiness, but rather the sum of happiness that counts. But of course, another famous person said that everyone ought to pursue their self interest, because "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker" that we get our meat or beer or bread...rather from their selfish interest. - Adam Smith - because finally something will turn out right somewhere in the competition of selfish interest.

Of course, different (utilitarian) philosphers probably put different weightage on what is good, e.g. spiritual vs. material satisfaction etc. but that's another chapter, right?

Finally, like the blind men and the elephants, i do not think Mill or Smith or McIntyre had said the last word on this complex interaction of man, politically or in economics or in simple love-hate relationship. That may sound like a caveat to save my own ass, but I think that's a saner option. My intention was just to explain J.S.M against this particular post of Josh.

Steven Sim

Alex Tang said...

your post set me thinking about whether true or total autonomy actually exists. My thoughts are here

Sze Zeng said...

Steven, u may write ur comment on gmail first. Then copy and paste it here, or send me a copy.

The 'harm' that I used in my illustration (current economic crisis) is not the 'abstract' term used by Mill in that quotation. Hence its objectivity.

My post contends against "the greatest sum of satisfaction of the greatest sum of individuals be the yardstick to what is good"
through our current economic crisis. In other words, my starting point to interact with Mill's theory is not through abstract reasoning but through observation of what really happened in our world now. And through that observation I came to this conclusion that Mill's presumption that the confinement of liberty is 'no-harm' principle is unhelpful.

Hence if u want to defend Mill's theory, then you may want to explain that current economic crisis as not a result of that theory. Because all the weight of my argument is on this phenomena.

Steven Sim said...

Since you requested:

1. now you said your harm is "objective", that's precisely my point in the last comment - you agreed with Rubati that "harm" is rather subjective and therefore Mill's utilitarianism cannot work because one would not know what constitute a harm on others.

2. I pointed out that utilitarianism didn't work in this way that it so objectify harm so as to fail to consider the "one man's meat is another's poison" principle. I did not say and do not think that utilitarianism doesn't have an objective standpoint, it's just that, if they are criticized for being objective and cannot take into consideration subjectivitiy of "harm", then you, Josh, ought to be even more critized.

3. What makes you think no one make money from the credit crunch or the subprime crisis? And that the greatest sum of happiness did not worth the suffering? A major developer recently said to me, "it's in time like this, opportunities are created" (not exactly like this, but something similiar)

4. The problem of subprime is not banks/financial institution approving a lot of mortgages, but rather, it's a problem with the control and regulation of rules of giving mortgages. If banks only release money to ppl who have lower risk of defaulting, then there will probably have no property bubble. (Of course, that would mean lesser ppl owning homes, for better or for worse).

5. The question is, whether Mill's "no harm" principle ought to be rightly applied to the Ms. Individual bank officer from the begining? Did she approve because she thinks it'll make her happy and the mortagager happy and her boss happy and the senator happy? Or she's just doing her job? and slightly driven by greed? (I think strictly to be Mill, material happiness is inferior to say spiritual or cultural happiness).

6. Or did Ms. Individual approved the mortgage because it was the right thing to do? A moral thing to see someone who is qualified, owning a house? The problem is in the drafting of qualification, not in Ms. Individual...again back to my point about why the banks lowered the bar of qualification for mortgages (and even credit cards).

Hence, I do not see that Mill is wholely responsible for the subprime crisis in the way that i do not see Mill said the final word on economics.

Steven Sim

Sze Zeng said...

1. I don't see incoherent my objective view of harm with my evaluation of Mill's presumption that harm is objective as invalid. My objective view of harm does not hinge on Utilitarianism.

2. I ought to be more criticized only if my view of harm is the same as that of Mill. But I don't share that. And my post doesn't suggest that Mill is criticized because he is being objective over harm. To be sure, he is criticized because of his assumption that one knows the entire effect of one's action, including action one has on oneself. And the economic illustration shows that it is not the case.

3. I didn't think no one can make money or benefited from such crunch. But that has no bearing at all to the fact of the created negative effect of some individuals' action. Your suggestion that there can be or might be a greater sum of happiness worth the suffering is the first step to an infinite regress of unending effects. There might be a greater sum of suffering after the greater sum of happiness came by. Then there might be a greater sum of happiness and so on. In fact this openness to unknowable possibility simply support the fact that we just don't know the effect of our actions, be it good or bad. Hence we don't act according to the 'effects', as if we know what they are. I don't know on what basis should our action relies on. But that's another question.

4. I'm aware of the many reasons for this crisis, Mill's utilitarianism is the impetus of the system of their economy, hence the bank and social system. A friend (Evelyn Kang's bf) in the financial market has given a brief description here

5. If my illustration points out anything at all, I hope it does at least point out that I'm saying that the whole system is problematic, hence also the qualification. And individual characters in the illustration are playing their own respective parts and roles within that system, by playing with the 'no-harm' principle.

6. Yes, it's the qualification. And due to weak control, Ms. Individual who is in the financial industry, presumably knowing the financial situation, should have brought this weak qualification to her superior and clients. But Ms. Individual perhaps didn't see the harm in the qualification and hence didn't see the harm of approving her clients' application. No-harm principle.

I don't think Mill foresaw how his principle can be applied through the layers of human existence, yet that doesn't mean his principle is not the cause. And that also go back to the point that Mill himself didn't see the effects his principle has when it is applied in the layers of human's world. Hence his grounding of ethic on his presumption to be able to foresee the entire effect of an action is invalid. He like all of us simply cant foresee entire 'effects'.

Steven Sim said...

1. you didn't answer anything on this point, but further beg the question. now you said harm is objective, but earlier you agreed with Rubati on "harm" being subjective...

2. now i am interested to see what's ur view of harm? objective or subjective or wut constitute a harm? That's a new question in relation to your answer to my point 2. and to answer you, so i began my whole critic of your critic of Mill by saying to use butterfly effect to say that utilitarianism cannot work is irrational. nothing to do with objective or subjective, my objective and subjective only comes in because one moment you say 'harm' is objective, then you say it's 'subjective' then u now revert to it being 'objective'.

3. No one thinks in terms of infinite traversing...greatest sum means greatest sum possible to a individual actor. my whole critic is even the greatest deontological ethicist cannot think of the total good of total beings.

4. Why is mill the 'impetus' system? That's so weird..qualify why Mill can be applied or even singled out to be faulted even in your simplistic Mr Individual story...

5. your earlier sentences in this point confused me, what system is flawed and what qualification in regards to my talking about banking system in point 5. and also, why must Ms Individual be seen as acting out of a very charitable 'no harm' principles, rather than following a set of financial regulation in approving a deserving lender? Deserving in the eyes of a flawed financial rules that is (hope Obama resolved that soon, he said it's his top priority to reverse deregulation). So my question is why must we single out utilitarianism in Ms. Individual's action? and not only that, you created a simple economic model and singled out utilitarianism as the major fault.

6. good you acknowledge the fault is in bank's lowering the qualification of approving loans rather than anything else. But my dear friend, find out from Chew Loh whether he has any power to change the powerful world of banks when he was a mortgage officer. Your suggestion is beyond the reasonable joe and jane working as teller or junior officers. And don't get me wrong, i don't mean Ms Individual did something wrong, she didn't as an employee, she was following the law and regulations set by the financial institution, which has lowered the bar to allow risky lenders. She is just following the law, utilitarian or not. Why should she bring up the case with her superior (PRESUMABLY she understands about econs at all
) or the client? non of them did anything wrong, but in the first place, the system was wrong, utilitarian or not.

my point is the same, Mill said and did some wrong things, but nothing in the sense you criticized him in this particular blog...especially going back to my first point, butterfly effect cannot be used in judging the validity of Mill's utilitarianism. use other points.

Steven Sim