Quote of the Day: Bigotry and Utilitarianism Edition

There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it. And a person’s taste is as much his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Ch. 4, paragraph 12.

Liberals and libertarians need to think very carefully about the kinds of preferences/harms should be considered valid policy concerns. The are obvious cases: I wrong you when kick you in the shin, but not when I wear clothes you find distasteful. It seems that this is so even when you have a very high tolerance for shin pain and a low tolerance for fashion crimes, and the harm/disutility is equal in each case. Most people find it reasonable that people have a presumptive right not to be physically attacked, but no such right not to be visually offended by poor taste. There is a large grey area in between these two cases.  Utilitarianism as a moral theory is incapable of considering this question, or even admitting that it is a problem. This, more than anything else, is why I am not a utilitarian. The Mill of On Liberty was not a utilitarian in this respect either. On some readings, not even the Mill of Utilitarianism was really a utilitarian.

Update: Eric disagrees. Update 2: Not really. See the comments on Eric’s post.

3 Responses

  1. I think it’s just semantics: ability of utilitarianism to handle versus desirability of the utilitarian outcome. I think utilitarianism can handle it; I stayed agnostic on desirability.

  2. Liberals and libertarians need to think very carefully about the kinds of preferences/harms [that] should be considered valid policy concerns . . .

    Neither protection against “harm” or from “injury” have anything like sufficient clarity to be the starting point of law. They positively invite “harm inflation.”

    By contrast, “non-initiation of force” is much clearer, much more concrete, and has much more precision — and comes from the conclusion that the chief concrete purpose of government is to bring the exercise of retaliatory force under objective control.

    • I still think the idea of force has to be pretty fluid and ambiguous if we want it to encompass the things we think people shouldn’t be able to do to each other without permission. If you restrict it just to intentional physical violence, I don’t think it does what we need it to.

      If I throw rubbish over your fence, it seems pretty clear that I’m violating your property rights. Similarly, if I continuously burn tires and the smoke blows on your property, making it unusable; I’d say that’s also a violation of your property rights too (assuming I’ve just started doing it, there was no prior understanding among relevant parties that I could do so, the smoke wasn’t capitalised in the land value when you bought it, etc). It seems equally clear that the occasional waft of cigar smoke blowing over your fence don’t violate your property rights in any meaningful sense.

      There doesn’t seem any natural dividing line between permissible and unpermissible nuisance. Either force collapses into harm, or it excludes things that should be the basis of law.

      I suspect that this disagreement is based on a pretty fundamental difference in worldview (I’m not an objectivist), and that we’re never going to agree on this.

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