Thursday, December 29, 2016

Where's the harm?

Two thoughts about harm, neither of which is perhaps very interesting (although if they are uninteresting because they have been expressed before I'd be grateful for a reference).

The first is about Mill's so-called harm principle, which says, roughly, that adults from civilized countries should be allowed to do whatever they like as long as they don't harm anybody else. As is well known, he does not say what he means by harm. Generally, I believe, it is taken to mean direct physical or financial damage, but there is no obvious reason why this should be so, and it isn't what Mill says. (For instance, why count a small physical harm as more significant than a great psychological harm?, or a great but indirect financial loss as less important than a small, direct financial loss?) In fact Mill clearly does not believe that people should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as they don't directly harm others. For instance, he thinks it's OK to compel people to give testimony in court or to help defend their country from attack. And you should not be allowed to sell yourself into slavery, since this would be giving up your freedom.

So it's more that there is a certain sphere within which you should be free than that you should have virtually unlimited freedom. But this limited sphere of freedom includes some very vague terms, such as freedom of "tastes and pursuits," which seems to put us back in the realm of freedom to do what you like as long as you don't harm anyone else. Except that this is explicitly not what Mill means, and we still have not defined harm. So I wonder whether Mill is really saying anything at all. That is, does the harm principle, or at least Mill's harm principle, really exist?

Speaking of harm, Judith Thomson sees no morally significant difference between killing and letting die. If, because I want you dead, I fail to intervene when I see you accidentally eat poison then this is just the same, morally speaking, as if I deliberately poison you. On the other hand, Henry Fonda does no wrong if he fails to cross the room and touch my head, even if his doing so (and nothing else) would save my life. This is because I have no right to his help, and hence his inaction is not unjust. If he crossed the room and killed me, though, then this would be unjust killing. I have no right to his help, but I do have a right to his not harming me. But harming is the same, morally, as not helping. So I'm struggling to see how Thomson thinks of this. I imagine she has addressed it somewhere (unless I'm hallucinating the problem), but I don't remember reading about it.  

(This is one of three or four posts I started before Christmas and didn't post because I didn't get around to editing them. Apologies if it is still only half-baked.)    

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Wittgenstein and Modernism

These two new books (both collections of essays by various people) look good, and are nothing to do with me:

Wittgenstein and Modernism and Understanding Wittgenstein, Understanding Modernism