Mini-Feature: Preventing Harm

How far should governments go to prevent its citizens from causing harm to themselves?

“First do no harm” is the rule that doctors are sworn to follow as part their Hippocratic Oath, and legislators ought to be forced to say something similar. Instead, they are empowered to create as much harm as they wish, shielded by the pretense that their actions represent the will of the people. 

Keeping citizens from harming themselves is the ostensible aim of much government work, but it’s unclear how well they even succeed at that. Acting in loco parentis for the citizenry at large, the government plays the role of a benevolent parent to 350 million infants unable to manage their own affairs safely.

The question of suicide brings everything into sharp relief. We hear frequently that the US has 30,000 gun-related deaths annually, but the fact that 20,000 of these are self-inflicted is submerged to make a larger point. If guns were banned, we are meant to assume, those 30,000 lives would be spared.

But the human urge for self-destruction is so creative that there is no evidence that people bent on suicide will be unable to do it without the availability of a gun. Unless we are all going to be placed in the condition of Ghislaine Maxwell, under constant surveillance, dressed in paper gowns, and held in rooms with all curved surfaces, people will figure out ways to check out. 

I'm not going to make arguments that child-safety locks on medicine bottles or auto safety glass should be eliminated on the grounds that the aggregate cost outweighs the benefits. Only that government should treat its citizens as sovereign adults.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind


"Free speech is not an absolute right. As John Stuart Mill explained in On Liberty, the individual cannot exercise a right if doing so causes harm to another or deprives another of their liberty. Social media companies have an obligation not to disseminate hate."

I raise this issue not out of a desire to torment our readers, but because it shows plainly that Mill's so-called "Harm Principle" is quite useless as a first principle: helpful though it may be when wielded in a shared context of understanding and cultural norms, as the first sentence of a social contract it can only lead to quite circular arguments based on the assumed meaning of the words involved. Mill himself actually seems to me to acknowledge this: "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Note the crucial qualifier, so often ignored: "over any member of a civilized community." That is, we can only proceed according to this principle if we live among people who agree together on a few priors, such as: what can reasonably be considered "harm"?

It seems to me Mill himself makes quite plain that mere offense is not harm. "There ought to exist," he writes later on, "the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered." This has not stopped people from arguing, as in the Twitter quote above (as well as in more scholarly literature), that Mill can be used to justify interventions by speech platforms on the basis of hate speech ideology, however presently construed.

This is because, strictly speaking, we do not live in a civilized community, and certainly we do not agree on those first principles which must be settled before you can move on to anyone so secondary as Mill. Augustine could have told you that before you can say what harm is, you have to say what good is, since harm is its privation or abuse. And so the question we should really be asking is not "how can governments prevent harm," whether self-inflicted or not. The question is "what is good for man, and how can governments best facilitate it?" 

This is all that is meant by scary phrases like "the common good," which I am afraid we must discuss before we talk coherently about secondary issues like preventing harm. None of that is to say that the best way to secure the common good is to force it out of people at a legislative level. That would seem to me to quite disregard the nature of man and of virtue. But we could start by legislating the context in which people are encouraged and equipped to seek the good, and we could start at the educational level. Then, once we have raised our kids up in a relatively non-self-destructive way, maybe they can set about building the kind of communities in which the various forms and levels of self-harm are understood and agreed upon, and dealt with accordingly.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind


Like many big political questions, the mountains of argument and critique that have heaped up around this one make it difficult to reckon with. Today this daunting sensation has in part fueled a gut feeling that "humanity" or "the human" has failed, not just at the species level but all the way down, through all the sublevels and into the individual and whatever parts lurk within. We have "tried everything" and it has been found wanting, imperfect, imperfectible. Alone, we are hopeless, even when armed with religion. 

The nihilism of today is also fueled, however, by the last-ditch effort to somehow leap out of our skin and cause some effect that can be said to have mysteriously come "out of nowhere", beyond everything remembered and everything imaginable, to rescue us. A new other, one unstained with our fingerprints... a holy alien. 

Of course, I mean our digital machines. The sensation is strong that the only thing we are left to try now that we have failed as humans is "leveraging" instrumental science to a place beyond our own power to impurify or send astray. The final act of abdicating responsibility is to try to surrender it to entities we have created to recreate themselves independently of ourselves. This is the terminal faith being invested as we speak in our digital machines. 

How is this uncanny, ultimate, fateful, final mission to be assessed in political terms? How can governance, the root Greek word of which is the same (kybernetes) as the one behind cybernetics, dare to assert itself over such an act of utter self-overcoming and self-defeating? If the deliberate obsolescence of human and political space and time by machines beyond all our power and perspective is not palpably a consummate act of "self-harm", what is?

If the reality of this sublimely terrifying "value" does not invite, and indeed require, government to go as "far" as necessary to prevent it from being "implemented", to "pay any price and bear any burden", what does? And if "government" today is indistinguishable with or captive to the same technological-industrial complex whose unceasing headlong rush since the Manhattan Project toward the mystically ultimate power of primal pagan gods, who can put faith in government to go as far as is necessary?

These are the foundational questions of politics that face us today: questions that only humans can answer, however dependent we may in the process discover we remain on the well and truly miraculous. 

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind