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Taylor asked:

What would be the most prominent objection to John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle “[T]he 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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

Any help with objections to the Harm Principle would be greatly appreciated to help me further understand the idea.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

J.S. Mill’s Harm Principle is an essential component in his case in On Liberty (1859). Intuitively, the idea seems clear. Living together as responsible individuals in a free society means that we have to take care not to infringe upon others in a way that hurts them, or limits their freedom of action.

At the same time, each individual is responsible for the actions that affect his or her own welfare. So long as my actions do not hurt others, then I should be free to do things I enjoy, or which give meaning to my life, regardless of the risk to myself. It is not up to others, it is up to me alone to decide what is in my own best interests, so long as I am the only one who suffers when things go wrong.

What is wrong with that? There are actually two objections I can think of, neither of which is more prominent than the other.

At one time the law in the UK did not require the wearing of seat belts in cars, or crash helmets on motorcycles. The law was changed, because of the carnage caused by car and bike accidents. But surely, on Mill’s view it should up to the individual to decide on the risks and benefits? Well, no (so the argument goes) because when you get smashed up in a car accident, or brain damaged in a bike accident, the National Health Service — funded by tax payers — has to foot the bill. Moreover, the extra strain you put on the emergency services means that someone else will have to wait that bit longer for an ambulance, or to be treated in an accident ward.

The trouble with that argument is that you could extend it indefinitely. One can draw up a long list of ailments and diseases attributable to poor self-management — for example, obesity, lung disease, sexually transmitted diseases, sports injuries — that would be reduced dramatically by instituting the appropriate legislation. Ban the eating of more than one double cheeseburger and fries per week, why not? It could be done, by issuing food rationing books as Britain did in the Second World War.

The fact is that society at large has an interest in your well being, not just for your own sake (which would be ‘paternalism’ according to Mill) but because the things you do to yourself impinge on the well being of others. But there are limits. Exactly how these limits are defined is difficult to explain. As there is no universal agreement on what the limits are, legislators have to take a practical approach, based on an assessment of which laws would be enforceable, and also acceptable to the majority of citizens. On that question, Mill’s harm principle has nothing to say.

The other objection focuses on the people who consider themselves to be ‘harmed’ by a person’s actions.

Let’s say that one of my favourite dishes is Lamb Madras, which I always cook on a Monday. Every Monday, my neighbours have to put up with very strong cooking smells coming from my kitchen window. ‘It’s only once a week!’ is all I can say in my defence.

Sometimes, when I am driving my car I like to listen to trashy Euro House music with the bass turned full up. Not everyone likes Euro House, but, it’s my choice isn’t it? If my music annoys you, it’s only for a short while, as I wait for the traffic lights to change.

These are just examples of how the choices we make for ourselves, the things we like, impinge on others. A lot depends on how easy going you are, whether or not you feel that I have ‘harmed’ you by my actions. Unwanted smells or unwanted noise are potentially cases of harm, but we only object to them when this goes over a certain threshold. However, as with the previous objection, how that threshold is defined is difficult to explain. It’s no good saying, ‘It’s harm when other people object,’ because that begs the question whether they are right to object, whether their objection is reasonable or not. On that question, once again, Mill’s Harm Principle is silent.


Michael asked:

About 14 years ago a couple of friends were talking about Bitcoin when it was about $1 or so and saying it would probably be a good investment. I had already become interested in an Australian start up called Permodrive — a regenerative braking system that saves fuel for heavy vehicles. I bought 30,000 shares for $42k. They went broke and I lost every cent. Recently Bitcoin hit $6k Aus dollar, my $42k investment would be about 240 million.

Not happy about my decision. I often think about the life I could have had if I made the right decision. How should one think about this? I don’t want to be regretting it for the rest of my life but I think it is quite possible I will. What would a wise philosopher be thinking if it happened to them?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Michael, you have my sympathies. If it were me, I would regret my judgement call that failed so dramatically, and go on regretting it. There are incidents in our life that we can put behind us as we move forward, and other things whose effects spread forward in ever widening circles.

This is about regret, how we judge our past actions, and also about the value of money. Let me deal with the money aspect first.

As a philosopher, how much do I care about money? Not at all, provided I have sufficient to live on. There’s nothing I want that money can buy. If someone forced me to go on a luxury holiday cruise, I would fret every day that I was away from my computer, doing things like answering questions on Ask a Philosopher, or posting entries in my Glass House Philosopher blog, or working on my next book.

I remember a TV interview where the inventor of Bitcoin said something similar: all he wanted to do was work. People wouldn’t leave him alone. What torment!

What money represents is the ‘ability to do’. With 240 mil, I would be able to do a lot of things for other people. That has a good and bad side, because with that amount of cash it’s a full-time job just deciding where the money goes. I would be the last person to say ‘it’s only money’.

Let’s look at judgement calls. From your account, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that you would be sceptical about the prospects for Bitcoin, but enthusiastic about the Australian startup. It is only in retrospect that you judge that your judgement call was wrong. It annoys me intensely to see in the News people being blamed for failed judgement calls, where they could not possibly have known at the time that they were doing something ‘wrong’.

That said, a good gambler hedges his/ her bets. You could have put 1 per cent of your stake aside as a side bet on Bitcoin, and today you would have 2.4 mil. People who make their living out of playing the stock markets have an ‘investment portfolio’. You never put all your eggs in one basket. So that error of judgement is down to you, and something to regret. But then again, how many dubious-seeming prospects could one put a side bet on? The answer to that is moot.

Lastly, regret. I said earlier that there are ‘incidents in our life… whose effects spread forward in ever widening circles’. Let’s say you are in a hurry to get home, stone cold sober, but driving 10 mph over the speed limit when you knock down and kill a pedestrian. I wouldn’t trust, or like, a person who told me that they had gotten over that regretful incident. We all live with the foreboding that something like that could happen to us — a psychic injury, no less permanent than the loss of a limb.

You are hurting. I would kick myself every day for doing what you did, but it would be a kind of token ‘kick’. We mustn’t let these things defeat us. And keep a look out, because worse things can happen.

Patricia asked:

If Y is the sole necessary and sufficient conditions for X

And if there are no other necessary conditions for X,

And if there are no other sufficient conditions for X,

And if Y is always the entirely subjective belief of any given individual, not susceptible to justification,

Then in what sense can X be said to exist? Or in what sense can the word which is a marker for X be said to have any meaning?

I hope I have phrased this in a way that makes sense. I’m not an expert logician by any means!

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you, Patricia, for your beautifully formed question. I would not change a single word of it.

First, I am going to tell you what immediately comes to mind with regard to this ‘X’ (and was probably on your mind too) and then talk about a rather different case which you may not have considered.

What immediately comes to mind? Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations para. 258 which begins:

“Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign “S”…”

From around para. 200 onwards, Wittgenstein has been leading up to this, his case against the notion of a ‘private language’, a language that purportedly refers to subjective ‘objects’ such that ‘a definition of the sign cannot be formulated’. This last bit is crucial, because although we normally consider things like pains and tickles to be subjective or private, these events exist in the arena of public discourse, with repeatable and recognizable causes and effects.

‘S’ is different. Apart from my writing ‘S’ in my diary, nothing physical changes in me to prompt the writing of ‘S’ nor is there any characteristic external behaviour for S, nor any physical event that can be observed to cause me to write ‘S’.

By the end of para. 258 the argument is already over. Game, set and match. (I’m not going to go over this here, books have been written about it.) All that follows are objections that Wittgenstein bats away with ease. The idea of ‘belief’ is the very first thing he considers, in para. 260:

“Well I believe that this is sensation S again.” — Perhaps you believe that you believe it!

What is it to ‘believe’ something, or ‘believe in’ the existence of something? Our first thought is that ‘I know what I believe’. The fact that I believe that P, or believe in the existence of X, is self-validating. I know what my beliefs are, a priori. So what, exactly, is it that presents itself to my mind when I have a belief that P, or a belief in the existence of X?

There are things one can say about many beliefs that are not true of all beliefs. For many beliefs, there is evidence that one would point to; but not for all beliefs (e.g. the belief that the universe has existed for more than 5 minutes, Russell’s famous sceptical hypothesis). For many beliefs, there are actions that are appropriate if you have that belief, but not for all beliefs. Let’s say that (for whatever reason) I believe that Donald Trump will be remembered as one of the great American US Presidents. There is nothing that I can do to show that I have this belief other than asserting that very statement, or repeatedly Tweeting it, or saying (in 8 years time after Trump’s second term) ‘I told you so!’

This ‘sensation’ that I’m having now, which I call ‘S’ is one I ‘believe’ I’ve had before, when I first gave it the name ‘S’. What makes this a case of belief? We’re all familiar with that feeling you get when you recognize something or someone. ‘I’ve seen that car before, what is it?’ ‘It’s a Pagani Zonda.’ ‘Ah!’ Problem is, the ‘feeling’ I get when I ‘believe’ I am having S again is just another incorrigibly subjective feeling, like S. Maybe I’m just imagining it all. What is the difference between ‘belief’ and ‘imagination’? Like cases of deja vu, where you really can’t say exactly what is in your mind or what you’re thinking.

In short, the appeal to belief doesn’t help. It doesn’t go a single step towards weakening the case that Wittgenstein has made in para. 258.

— Now, I want to consider a seemingly very different case, or rather cases, of your ‘X’.

Here are two examples. I believe that I have a guardian angel. I also believe that I have a virtuous soul.

Because I have a guardian angel, whatever bad things may happen to me will not be as bad as they would have been had I not had a guardian angel. If I break my arm, then I can console myself with the thought that were it not for my guardian angel, I would have broken my arm and my leg.

Similarly, I may have done some despicable things in my life, but I believe that because I have a virtuous soul, these were aberrations, the result of ethical misjudgement, rather than reflections of my true character. Were it not for my virtuous soul, I would have done far worse things.

I believe that I have a guardian angel and a virtuous soul because I really do have a guardian angel and a virtuous soul. I have these gifts because I believe it and only because I believe it.

Moreover, unlike the case of ‘S’, these beliefs definitely have consequences. Because I have a guardian angel, I am prepared to take risks that I otherwise would not have taken. Because I have a virtuous soul, I am prepared to put myself in moral danger that I would not otherwise have put myself in.

Wouldn’t this be a case that fits your schema? We can go further and generalize. I could believe these things about you. Because you have a guardian angel, your question was more cogent and logical than it otherwise would have been, etc. (So this isn’t, as one might have first thought, merely a case of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.)

Over to you.

Ernest asked:

What was Bertrand Russell’s response to Pascal’s Wager?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m guessing that you did a search for “Pascal’s Wager” and “Bertrand Russell” and you were unable to find any quote from Russell responding to Pascal’s argument. Guess what, I did the same. Knowing how good search engines are these days, I would lay odds on that in his long career Russell didn’t, in fact, state any view specifically about Pascal’s Wager, although in his History of Western Philosophy he makes some pretty deprecating remarks about Pascal, going so far as to raise questions about his sanity.

(It’s best to read the original text of Pascal’s Wager rather than ‘Sweded’ versions. The original passage from Pascal’s Pensees is quoted here.)

Pascal as a philosopher doesn’t much interest me, although Russell does. ‘A Free Man’s Worship’ in Russell’s essay collection Mysticism and Logic deserves to be on the top shelf of any atheist book collection. (No need to buy the book, you can easily find Russell’s essay on the web.)

A quote from Russell that frequently surfaces is what he claimed he would say after death if he found himself confronted by an angry God, demanding, ‘Why didn’t you believe in me?’ Russell replies, ‘You should have given me better evidence for believing in you,’ or words to that effect. The point of this isn’t about evidence, it’s about God’s motives. The very notion that unbelievers should be punished for their unbelief, that human beings should make a sacrifice of their (supposedly) God-given powers of reason is monstrous, an atheist would say.

On the other hand, demanding that another person (a partner, say) ‘have faith’ in us is part of universal human experience. ‘You should have given me better evidence for believing in you,’ is a very poor response to give to one’s spouse when after much travail his or her book is finally published — or when he or she is acquitted of a murder charge.

Arguments over this point are never going to be resolved. So making the argument depend on what is or is not a suitable object of ‘faith’ isn’t going to be helpful.

Let’s look instead at the very idea of a bet, and betting odds. A bet is a guide to action, and two factors come into play: your calculation of the likelihood or odds of a particular event occurring or not occurring, and your level of risk aversion — or, alternatively, your positive preference for risk taking.

Let’s say that having won your 450 horse power Japanese sports car on eBay, the first thing you plan to do is drive across Europe to Germany so that you can belt down the Autobahn at 200 miles per hour. Relying on your driving skills to dodge the slower traffic you are risking permanent injury or death but the thrill is worth it, isn’t it? Might be. If there wasn’t the risk, the thrill would be less.

Assume that we knew for sure that there is a Hell and some human beings are going there. (There are a few temporary escapees, that’s how we know.) Would that be sufficient reason for toeing the line and obeying God’s commandments? Not at all. The thought that evil carries a mortal risk might enhance the pleasure for some. Besides, in real life, no-one knows for sure what the right action is. A Mephistophelean anti-God might punish human beings for being good and reward evil.

The point, however, is that as a reason for action an argument from probability like Pascal’s Wager can never be compelling for all persons at all times. If you think that the likelihood of there being a God is no more or less than the likelihood of there being an anti-God then all bets are off. Whereas if you incline, for whatever seeming ‘reasons’, to the God alternative then it is possible that one day walking down the street you will experience the urge to walk in to your local Buddhist temple — or synagogue, or church, or mosque — just to experience the atmosphere of holiness and reverence, to give that a chance of working on you.

What a frightful prospect! Indeed. Knowledge doesn’t come into it. This is about betting and risk. For a few atheists, the risk of being converted away from atheism is so horrifying that they wouldn’t go near a place of worship. Other atheists might find it a breeze, and a bit of a laugh. And yet others, again maybe only a few, might be tempted by an argument from probability to give belief a chance.

It may seem a rather weak defence of Pascal’s Wager to say that it might be valid in some, maybe only a few cases. But this isn’t the same as simply saying that it is invalid. It is a rational argument from probability with a special application, valid, if and only if the relevant circumstances apply.

Robert asked:

Does a person who is sympathetic to panpsychism have a moral obligation to rocks?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

On the Pathways web site it says:

Remember: There is no such thing as a foolish question.
But also: Consider the possibility that you may be wrong.

(Following your Pathway)

So I am going to take Robert’s question seriously, even though at first sight it looks a bit facetious.

‘Of course, we don’t have any moral obligation to rocks!’ you will say.

What about Mount Everest? That’s a rock. Don’t human beings have a moral obligation to keep this great mountain in a decent state, and not foul it up with abandoned tents, food cans and used toilet paper? I think we do.

On the other hand, it seems hard to imagine that a rock randomly picked up from Brighton Beach has even the slightest moral claim on me.

That of course is a different question from the one raised by the Brighton and Hove City Council Byelaw against pilfering attractive rocks from the beach for personal gain or to decorate your home, because you are harming other human beings who have a right to enjoy the beach in its unmolested state. The rock itself isn’t harmed if you or I break this Byelaw. (Perhaps the same argument applies to Mount Everest, but I would prefer to leave that question open.)

However, according to one version of panpsychism, every physical entity in the universe, from quarks to galaxies and everything in between has some degree or measure of ‘consciousness’. (In Whitehead’s Process and Reality the ‘actual entities’ that compose physical reality are events rather than spatio-temporal particulars, but I don’t think it would make any difference to this argument.)

Let’s assume, naively perhaps, that consciousness is a kind of ‘stuff’ that things can have in a greater or lesser amount. Humans have more consciousness than butterflies, and butterflies have more consciousness than pebbles.

Let’s also assume that if you harm anything that has consciousness, whether more or less, then that is something bad, perhaps in proportion to the degree of consciousness possessed by the entity in question. Catching and killing butterflies for your butterfly collection is less bad than killing humans for your shrunken heads collection.

The question, however, is how you can harm a rock. I don’t think that this is entailed by the panpsychist theory, and here’s why:

The amount of consciousness in a given rock is determined purely by the aggregation of its parts. That is because a rock, as such, has no internal principle of organization. In Leibnizian or Lockean terms, it is not a ‘substance’. It doesn’t have an ‘essence’ from which its properties flow, other than the properties that arise from composition, such as having a striped pattern, or being smooth or crumbly. On the panpsychist theory, if I break a rock in two, then there is just as much consciousness as there was before, only now distributed in two parts.

By contrast, the consciousness of a single living cell is more than the aggregation of the consciousness of its chemical constituents. On the panpsychist view, in parallel with the physical organization of the cell, there is a ‘mental’ organization of its conscious aspect. This is what Leibniz held about his ‘monads’. A human being has a ‘principal monad’, which is the self, which is something extra added on top to the descending hierarchy of organized structures, from limbs and organs, to cells and their ultimate physical structure.

It follows that if you destroy a living cell, you reduce the total amount of consciousness in the universe. Cells can be harmed. Causing unnecessary harm is bad. Ergo, we have a moral obligation — albeit rather small and easily overridden by other moral considerations — to every living cell on Earth, or perhaps in the Universe if there is life elsewhere.

A rock, on the other hand, as we have seen cannot be harmed. On the panpsychist theory, you cannot reduce the amount of consciousness in the universe by splitting the rock in two, grinding it down to a powder, or doing anything else to it. Even if you could convert all of its matter into energy, you would still have the same amount of consciousness but in a different form.

That disposes of one ground, at least, for thinking panpsychism absurd. Whether panpsychism is, or could be true, is an entirely different matter.


Jerry asked:

I’m a 22 year old university student, double-majoring in philosophy and computer science, about to enter my senior year. I find my philosophy classes intellectually stimulating and enjoyable, my computer science classes somewhat difficult and tedious. Wary of the job market for philosophers, my original plan was to find work in the computer science field, but this prospect is becoming less appealing with each course. Can you offer any guidance for a would-be philosopher looking to make himself employable in the real world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I wrote an answer on this topic a while ago (see That would have been before the ‘Ask a Philosopher’ WordPress site was launched, around 2011. So it’s worth looking at the question again.

You can compare this answer with the previous one. I said then, ‘There seems to me something very wrong with society. Our values are all screwed up. Materialism is rampant. But if you want to swim against the stream, be aware that it is not an easy option.’ However, let’s assume that you want a decent-sized family, not to mention a nice family car, a good standard of living, in other words a good income.

So far as employability is concerned you’d be surprised to learn that Philosophy is right up there with the wide range of jobs in computing. You’d have to make more of an effort to sell yourself to an employer, make the case why your training in Philosophy is useful to them. An ad agency, for example. Or commodities trading. Could you do it? Do you relish the challenge? All that’s required is self-belief and a modicum of chutzpah.

You’re not seriously considering an academic career, are you? Please, don’t. One of the great scandals of the academic world is the slag heap of wasted talent, Philosophy PhDs hired for a year, or two at the most, then unable to get a job because university departments are on a tight budget and either can’t commit to a longer-term post, or, more cynically, can get the pick of the latest crop of PhDs for less money.

Philosophy and computing looks like a promising combination for the AI field. Problem is, the AI people need ‘true believers’, they don’t want to hear all the reasons why their project might end in abject failure. The mentality, ‘If it walks and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck,’ prevails regardless of the fact that, in principle, a Turing Test can be beaten with a large enough look-up table or Eliza program.

Philosophy has always had a use for logic, but logic worshippers have no place in philosophy. Sad to say, the discipline is dying now because of a lack of imagination and a surfeit of ‘logic’.

I say, stick to your guns but put as much effort as you can into your computer science classes. Don’t look for an easy way out. It’s always good to have a second string!


Books by Geoffrey Klempner

=== Solve this riddle ===


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