Harm, Neutrality, or Truth: What Is the Basis of Liberalism?

Apr 20, 2017 by

by Christopher O Tollefsen, Public Discourse:

Consider two forms of liberalism. One, indebted to John Stuart Mill, takes the harm principle as its guarantor of liberty. Liberty is to be protected except when one person threatens harm to another. This form of liberalism leaves citizens lots to argue about: what is harm? What are the boundaries of those beings who need to be protected by the harm principle? In the second chapter of On Liberty, Mill famously argues that the boundaries for discussion of these and many other questions should be very wide indeed. Thus, opponents of abortion may think of themselves as Millian liberals: abortion, they argue, harms innocent human beings, the class of beings the state must protect above all others. So abortion should be prohibited.

Not only can they argue this, they can of course also vote in service of unborn human life, as citizens or legislators. And a judge could, consistent with constitutional principles in many nations including ours, judge the unborn to exist within the class of “persons” who are thus constitutionally protected.

All this is to say that Mill really gives us a principle governing state purposes: any state restriction of liberty should be in the service of peace and justice—preventing harm—understood as an interpersonal matter. The consequence is clear: a state acts outside its authority if it moves to restrict liberty in service to purposes that are not properly its own, such as the suppression of private vice or the determination of one true religion.

In the past fifty years, however, a second form of liberalism has eclipsed Mill’s: the liberalism of neutrality. According to this conception of liberalism, liberty and the value of persons are best protected when citizens, legislators, and judges abstract from their substantive conceptions of the good (and, by implication, harm) and strive for neutral considerations that can justify state coercion to all. The appropriate considerations justifying coercion must be available to all citizens, and all must be reasonably expected to agree with those considerations if they are to serve up appropriate grounds for state coercion.

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