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Serena Ong


DW6 Question 2

The fundamental idea of Mills Principle is that we have the right to do anything we want provided that the action does not cause unjust harm to others. An individual has absolute freedom of action in matters concerning only himself/herself. Mills Principle acts as a useful and effective tool in helping to resolve many social issues in everyday life. However, it appears that Mills Principle hits a stumbling block when we try to apply it to certain problems in reality, which involve conflicting views and which cannot be resolved in a straightforward manner. It can easily resolve unambiguous cases such as murder and robbery, but faces difficulty when employed in cases which are beyond black-and-white interpretations. One of the most controversial issues faced by modern societies is abortion. The contention is between one side which advocates pro-life arguments and another which supports pro-choice arguments. On one hand, the pro-life supporters argue that life is precious and the human rights of the foetus should be respected, whether the foetus is healthy or not. They assert that the woman may have the right to control her own body but that does not give her the right to decide whether her child should live or die. To them, abortion is tantamount to murder. On the other hand, the pro-choice supporters argue that no one should have the right to force the woman to bear an unwanted child. If the child is deformed or suffering from genetic diseases and is destined for a short and painful life if born or if the parents do not have the means to seek treatment for the child, all the more the mother should be allowed to abort the child for their best interest. The Principle states that, In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Abortion does not just concern one party; it concerns both the mother and child. To abort the child is to harm the child; to reject abortion is to harm the mother, who may rationalize that the baby is an invader of her body and abortion is an act of self-defense.( Law, Liberty, and Abortion, 1/4/07) The mothers decision is in fact other-regarding. Mill also stated that his principle is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. Hence it would appear that the mother has the prerogative over her child, to decide what is best for her unwanted or sick child, that is, to abort it.

One way to resolve the dilemma is to think about the norms of the society. If the societal consensus is that a foetus is to be considered a life conferred with human rights, then that society would deem abortion to be immoral and prohibit it, and this decision would meet the consent of the majority of the society and there would be little harm done to social cohesion. However, resolving this contentious issue in this way seems too reckless when considering the consequences to the child, who is entirely at the mercy of social consensus. Morality, by Mills Principle, is associated with the ability to fulfill moral obligations, such as the obligation not to take anothers life. Does the mother have the moral obligation to care for her child regardless of the circumstances of conception? If the answer is no, then it would imply that children, regardless of age, can be abandoned or put to death if they become a liability. This conclusion is indeed absurd. Another case to be considered is voluntary euthanasia. The question is is it acceptable for doctors to assist terminally ill patients who wish to end his/her life? The prolife supporters maintain that it is never right to take a life, even if that life belongs to the self. They argue that effective palliative care is available and there is no need for the patient to give up on life. In addition, the issue of medical ethics comes into the picture. A physician, according to the ethics, must not deliberately harm their patient. In contrast, the opposing view is that every human being has a right to life, and with every right comes a choice, and the right to choose to die is implied in the right to life. (Assisted Suicide/Voluntary Euthanasia, 31/3/07) They contend that patients who are terminally ill face a future that is short and filled with agony that would leave them in a tragic state. Hence it would definitely be more humane to let these patients die with dignity and to relieve them from their miserable existence. According to Mills Principle, one can do whatever he wants, even harming himself, and others have no right to interfere. They can persuade, advice, admonish, but they cannot obstruct that person from doing what he wishes to do. Furthermore, voluntary euthanasia is done with the persons consent. By this reasoning, euthanasia should be allowed. However, a problem which arises is the definition of harm. Does euthanizing a suffering patient constitute harm? An issue at hand is the distinction between killing and the allowing to die. Under which category should euthanasia be grouped under? They are in fact two sides of the same coin but the former insinuates harm while the latter denotes compassion. Also, is the act of living a duty or moral obligation of all human beings? If so,

then taking own life is immoral. But is it fair to deny one the right to die and to force him/her to endure extreme suffering because of the duty to live imposed by society? Mills Principle allows the state to compel people to aid others; it would be evil to not do so. Whether the act of euthanizing is considered an aid to the patient is subject to conflicting views. Doctors have the duty to save lives, as well as to alleviate the sufferings of patients. When these two duties come into conflict, either way, the charge of evilness falls on the doctor. Another problem is the uncertainty in the broadness of the concept of harm. If it is defined broadly, then we can take into account the harm to the social fabric by allowing euthanasia which might lead to the degradation of the value of life within the community and undermine the culture of medicine. (Right to die or duty to live? The problem of euthanasia, 31/3/07). It appears that the decision to die is not self-regarding anymore. On the other hand, if euthanasia is disallowed due to the adverse social implications, then it would mean that patients would be forced to live for societys benefits despite his intense suffering. Mill had responded that people should be free to do whatever they want unless they violate a distinct and assignable obligation to someone else (The Harm Principle, 31/3/07). The conflict of values appears not to affect the interests of others in this sense. Therefore euthanasia should be allowed. Moreover, Mill would support the stance that the choice by the individual, no matter good or bad the consequences, is good in itself because it is a decision made autonomously. The last issue to be considered is the restriction of consumption of alcohol. The debate is the extent to which individual liberty should be infringed upon in order to protect society. On one hand, supporters of restriction of sale of alcohol maintain that alcohol is harmful to health and with its addictive effects, is responsible for social problems such as breaking up of families, loss of jobs and lives and is a contributory factor of many crimes. In fact, the sale of alcohol is considered immoral. The opposition asserts that the societal problems should not be attributed to alcohol. They argue that human vices are part of human nature and what alcohol does is merely to exaggerate these tendencies. (Alcohol, 31/3/07) More importantly, just because of some cases of crimes or problems related to alcohol does not justify as good reason to take away the civil liberties of the majority to enjoy drinking alcohol. Furthermore, problems only arise when people drink excessively which does not happen to the majority.

Mills Principle would assert that society should not try to protect an individual against himself. Hence if an individual drinks a lot and neglects his family or inflict violence on his family, society can punish him only for the act of doing harm to the family but not for his drinking. Nonetheless, society can advise or persuade him, but not disallow him to drink. The crucial issue here is paternalism, that is, state intervention to prevent a person from harming himself or to force him to act in his best interest. (Paternalism, 31/3/07) People have the moral duty not to harm others. Mills Principle would support paternalism if there is proof that the act results in harm to others. However, if the government is justified in imposing a certain restriction on the basis of preventing harm to others, then it seems that any kind of policies can be similarly justified on such grounds. People tend to judge what is best for others based on their own standard of values and ideas. Therefore, the paternalistic policy of restricting or banning alcohol would likely be subversive because the lives of majority of the people could have been improved if alcohol were more readily available. Furthermore, what is considered best is subjective. Some religious groups and individuals feel that drinking alcohol is immoral, although drinking is generally accepted by most of American society. In addition, what is considered acceptable by society is constantly changing, and more often than not, legislation lags behind the shift in ideology. For instance there has been a shift in the perception of morality of drinking alcohol from past to present in some societies. Individuality seems to be slightly overrated. Mill had assumed that allowing individuals the liberty can only benefit society. However, there may be acts that, to the people, would appear not to cause harm but which, if allowed in a society, would perturb the very bedrock on which liberty thrives on - social stability and order. Undoubtedly, the Principle helps to protect people who hold unpopular beliefs. Also, can the individual always be trusted to make good use of their freedom and independence for the benefit of society? Are they always sufficiently informed to do so? In addition, there seems to be few actions that affect only the individual himself, and they tend to be trivial, such as the way one dresses. The three issues discussed above surely have much wider implications to others and the society. It is inevitable that some freedom of individuals have to be sacrificed for the good of society and for the individuals. Hence, some room should be allowed for state intervention in certain matters.

Bibliography Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paternalism,, 2005, downloaded 31/3/07 International Debate Education Association, Assisted Suicide/Voluntary Euthanasia,, 2000, downloaded 31/3/07 International Debate Education Association, Abortion,, 2005, downloaded 31/3/07 International Debate Education Association, Alcohol,, 2000, downloaded 31/3/07 Liberty Corner II, Law, Liberty, and Abortion,, 31/10/2005, downloaded 31/3/07 RIGHT TO DIE OR DUTY TO LIVE? THE PROBLEM OF EUTHANASIA,, 1999, downloaded 31/3/07 John Stuart Mill The Harm Principle,, 9/3/1999, downloaded 31/3/07