Saturday, May 10, 2008

Secular Conscience

In support of his new book, The Secular Conscience, Austin Dacey is the guest on the most recent Point of Inquiry podcast, and makes a very good point about John Stuart Mill's "harm principle," which Mill defines in On Liberty:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That 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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right ... The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
Dacey's clarification concerns what Mill calls "the moral coercion of public opinion," noting that Mill was careful not to argue against the idea or the practice of moral suasion: his argument is not one against taking moral stands, not a "hands off" presciption for difficult moral questions.

Indeed, one of Mill's foremost defenses of free speech and free conscience is how it clears the way for the best arguments -- including arguments on matters of great moral consequence -- to rise on their own merits, unperturbed by exertions of state or other insititutional power:
[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
Dacey wants to rescue Mill, the harm principle, and secular liberalism itself from those who prefer to flee from moral questions by demoting them to matters of private taste or religious precept. He wants to revive the idea of a god-free and public-facing conscience. I think I have a next book to read.

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