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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why JS Mill Matters

Thanks to Dink for inspiring me to post on my hero John Stewart Mill. I will not attempt a Wiki redux for this great man but simply make a few comments about why his writing matters so much to me and has to many at least in theory.
I actually came across "On Liberty" for the first time when my work as a psychiatrist compelled me to involuntarily detain pts created what we in this business call "cognitive dissonance". (I hated my work) One argument that Mill develops further than any previous philosopher is the harm principle. The harm principle holds that each individual has the right to act as he wants, so long as these actions do not harm others. If the action is self-regarding, that is, if it only directly affects the person undertaking the action, then society has no right to intervene, even if it feels the actor is harming himself. This is an extremely complex idea and I cannot do it justice in this post but after 20 years of watching Govt. make attempts at trying to coerce people into certain behaviors and spending huge sums of money in the attempt, I have come to the conclusion it is a massive failure on almost every conceivable level. i.e. "The Drug War"

As seminal a work and as influential in political philosophy as "On Liberty" has been, Mill's work "A System of Logic" is perhaps equally as impressive. In it he formulated highly influential principles of inductive reasoning which outlined the basic tenant of science: To unify disparate theories to explain the widest possible range of observations with the simplest of explanatory models. The more I study the history of physics the more I find how influential Mills work was to 19th and 20th century scientific philosophy.

"On Liberty" is on my shelf with a few other treasures I consider to be the most critical works I have ever come across. Sadly, I think it's concepts are as alien to most now as the day it was written.

JS Mill


Dink said...

Fascinating! Its a concept that I'd like to debate a little (not because I disagree with it; more in the manner of good natured curiosity).

Where do children, animals, and commons (planet) fit into the scheme of things?

With children, do they fall under the catagory of the parents domain? Or can the group set boundaries until the kid reaches a certain age (or developmental milestone) at which point they are there own agent?

I don't want the Mormon guy telling his 14 yo kid she has to get married. The Mormon guy is most likely none too amused by my (hypothetical) child raising choices.

Could someone legally let someone else murder them if they signed a consent (I read this happened in Germany; I don't think the gov honored the contract)?

Getting drunk would be okay, but not drunk driving, yes?

I've vaguely mentioned a concept before, but I never "fleshed it out". I'll try. For adamant drug abusers, instead of trying to fix them against their will, perhaps we should consider completely indulging them. Build a resort in the middle of the desert and let them check in. Waiters will bring pallets of their favorite chemicals to them. Clearly, they'll pass away. But won't it be easier on both them and the collective? No one would be "tricking" anyone. They'd have to be over 21 yo and sign a detailed consent form. They'd understand the consequences and the gov's motive. Its not a cheerful idea, but there's a certain honesty and efficiency to it.

Dink said...

Wrote the above too fast. Some there/their/they're errors ;)

Dr John said...

Mill would argue that children would not have the same rights as adults and that there are certain cases where peoples rights must be restricted. For instance a person does not have the right to sell themselves into slavery so therefore he would not be permitted to participate in a snuff film either.

Getting drunk is fine but drunk driving interferes with the rights of others so this is not ok.

I am interested in the "drug island". Who pays?

Dink said...

"Mill would argue that children would not have the same rights as adults and that there are certain cases where peoples rights must be restricted."

Sounds good and reasonable. Still a gray area on the kid thing, though. Can the civic body restrict a person's right to raise their kid in their chosen manner?

" am interested in the "drug island". Who pays?"

Oh, definitely us. I would argue that we're already paying, but this would be more direct. And instead of a big party, I imagine it to be a situation where every addict is pretty solitary (definitely not breeding or raising kids) in their room. Bed, couch, TV with every possible channel, internet connection, Doritos, full bar, etc. Basically, if you're going to self-destruct, do it here so there's minimal collateral damage.

And even offer services if they do change their minds. For some it will be paradise, for others it may be the rock bottom that wakes them up from their freefall.

And it would really hose the illegal drug market if people can get FDA-grade crap for free.

I hate to sound like a misanthrope, but I don't know how better to deal with the problem. I don't know how to fix addicts and I don't see that anyone else knows either. And again, its not violating anyone's free will.

Thai said...

Nice post. Please forgive me for taking the opposite side of this debate as the crux of it is as you alluded: "Mill would argue... there are certain cases where people's rights must be restricted."

This is the essence of society's problem and why I prefer to think of myself as a "cooperationist". ;-)

While I come from left leanings with very strong Libertarian streaks, pure Libertarianism (at least as espoused by the average man on the street) does not adequately address this issue- no fault, there is no answer.

No system on earth can hold itself together if it permits some individual rights without simultaneously restricting others . It is a fundamental law of nature. Some choices we make ALWAYS mean we must restrict others- at least if the whole is to hold together.

... And while some may argue about the need for the whole to hold together, externalities like nuclear weapons are a reality in my world.

Thai said...

This is really the classic physics three body problem (really an n-body).

There is a nice example in the NYT today.

The conservation of energy means there will always be an externality or internality.

It is what it is

Thai said...

John, I was also thinking about shorts

If you "invest" in gold, you are just as guilty investing in "worthless" products/services as someone who puts their money in shorts; at least by modern standards.

Gold is every bit as socially worthless and zero-sum as a inverse or short ETF. ;-)

Debra said...

I'm impressed.
I haven't read Mill.
I would spend the rest of three hundred lives reading everything I want to read, and the rest of 1200 lives at least (arbitrary number picked out of a hat..) if I read everybody I SHOULD read...
May I delicately make the case for the fact that Sigmund had the same KIND of mind, a generalist one, basically, and he tried to tie together lots of different domains, with different models. An energy based model. An economic one. Sigmund was on the right track, I think, tying in energy and economics to the way the mind works.
Rousseau has an EXCELLENT point on education.
He is in favor of setting education up in such a way as to permit the people being educated to encounter AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE the consequences of their acts, versus the ARBITRARY imposition of authority to either protect or punish.
He reasons that we learn more, and better from meeting the consequences of our acts (in the natural world) than authority. I agree with him.
It is an ART to not impose arbitrary authority in the educational process.
Personally I think most of our collective rage to punish the druggies is the direct consequence of our frustration at their not being able to be good to themselves the way we would like them to be...
Like.. their stubborness in not adopting OUR solutions to THEIR problems for instance...

Dr John said...

I agree Dink, we are already paying. I must admit after reading Mill, in his world he certainly is not stopping drug island but I am not sure if he is paying. My guess is as a utilitarian, at least for some he is.It would save billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

Thai as an ex-catholic I loved the NYT piece. I really don't know how anyone with more than two neurons held together by a spirochete can maintain membership in that clan for long. That is not about believing in God. That is about buying into the arbitrary instructions of men who came before you and a hierarchy. What a laugh.

I also agree 1000% on gold. It has no more value than tree bark outside of what we place on it. It is an arbitrary standard of money chosen some time ago by our fellow man. As the clock ticks and I watch wild swings in the stock market take place like today on no more than Chinese rumors, I am concerned that at some point in the not to distant future paper money will quite likely be devalued, the stock market will plunge and gold will sky rocket. I am going "long" in gold based on pure fear.

Deb, glad you like Mill. You are well read and I am impressed I was able to introduce you to something new.

Dr John said...

Thai, don't you think we are trapped to a certain extent as part of the collective participating in investments such as gold or mutual funds or even a way of life we might find morally wrong on some level? Or perhaps it is at least the equivalent regardless of our desire to change it. I invest in gold like a lemming to a certain degree as part of the collective.

Thai said...

"Yes" absolutely.

Indeed I think we trapped by the collective at every level imaginable, it is just that we do not imagine all the ways we are trapped most of the time, nor does it disturb us most of the time either.

We simply have our own individual claustrophobias. ;-)

Thai said...

John, FYI

Deb, that may be the reason some are frustrated with drug use, however I think there are more fundamental reasons.

There are certain deeps seated ways people will make larger sacrifices of themselves, e.g. Deb gives away her own resources to another to help them. One of these is when someone is sick.

Drug users turn this on their head in that they clearly bring this on themselves (even if it is an "addiction" they cannot control) and still require tremendous resources from others to be sustained.

In a sense they are like babies faces, they are playing tricks with some of the most primal pathways of of brain to help/not help others as they dance around some of the most primal human social inner non-zero sum logic boundary conditions.

Play with primal instinct are you are going to get primal responses.

Thai said...

And I understand drug users are not even close to the only ones who turn this kind of primal instinct to help others on its head but the are some of the most glaring example and they are some of the largest net drains on society of any particular group of people.

For not only do they have all the other medical illnesses, disability, every day accidents, etc... that everyone else has, they have a whole bunch of news ones that they do not.

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