Liberty Matters

Individual Rights vs. Social Utility: A Reply to Capaldi on “Harm”

John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty,” like his other writings on social philosophy and economic policy, is grounded in his own modified version of utilitarianism.
He made very clear that he would “forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions.”[90] (Mill makes clear in the next sentence that he means what today is often called “rule” and not “act” utilitarianism.)
It is the same premise from which he reasons in his Principles of Political Economy, and leads him to insist that it is “society” that decides how what has been produced shall be distributed among the members.[91]
“Social Utility” Makes the Individual a Slave to the Collective
The individual shall be allowed to keep and/or have apportioned to him what the social collective decides to considered his. The individual is a material slave to the community of which he is a member.
In, “On Liberty,” Mill truly expresses a deep and sincere belief that the individual should be absolutely free in thought, speech, and action as he chooses without molestation, as long as it does not involve harm to another.
And he reasons that individuals should be respected in this autonomy because of its social benefits to the society as a whole from free, open, and even highly unconventional thinking, living and acting.
The Ambiguities in the Notion of “Harm” to Society
But what is “harm” to another or to “society” as a whole, such that it would represent or reflect the limits to any individual’s unmolested freedom of action?
Dr. Capaldi says,
Competition in the market economy inevitably creates short-term losers. The interests of other people are always involved.  There is always harm in some sense. Here we must always show that the good consequences of a free market usually (90% of the time) outweigh the bad consequences.
If I have been a meat eater and now discover the supposed ethical as well as the presumed nutritional benefit from becoming a vegetarian, my change in consumer demands brings “harm” to the butcher and the beef suppliers who, now, lose my business and see their profits diminish.
Suppose I live in a small community and my decreased demand for meat results in a one-third loss in the butcher’s business and is sufficient to drive the butcher, given his costs of doing business, into bankruptcy.
On the other hand, since many consumers buy vegetables, the net gain in the grocer’s business due to my new vegetarian diet is a mere 1 percent increase in his business and revenues.
On what basis can we calculate and say that the “harm” to the butcher and the beef ranchers is more or less than the “gain” to the green grocer and the fruit and vegetable farmers? And if the “harm” to the butcher and the cattle ranchers is found to be greater than the benefit to the grocer and the farmers, what is to be done?
Am I to be forced to continue paying for meat that I no longer want to eat so the butcher’s and the ranchers’ relative income positions are not negatively affected? Or are the grocer and the farmers to be taxed and have part of their additional revenues redistributed to the butcher and cattlemen to cushion the impact of my change in relative demand preferences?
The fact is that as long as people live in social interactions rather than in self-sufficient isolation there is little that any one of us may do that might not have, or cannot be interpreted as having, a “negative” or “positive” effect on one or more others.
Herbert Spencer pointed out the insolubility of this train of reasoning when he said that if we argue “a man is not at liberty . . . to do what may give unhappiness [negative social utility] to his neighbors, we find ourselves involved in complicated estimates of pleasures and pains, to the obvious peril of our conclusions.”[92]
It is why, I would suggest, that several more modern proponents of classical liberalism have returned to some new variation of the “natural rights” tradition: precisely because it grounds its reasoning in the idea that rights (personal or property) are not gifts, choices, or permissions from the societal collective, but belong to the individual by nature, reason, or a higher source.
“Harm” to others through our individual actions is, often, in this alternative tradition, more clearly delineated as uses of force and fraud. This gives far less “space” for the wriggling room that permits expansions of government intrusions into the personal, social, and economic affairs of the members of any society by speaking of noncoercive “harms” that have far fewer objectively definable meanings.
One final observation, if I may. Grounding our idea of individual liberty on the basis of either “natural rights” or “social utility” can greatly affect how men view their place in society. As the great French liberal Benjamin Constant expressed it:
Say to a man: you have a right not to be put to death or arbitrarily plundered. You will give him quite another feeling of security and protection than you will by telling him: It is not useful for you to be put to death or arbitrarily plundered. . . . In speaking of right, you present an idea independent of any calculation. In speaking of utility, you seem to invite that the whole question be put in doubt, by subjecting it to a new verification.”[93]
[90.] John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty” [1859] in Collected Writings of John Stuart Mill, Vol. VIII (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), p. 224. Online </titles/233>.
[91.] John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy (Fairfield, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley [1909] 1976), pp. 200-01.
[92.] Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation [1851] 1970), p. 73. Online edition: Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed, (London: John Chapman, 1851). </titles/273>.
[93.] Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003), p. 41. </titles/861>.