First Do No Harm
By Richard Girard
"Good government is the outcome of private virtue."
John Jay Chapman (1862-1933), U.S. author. Practical Agitation, chapter 2 (1898).
"Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are."
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), U.S. essayist, poet, philosopher. Essays, "Experience" (Second Series, 1844).
John Stuart Mill claimed (in On Liberty, Chapter 1) 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."
Many people, who have never actually read On Liberty, assume that this is the whole of what Mill had to say on the subject. For the moment, let us say that this is true. What are the limitations-if any-to this rule?
This rule certainly permits you to react to a potentially harmful act by one human being against another. I may, for example, stop one person from shooting another (or myself for that matter); although the question of how far I may go in my reaction-for example may I kill to prevent the shooting-should at some point be explored.
Does this rule permit me to be proactive in preventing a harmful act by one human (or even a group of humans) against another human (or group of humans)?
I believe that the answer has to be yes, at least in terms of creating rules, regulations, ordinances, and laws that spell out what is considered potentially harmful behavior against members of a society.
This must be done for two reasons: first, to deter morally irresponsible people from harmful behavior; second, to provide a consistent system for defining (by the use of lex majoris partis or majority rule through our elected representatives) a particular form of behavior as harmful to society or its members. To be arbitrary in deciding if an action is harmful-whether to one human or a group of humans-is harmful to the ones who are harmed without recourse against those who have harmed them, as well as those people who are punished for a given crime while others are not. However, arbitrary laws to satisfy some individual or group within a society's concept of "proper thought or action" are by their very nature harmful, and must be scrupulously avoided.
I also believe that the answer is yes with regard to placing individuals who have caused harm to society and its individual members in a place-such as prison-where they are prevented from causing any further harm, at least until they are rehabilitated and some form of restitution in terms of time and or money has been made. I believe it is in the best interests of a society to attempt to rehabilitate its prisoners, in order to permit them to rejoin society as useful members, rather than return to their former destructive ways.
For that small percentage of criminals who cannot be rehabilitated, e.g., serial offenders (killers, arsonists, and rapists), pedophiles, etc., I am not certain of any solution (as I do not believe in capital punishment, in part because it is arbitrary) but a more humane version of Alcatraz, Devil's Island, or an equivalent. This small percentage are too dangerous to permit any chance of either release or escape back into civilized society.
Can this proactive stance be expanded even further?
For example, are we justified as a society in demanding individuals help pay for civil improvements-e.g., a dam-and their upkeep, which benefit their community in general, but may not directly, benefit that particular individual?