Talk

Advanced search

The harm principle - liberalism

(72 Posts)
CocoaIsGone Wed 11-Oct-17 07:06:05

I thought it would be useful to highlight the so-called harm principle in liberal politics. Sorry I don’t have a better source than Wikipedia

[[ en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harm_principle harm principle]]

The point is that liberalism argues that ‘man’ is sovereign over ‘his’ body and autonomy aside from when it concerns others. There is nothing in liberal politics which supports self-identification at the expense of women’s rights and freedoms.

This is really a comment on the reply from Vince Cable to a poster on another thread. But it seems to me that the liberal position would be to support transgender rights, up to the point they do harm to non-transgender people. Hence I think it worth raising on its own thread.

The issue is evidencing where the harm lies, without denying support and accommodations to those who need it on the basis of gender dysphoria and intersex conditions.

However, the idea of self-identification beyond these conditions is predicated on the need to not be intrusive or impose intrusive medical and legal barriers on people who see themselves as trans. This is laudable, but not possible without dismantling existing protections for natal women which allow them to move freely in public space. You only need to look through history to recognise that same-sex bathroom space and changing space for sports has allowed women to participate socially and culturally, whilst same-sex support facilities provide much needed protective spaces for women experiencing intimate partner violence.

The question of the right to self-identification is problematic for liberals, or should be, therefore because of the harm principle. Therefore, it needs to be debated, not ignored.

Gentlemanjohn Wed 11-Oct-17 07:56:02

I don't know about the trans thing, but the liberal harm principle is problematic, as is liberalism overall.

I prefer virtue ethics. Derived from Aristotle, this places less on an action or whether it causes harm as the character and the motivations of the person acting, along with the context. The modern liberal idea is that people are individuals with rights and they are free to do as they please within legal parameters beyond which they 'harm' or infringe the rights of others. This is actually impossible, however, because lots of different sets of rights and freedoms cannot be balanced to the point where no perceived 'harm' is registered by one party or another. In terms of trans men using women's toilets, both the trans men and the women are going to claim that they are being harmed - the trans man by his assumed right to live as a woman being denied him, the woman the discomfort of having to share a toilet with someone who to her is a man. So the two claims to harm conflict.

I don't know how the issue is to be resolved, but the criteria cannot be the harm principle. Just doesn't work.

PricklyBall Wed 11-Oct-17 08:07:29

Yes, I've argued something similar on previous threads we've had on liberal feminism. The problem with liberal feminism is not that it's liberal, it's that it isn't! It's lost its roots in Rawls and Mill (who was a great supporter of women's suffrage), and turned into "let's choose what we want to do and be nice to each other while we're doing it."

Though I once went to an excellent political philosophy seminar by a South African academic (back 20 years ago when South Africa was first trying to rebuild itself as a multi-racial liberal democracy). He could see very clearly the dangers of a drift into autoritarianism and a one-party state (as had happened in neighbouring Zimbabwe), and wanted a robust and defensible liberalism which could function as an antidote. He was very interesting though, because he said for him the most thoughtful and insightful challenges to liberalism came from radical feminism.

The argument went something like this (IIRC). The main difference between liberalism and libertarianism is that liberalism accepts a role for the state. There is a public sphere where whatever our own personal interest, desires and motivations, we must on occasion set them aside to reach a political compromise on rules that work for the majority of us (Mill and Bentham's principle of utility, Rawls' initial position). We only have complete freedom in the private sphere. But... typically in classical liberalism the family has been placed in the private sphere, and this is where his acceptance of the strength of the radical feminist critique came in. The idea of liberty in the private sphere appears to be founded on an acceptance of a patriarchal family, where the liberty in question belongs to the male paterfamilias. The whole thing becomes much more complicated when you realise women and children have rights too. How do we deal with conflicts between men's and women's rights (and children's) in the domestic arena, and under what circumstances can the state intervene? Clearly it should for cases of violence, but what about home schooling (I believe the Netherlands doesn't allow this) or vaccination?

The boundary between public and private becomes blurred. (I don't think he ever came up with an answer to this, but it was interesting to see someone in a very male-dominated academic environment take radical feminism seriously and give a respectful articulation of the view).

I think the trans argument over access to women's spaces is very much in this vein. Feminists like myself see women's personal space - the spaces in which they get naked - as quintessentially private spaces. Anything other than the complete freedom to dictate who gets access to them is a violation of the right to bodily autonomy. Trans activists on the other hand want to politicise those spaces and make them public - hence the comparisons with drinking fountains in pre civil-rights era America.

Gentlemanjohn Wed 11-Oct-17 08:30:56

The application of liberal rights discourse or utilitarianism does not even work in the family. As you say all the rights are in competition.

The issue should in my view be understood one of character rather than rights. Say there is a man who is verbally abusive to his wife and children (though not breaking the law) and spending all the family's money in strip joints. Is the problem there that he is infringing their rights? Yes, but could he not argue 'well, my wife and children are infringing my right to go to a strip club'. If the issue is purely one of rights without appeal to any prior moral principal then he could legitimately make such a claim. On what principle should one person's right (to adequately feed and clothe the children) be prioritised over another (the right to go to a strip club)?

The only way to resolve such an argument is through introducing the concept of moral character. That is, it is not so much a case that the man is not recognising the rights of his wife and children, it is that he is a bad person - he is a selfish, sexist, boorish arsehole. That is what he is. Those traits are properties of him, just as roundness is the property of a ball.

This applies to any situation. But someone's character cannot be determined purely on the basis of an act - because it would depend on their character and motivation for acting. Take affairs. If a woman has an affair because she is trapped in abusive marriage and is seeking solace with someone else, then that reflects well on her, but if she just fancies a shag with someone else then she's selfish. There are no applicable rights in such situations - it is all a matter of character.

Gentlemanjohn Wed 11-Oct-17 08:35:14

The affair example was a bad one - these things are often complicated.

My point is that goodness or badness lies in character rather than acts or the recognition of rights as such.

BigDeskBob Wed 11-Oct-17 08:51:49

Feminists like myself see women's personal space - the spaces in which they get naked - as quintessentially private spaces. Anything other than the complete freedom to dictate who gets access to them is a violation of the right to bodily autonomy. Trans activists on the other hand want to politicise those spaces and make them public

Excellent point.

jellyfrizz Wed 11-Oct-17 10:15:11

Say there is a man who is verbally abusive to his wife and children (though not breaking the law) and spending all the family's money in strip joints. Is the problem there that he is infringing their rights? Yes, but could he not argue 'well, my wife and children are infringing my right to go to a strip club'. If the issue is purely one of rights without appeal to any prior moral principal then he could legitimately make such a claim. On what principle should one person's right (to adequately feed and clothe the children) be prioritised over another (the right to go to a strip club)?

It's not just rights, it's responsibilities, the man in your example brought those children into the world and has joint responsibility for them.

Verbal abuse can be breaking the law BTW.

Ttbb Wed 11-Oct-17 10:24:19

I really don't see how having MTF trans people in my female only bathroom/locker room is detrimental to me. Where is the harm?

jellyfrizz Wed 11-Oct-17 10:28:50

I really don't see how having MTF trans people in my female only bathroom/locker room is detrimental to me. Where is the harm?

Can you see harm in MTF trans people using the male bathroom/locker room?

LangCleg Wed 11-Oct-17 10:48:59

Ttbb

Can you see harm if self ID allows ANY male bodied person to enter spaces where women are nude? Not just post-SRS trans women, but pre-SRS trans women and ANY male bodied person on his say so and nothing more?

A swinging penis might not bother you (and, truth be told, it probably wouldn't bother me) but what about other women? What about young girls in puberty, highly uncomfortable with their developing bodies and any kind of male gaze? What about survivors of sexual assault who feel unsafe in the presence of an uncovered stranger's male body?

But locker rooms are the least of it. Do you want a female person conducting your smear test? If you got arrested, would you want a female person doing your strip search? If you ever worked as a police or prison officer, would you want to conduct intimate body searches on a convicted sex offender who was clearly getting off on it?

Self ID makes YOU the bigot if any of these things are unacceptable to you, or to you on behalf of other women. IN LAW.

AssignedPerfectAtBirth Wed 11-Oct-17 10:51:07

You know the arguments well Tbtt, stop being disingenuous

Gentlemanjohn Wed 11-Oct-17 11:19:03

It's not just rights, it's responsibilities, the man in your example brought those children into the world and has joint responsibility for them.

Verbal abuse can be breaking the law BTW.

Yeah, but another way of putting that is he is an irresponsible person. Charectorologically, that is what he is.

And morality and the law are different things. There are plenty of things which are not against the law but are immoral.

jellyfrizz Wed 11-Oct-17 11:46:01

I'm not sure what your point is Gentlemanjohn. Vince Cable was talking about the liberal position rather than another random theory.

Applying the harm principal to your example. The children are being harmed by family money being used on strip clubs instead of food. The man is not being harmed by not attending strip clubs so the man's wish to attend a strip club is trumped by the children's basic need for food and shelter.
A wish to visit a strip club is not a right.

nauticant Wed 11-Oct-17 11:54:31

That did strike me as a bizarre example of "conflicting rights".

Gentlemanjohn Wed 11-Oct-17 12:09:16

Yes, but harm cannot be the sole criterion - because there are contexts in which it is right to cause harm and limit the freedom of others.

The man was doing harm, but more importantly he was doing the wrong kind of harm for the wrong reasons - the harm he was doing was a result of his poor character.

Gentlemanjohn Wed 11-Oct-17 12:10:16

You cannot codify right and wrong into legalistic rights and responsibilities, or even per se good actions and bad actions. Doesn't work.

jellyfrizz Wed 11-Oct-17 12:38:58

john the question asked was in relation to liberal theory which I understand as do what you want as long as it's not harming anyone else or as someone once said; "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins."

So yes, harm is the sole criterion in this discussion. Clue in title too.

Gentlemanjohn Wed 11-Oct-17 12:41:48

I'm saying harm shouldn't be the sole criterion.

jellyfrizz Wed 11-Oct-17 12:44:06

OK.

Gentlemanjohn Wed 11-Oct-17 12:46:55

Because as I say sometimes it is right to cause harm.

Let's take prostitution. Whatever you think of it a woman could quite legitimately claim that she is experiencing no harm through making a free choice; and conversely the punter could say the same. According to Rawlsian logic, this transaction would be fine. Alternatively, if using prostitutes was criminalised, the prostitute could claim she he is being harmed by her business being limited; and the punter could claim he is suffering harm through not being able to seek sexual solace with a prostitute.

Is this all to be said on the matter? Or do you need a concept other than harm and freedom to address what is wrong with prostitution?

makeourfuture Wed 11-Oct-17 12:48:18

I do believe that from a constitutional standpoint in the UK, one can do whatever one wants, provided no law exists to forbid it.

Gentlemanjohn Wed 11-Oct-17 12:48:24

Plus, what's your definition of 'harm'?

Gentlemanjohn Wed 11-Oct-17 12:49:28

I do believe that from a constitutional standpoint in the UK, one can do whatever one wants, provided no law exists to forbid it.

yes, you CAN do what you want within legal parameters, but that leaves the question of what you SHOULD and SHOULD NOT do.

jellyfrizz Wed 11-Oct-17 12:51:20

Perhaps you could give some examples using trans people as the OP was asking about instead of continually banging on about prostitution.

Gentlemanjohn Wed 11-Oct-17 13:00:50

Ok, let's go with shared toilets.

Suppose I'm a trans man and it's pointed out that a young girl might feel very uncomfortable sharing a toilet with me and I say 'well I have a right to use a woman's toilet' then I am simply not a nice person. I am not thinking about the girl's feelings. I have no empathy.

That's how it should be understood. If you're trying to balance one set of rights or identity-based privileges with another you will get in a terrible mess and be arguing forever.

Or take an affair. One person cheats on another person. Who's rights trump who's? There is the right of the cheated upon to loyalty, truth and respect - and the right of the cheater to sleep with who they want.

We resolve that by passing judgement of character. Neither can we say having an affair is in and of itself bad. It is not that there are bad acts as such, but bad people. There may be very valid reasons for having an affair - being trapped in an abusive marriage and seeking solace with another lover who cares about you and being too frightened to tell the violent monster you're married to. But if you abandon your partner and children just coz you fancy sex with someone else then you're a person of poor character - duplicitous, lying, selfish

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now