Vice Squad
Monday, November 26, 2007
Regulating Vice: Chapter 1, The Harm Principle

The Introduction to Regulating Vice is so engaging that I thought, hey, people might actually read this. What can I do to make sure that this won't happen? Then inspiration came: I could devote Chapter 1 to John Stuart Mill and his harm principle. Mill was not in favor of governmental or private coercion of adults in their "self-regarding" actions -- a category within which most vice activities fall. What is a poor vice prohibitionist to do, then, in a Millian world? Well, you can search for loopholes: kids are an obvious one. Maybe we can prohibit vice for adults as a collateral measure aimed at Helping The Children. Or maybe we can argue that there is No Such Thing as a self-regarding act. That joint you are puffing on in the privacy of your home ten miles away is hurting me, or hurting somebody, so you must be stopped. (My vice? Well, thanks for asking, but my vice is benign, and self-regarding.) Anyway, I argue that these exceptions don't cut the mustard -- for the traditional vices, they would not justify prohibition, in Mill's eyes or mine. (In On Liberty, Mill was quite explicit about some of the vice policy implications of his harm principle: alcohol sales must be allowed, private gambling must be legal, prostitution per se cannot be criminalized, and so on.) But then there is a third exception, one I call "Vice Lunacy." Mill argued, essentially, that coercion is OK when someone is in a condition of a sort of temporary irrationality, when a person is “in some state of excitement or absorption incompatible with the full use of the reflecting faculty…” [see paragraph 5 in the linked section of On Liberty]. Hmmm, maybe vice brings on this state, especially for addicts. Can we justify a vice prohibition on these grounds, while still remaining true to Mill? That is an issue that I take up in Chapters 2 and 3.

Of course, maybe you don't like the harm principle, maybe you don't see any need to be true to Mill. The problem (or one problem) with an outright rejection of Mill is that it then sets one up to admit the propriety of almost any invasive or tyrannous act, such as the government telling you what time to get up in the morning or what color to paint your living room. But again, this is a topic to which I return in Chapter 3....

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