Saturday, March 6, 2021
I have this review at the Liberty Fund Law and Liberty site of Professor John Lawrence Hill’s book, The Prophet of Modern Constitutional Liberalism: John Stuart Mill and the Supreme Court (2020). A bit from the end:
What may be most puzzling in harm principle arguments is the assertion that they are not moral arguments. Hill repeats this claim in describing Mill’s view that the harm principle eschews “legal moralism.” True, Mill’s moralism is of a peculiar sort—one that steadfastly denies its moralism even as it imposes it. And this, too, is part of Mill’s legacy in American law. “Don’t impose your morality on me!” Such is the complaint, in the high and mighty places of American legal culture, of those most willing to do just that through the harm gambit.
Might it not be better simply to dispense with the harm principle? The advantages are plain. Rather than disguising what are contested moral assertions in the discursive cloak of harm—or its currently fashionable obverse, “health”—we could call deep moral disagreement by its rightful name. The losers would at least lose honestly, and what they lose could be recognized as a loss. They would not suffer the further indignity of explanations that their views are just a category mistake.
Yet regrettably, we seem destined to bear Mill’s burden. Harm-creep and harm-shrink in constitutional law track developments in other cultural arenas, where the concept of harm has enjoyed “semantic inflation” and deflation. And the efficacy of harm claims tends to correspond with who’s up and who’s down anyway. Those who wield cultural influence and can translate what they take to be grievances into legally cognizable harms will feel justified in dismissing the losers’ further losses simply as “not harms.”
A balancing of losses and gains is not enough for the victors, because only a moralized victory that treats them as fully virtuous (or “privileged” but absolved after some modest public abasement) and deserving of their wins will do. Hurts to the wrong sort of people become not matters of regret, but moral imperatives. Those hurts are “non-harm.” All the while, collateral wounds of various sorts accrue and are rendered invisible. It would not be fair to blame Mill for all of this, in legal discourse or elsewhere. Perhaps moral argument in law inevitably has something of this quality—that when the strong do what they can, it is the moral fault of the weak that they suffer as they must.