PHIL 348 Lecture Notes - Joel Feinberg, Harm Principle
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Joel Feinberg. Limits to the Free Expression of Opinion
What is the central question?
Is the Harm Principle an adequate measure of a state’s authority to intervene in a citizen’s
What is the central answer?
The Harm Principle is by and large an empty formula that requires supplementation to
determine the relative importance in conflicting interests. The harm principle entails a
small window of freedoms that rests solely on what is good for society.
What is the evidence?
Mill’s conclusion was that suppressing expressions is always more harmful than the
expressions themselves and thus, is never justified. Feinberg claims, however, that
expressions of opinion almost always harm others and he separates discussion into
analytical categories such as: defamatory, seditious, incitive to violence, malicious truth,
or invasions of privacy. Mill’s response would be that if the expression cannot be
subsumed under harmfulness, it cannot be sufficiently injurious to be suppressed.
a) Defamation and Malicious truth. Statements that damage reputation
may prompt some form of compensation. However, a popular defense
would be that what was said was simply true. Suppose a prostitute
decides to move and change her life. She starts a family and develops a
positive reputation in her new society. However, a jealous neighbor
decides to unravel her past truthfully to others.
a. Feinberg claims that there are areas in which there is a greater
interest in avoiding falsehood such as scientific inquiry but his
larger claim is that the truth is never a complete defense. If the
truth defense serves as some form of overriding public interest,
then it follows the public interest in the truth overrides the
personal interest in reputation, which Feinberg claims is not the
case. The truth is not so valuable that is always a bargain. The
harm principle would affirm this.
b) Invasions of Privacy. Feinberg argues that there is a right in being let
alone. Therefore, the interest protected here is simply not being known
about. It might be objected that one never forfeits all rights of privacy
though even the most public figures have a right to intimate affairs
without being known about. Therefore, this illustrates he pluralistic
element in society.
a. It also illustrates that this perhaps does not fall under the harm
principle. When interests of divergent kinds are invaded, the
greater harm may rest on the person, whose whole economy of
interests and well being is being impinged.
c) Causing Panic. Feinberg talks about shouting fire in a crowded theatre
only to crush people to death. Now, how does truth play into this
discussion. This can be understood as causing harm onto others but if
it is true, is it still worth repressing? Feinberg claims that the