Freedom to the nose

Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.

John B Finch (early version of a saying often attributed to John Stuart Mill, Lincoln and others)

A fundamental principle of liberty and libertarianism is that people should be given as few limits as possible. John Stuart Mill argued for absolute freedom of speech – and that the only limit to freedom should be harm to others (usually interpreted as physical harm).

It’s a principle that makes a lot of sense, but obscures the fact that “harm” – even physical harm – is subjective, and often without a clear chain of cause and effect.

It seems clear enough (at least, in the C21) that hate speech and incitement to violence cause harm – but what about speech or actions leading to the erosion of social norms and mores that limit destructive behaviour, or of the family and community structures that contribute to our well-being?

Both speech and silence can be violence.

The Point

The point is that I instinctively recoil against groups that use pressure (verbal or physical) to control the behaviour or speech of others – but they’re really only drawing the same lines that I do in different places because they value things – sometimes even the same things – differently.

If there’s an answer, it’s in taking the time to have conversations with people we disagree with, in staying calm about the fact that disagreement is inevitable, and in being careful of each other’s noses.

This is a very old debate – more on freedom of speech here, and The Harm Principle here.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...