Welcome to our NDPR Forum on Andrew Jason Cohen’s Toleration and Freedom from Harm: Liberalism Reconceived (Routledge 2018), which was recently reviewed by Peter de Marneffe in NDPR. Please feel free to join in on the discussion, about the book, the review, or related issues. Andrew will be joining in soon.
From the book jacket: “Toleration matters to us all. It contributes both to individuals leading good lives and to societies that are simultaneously efficient and just. There are personal and social matters that would be improved by taking toleration to be a fundamental value. This book develops and defends a full account of toleration―what it is, why and when it matters, and how it should be manifested in a just society. Cohen defends a normative principle of toleration grounded in a new conception of freedom as freedom from harm. He goes on to argue that the moral limits of toleration have been reached only when freedom from harm is impinged. These arguments provide support for extensive toleration of a wide range of individual, familial, religious, cultural, and market activities.”
From de Marneffe’s review: “According to Cohen, a better formulation of [Mill’s] harm principle is this.
“HP1A*: The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over an agent, against her will, is to prevent that agent from harming others or to set minimal policies, including those involving the minimal necessary taxation needed to reliably prevent all harms to others, no matter who would do the harm. (106)
“By harm Cohen means a ‘wrongful setback of interests’ (50). If a setback of interests is not wrongful, it does not count as harm.
“A predictable question is, when is a setback of interests wrongful? Cohen does not tell us. He might have said it is wrongful when it violates a person’s rights, but Cohen does not endorse this view. Early on he writes, ‘I will say very little about rights in this book’ (12). He remains true to his word.
“Another predictable question is, what constitutes a ‘setback of interests’? Cohen suggests it is a decrease in well-being, where he uses the phrase ‘one’s interest, understood as well-being’ (50). So perhaps he means by harm a wrongful reduction of well-being. If so, making this explicit would have been helpful.
“Then there is the issue of paternalism. Understood in one way, paternalism refers to the following view:
The fact that a person will be better off when his liberty is limited in some way is a good reason for the government to limit his liberty in this way, even if he opposes this policy. Although this reason might be decisively outweighed, reasons of this kind should be counted and in some circumstances will be sufficient to justify the limitation in question.
“Mill’s harm principle is a rejection of this view. It says that the fact that a person will be better off when his liberty is limited is never a good reason for the government to limit his liberty when he opposes this policy. Reasons of this kind should not be counted, and there are no circumstances in which reasons of this kind are sufficient to justify the government in limiting a person’s liberty against his will. Mill’s harm principle is therefore a principle of antipaternalism. So is Cohen’s HP1A*. What reason, then, is there to think that principles of antipaternalism like Mill’s and Cohen’s are valid?
“No reason, I would say. Cohen gives some broadly utilitarian arguments for toleration (68-82), but they don’t explain why HP1A* is valid. This is partly because they don’t explain why every alternative principle of liberty is invalid, including those that recognize and protect rights to basic liberties but allow a limited range of paternalistic policies. In Chapter Seven, Cohen briefly considers some arguments against the harm principle, but does not address any of the recent attacks on antipaternalism by Danny Scoccia, Sarah Conly, Jason Hanna, and others. “I will not extensively discuss paternalism,” he announces with notable understatement. “I don’t find any of the newer work seeking to defend it persuasive even where such work has improved discussion” (134). Why does he find this recent work unpersuasive? This, too, he leaves unexplained.”