John Stuart Mill: How Laws Against Self-Harm Backfire

Deep in the human psyche is the hatred of being under someone else’s power. In On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 11, John Stuart Mill argues that laws against self-harm are often seen by those they affect through the lens of this hatred of domination. That can make such a law backfire in its intended aim of reducing a particular kind of self-harm:

Nor is there anything which tends more to discredit and frustrate the better means of influencing conduct, than a resort to the worse. If there be among those whom it is attempted to coerce into prudence or temperance, any of the material of which vigorous and independent characters are made, they will infallibly rebel against the yoke. No such person will ever feel that others have a right to control him in his concerns, such as they have to prevent him from injuring them in theirs; and it easily comes to be considered a mark of spirit and courage to fly in the face of such usurped authority, and do with ostentation the exact opposite of what it enjoins; as in the fashion of grossness which succeeded, in the time of Charles II, to the fanatical moral intolerance of the Puritans. With respect to what is said of the necessity of protecting society from the bad example set to others by the vicious or the self-indulgent; it is true that bad example may have a pernicious effect, especially the example of doing wrong to others with impunity to the wrong-doer. But we are now speaking of conduct which, while it does no wrong to others, is supposed to do great harm to the agent himself: and I do not see how those who believe this, can think otherwise than that the example, on the whole, must be more salutary than hurtful, since, if it displays the misconduct, it displays also the painful or degrading consequences which, if the conduct is justly censured, must be supposed to be in all or most cases attendant on it.

Of course, it is not only adults who are inspired to rebel against law that ban self-harm. As Susan Reimer writes in “Why the war on smoking backfires with teens,” a May 2000 Baltimore Sun article sparked by Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point

Teens don’t smoke because they want to be seen as more grown-up or more like grown-ups. It is precisely because grown-ups are forbidding them to smoke that they take it up.

There is a social element to this spirit of rebellion:

Teen smokers are the “salesmen,” and Gladwell reports that they are usually defiant, sexually precocious, honest, impulsive, indifferent to the opinions of others, sensation-seeking – in other words, just the kinds of kids other teens are drawn to.

One of the most memorable stories from The Tipping Point was about an campaign to make not smoking a form of teenage rebellion against the manipulative adults in the tobacco companies. In Malcolm Gladwell’s telling, the campaign was abandoned due to pressure from tobacco companies when it was too effective at making teens think ill of tobacco companies–and through seeing tobacco companies as a possible target for rebellion, begin to think differently about smoking.  

In practice, one thing that can add to the chances that a law against self-harm will backfire is that those who champion such laws are often championed by people who make evident the general human pleasure at telling others what to do. That also helps energize a desire to rebel. 

When a law is one against harming others, things are different. It doesn’t look as much like rebellion when someone else understandably says “ouch, that hurts.”

Coda: The exceptions I can think of to the principle that laws against harming others inspire less of a spirit of rebellion are when the ones being hurt have been put into a subhuman category, such as slaves were in the Confederacy, or as illegal immigrants are today by anti-immigration activists. The Confederates saw themselves as rebels defending their rights; and many anti-immigration activists today see themselves as rebels defending their rights.

I have said strong words about anti-immigration attitudes before. For example, see my column The Hunger Games is Hardly Our Future: It’s Already Here. I believe that 200 years from now, with the more increasing sensitivity to harm that time will bring, those who are for restrictive immigration now will look in historical hindsight much as those who were for slavery 200 years ago look to us now.