Was John Stuart Mill Right?

September 2010
by Michael Keller

If you have been through  college or are currently going through it, you probably have encountered John Stuart Mill’s famous Harm Principle. In his treatise On Liberty Mill says, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” This principle has been absorbed into the modern psyche as, “You can do whatever you want to do in life as long as it does not hurt other people.” Today this philosophy ends up being the defining moral assumption of college students. I often hear from students that they are free to do as they please as long as they do not injure others.
 
College students like the harm principle is because it professes to be self-evident. This principle suggests that we can all see what is good and bad, and therefore, we need no particular history, heritage, or religious assumption to navigate moral choices.
 
The principle works well until we realize that we all mean different things when it comes to “harming others.” What one person defines as harm may be rejected by another. One college student thinks looking at pornography in his dorm room does no harm to others, while another individual will insist that, in fact, it does do harm because it changes the viewer’s attitude towards the opposite sex by objectifying and commercializing the human body. Whose definition of harm do we go by? Who gets to say what it means to hurt others? In other words, what is supposed to be self-evident ends up not being so clear after all.
 
What is one to do? For undergraduate college students, Redeemer’s City Campus Ministry is a place where students can come to process these questions. Every week we meet for a meal on Sunday and talk about a topic that intersects the lives of students. During the week we have small groups where students meet with other students to continue this discussion as well as develop better friendships. Naturally, we show how the gospel does answer each and every question we have; however, space is also given for the dialog leading up to these answers. We have to know the questions first and see that our usual answers do not quite work before we really care to see how the gospel answers them.
 
In the fall and winter City Campus Ministry also facilitates a mentorship program in which non-undergraduate volunteers meet with students to discuss life in New York, vocational work, and even how one’s spiritual life works in the busy city. Whether you are an undergraduate college student or a potential volunteer, City Campus is a community where we work out our doubts, faith, and work lives. Undergraduates should check us out on September 12 for our Fall Launch.
 
Volunteers and those interested can visit us at citycampusministry.com to get involved.


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