The Harm Principle

A recent article by the brilliant Matthew Walther reminded me of the following passage of Saint Augustine’s City of God (II,20):

This is our concern [they say] that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden. […] Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let everyone with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him. Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate. Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement.

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3 thoughts on “The Harm Principle

  1. Although this isn’t Augustine describing a philosophical position but rather the resulting effects of those who follow the pagan gods in Rome (right? at least so it seems to me). Depending on the way it’s written, it seems that it *should* be manifestly unpalatable, philosophically-speaking—which it is even (and especially) for an Epicurean. (Although the Cyrenaics, ala Callicles from the Gorgias, would be an exception, however uncertain if they are around in Augustine’s time.)

    Anyway maybe this is the irony for Augustine’s statement when compared to John Stuart Mills: the former takes it as absurd straightaway, while the latter tries to make it a respectable philosophical position. (And I guess the comparison between the precipitous fall of Rame and now, notwithstanding.)

    Liked by 1 person

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