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Philosophy/Mill's harm principle and Berlin's negative/positive liberty


For a class activity, I'm supposed to analyze the following article ( using my understanding of Mill's harm principle and Berlin's positive versus negative freedom. What should I look out for?

I'm not sure about why the government would place the onus on regulating McDonalds (and similar businesses) instead of appealing to parents (who are supposed to care for their children) about healthy nutrition, etc. My sense is that business are responsible for allowing customers to make free, competent and informed choices, so that the harm principle is applicable. Does this even make sense?   

Also, how does paternalism fit into the discussion? What are some other questions I should ask myself about the harm principle and its applications wrt the article? Lastly, where does Berlin's idea of liberty come into the equation, if applicable at all?

A simple way to state the harm principle is that liberty of persons should be limited only to prevent harm to others. In most of the world (the recent US Supreme Court decision in "Citizens United" excepted,corporations are not people. Restricting the liberty of a corporation does not, IMHO, violate the harm principle. In fact, it is essential, because the corporate form insulates the owners and managers of a corporation (as opposed to the corporation itself) from legal action for harm done. Suppose we have no FDA. If you die from a harmful or mismanufactured drug, it does you no good not to boycott the maker the next time. There IS no next time.

The same logic applies to "little harms," such as one bad meal, that a corporation can do.

The critical issue for you here, I think, is the vast asymmetry between a corporation and the individual consumer, and whether the harm principle even applies to "artificial persons" like corporations.

As for positive and negative liberty, one could argue, again regarding the asymmetry of power between individuals and corporations, that regulating corporations is an essential part of providing both positive AND negative liberty for people in capitalist societies.

As for exhorting parents, I would argue that the government ought to do very little of that, simply because there is so much exhortation generated by the private sector in the interest of "selling" health.

Hope this helps.




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Charles K. MacKay


I can answer a number of questions in philosophy; my academic concentrations (graduate school at Cornell) are ethics, political philosophy, and 19th-century German philosophy (Marx, Hegel, and hangers-on.)



BA, New College, 1971, Philosophy and Religion
Awarded four graduate fellowships upon graduation

MA, Cornell University, 1974
Social and Political Philosophy, Danforth Fellowship

All course work and dissertation drafts completed for Ph.D. Cornell University, 1971-1975, Social and Political Philosophy, Danforth Fellowship

Courses in statistics and microeconomics, George Washington University and The American University, 1976-1978

EXPERIENCE: Health Insurance Specialist 2005 - Present
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service
US Department of Health and Human Services

Allentown Business School Instructor (Computer Science) 2003 - 2005

Northampton Community College
Adjunct Professor of Philosophy 2003 -2005

Lehigh County Community College
Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and Computer Science


Medicare Made Easy (with Charles B. Inlander) Addison-Wesley, 1989

Good Operations, Bad Operations (with Charles B. Inlander) Viking Press, 1993

Health Rebooted: Information Changes Everything (in press), 2008

Bachelor of Arts, Philosphy and Religion, New College, 1971 Master of Arts, Social and Political Philosophy, Cornell University, 1975

Awards and Honors
Danforth Fellowship, Woodrow Wilson Fellowship

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