On Mill’s Influence on Constitutional Law

I have this review at the Liberty Fund Law and Liberty site of Professor John Lawrence Hill’s book, The Prophet of Modern Constitutional Liberalism: John Stuart Mill and the Supreme Court (2020). A bit from the end:

“What may be most puzzling in harm principle arguments is the assertion that they are not moral arguments. Hill repeats this claim in describing Mill’s view that the harm principle eschews “legal moralism.” True, Mill’s moralism is of a peculiar sort—one that steadfastly denies its moralism even as it imposes it. And this, too, is part of Mill’s legacy in American law. “Don’t impose your morality on me!” Such is the complaint, in the high and mighty places of American legal culture, of those most willing to do just that through the harm gambit.

Might it not be better simply to dispense with the harm principle? The advantages are plain. Rather than disguising what are contested moral assertions in the discursive cloak of harm—or its currently fashionable obverse, “health”—we could call deep moral disagreement by its rightful name. The losers would at least lose honestly, and what they lose could be recognized as a loss. They would not suffer the further indignity of explanations that their views are just a category mistake.

Yet regrettably, we seem destined to bear Mill’s burden. Harm-creep and harm-shrink in constitutional law track developments in other cultural arenas, where the concept of harm has enjoyed “semantic inflation” and deflation. And the efficacy of harm claims tends to correspond with who’s up and who’s down anyway. Those who wield cultural influence and can translate what they take to be grievances into legally cognizable harms will feel justified in dismissing the losers’ further losses simply as “not harms.”

A balancing of losses and gains is not enough for the victors, because only a moralized victory that treats them as fully virtuous (or “privileged” but absolved after some modest public abasement) and deserving of their wins will do. Hurts to the wrong sort of people become not matters of regret, but moral imperatives. Those hurts are “non-harm.” All the while, collateral wounds of various sorts accrue and are rendered invisible. It would not be fair to blame Mill for all of this, in legal discourse or elsewhere. Perhaps moral argument in law inevitably has something of this quality—that when the strong do what they can, it is the moral fault of the weak that they suffer as they must.”

Around the Web

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Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Second Gathering of the CLR Reading Society: Augustine’s City of God

City of Men

Mark and I are delighted to announce the second session of the CLR Reading Society, an opportunity open to all St. John’s Law students to discuss works of fiction and non-fiction raising law and religion themes.

Our choice this time is Augustine’s masterwork, The City of God, a philosophical and theological meditation on the nature of God, evil, and human existence in this world and the next. Be assured, students, that we will not read the entire thing! For those who would like to participate, Professor Movsesian and I have made some selections that will not overwhelm you while giving you a sense of the work.

St. John’s Law students interested in the CLR Reading Society should contact Professor DeGirolami, marc.degirolami@stjohns.edu, or Professor Movsesian, movsesim@stjohns.edu. Books are provided for free to students and all are welcome. We will meet on the evening of March 31, 2021, to discuss The City of God, so students who would like to join us and require a book should write to us as soon as possible.

The Past as Origin: A Reflection from James Hankins

I thought this fragment from Professor James Hankins’ Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (2019), was very interesting and well put (64-65), quite apart from the “Cambridge School” applications it may have:

“A conceptual framework motivated by present concerns may distort the past, but questions about origins and foundations are surely not “temptations” but the lifeblood of historical inquiry. A methodology that cripples the ability to ask such questions needs rethinking. Historical questions and metahistorical questions are indeed different and should be kept separate, but this fact need not be taken as a source of epistemological despair. Rather it is, or it should be, a call to exercise our imaginative understanding of human phenomena in relation to the entirety of past cultures, their Lebenswelt, the long-faded structures of practical constraints and inherited values that shaped those cultures and still renders them legible, with disciplined research, to the attentive mind. In practical terms this means exercising ceaseless vigilance against anachronism: something easier said than done. To see the past in its own terms goes against our naïve or interested desire to make use of the past for our own purposes. It also requires hard work, imagination, and (dare one say it) a certain kind of love. We want to root our own identities as individuals or groups in a glorious past, or (more often these days) we want to preen ourselves on our superiority to a benighted past, and this desire sometimes blinds us to difference, to anachronism, to moral universes other than our own. But sometimes we have to transcend our own needs in order to do justice to the reality of other persons and times. And sometimes it is the truth we cannot see that is precisely the one we need.”

Around the Web

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Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Legal Spirits Episode 031: The Biden Inauguration, Civil Religion & the Religious Left

In this podcast, Center Co-Directors Marc DeGirolami and Mark Movsesian reflect on the religious imagery in last month’s inauguration and how it fits within the American tradition of civil religion. They also ask whether the new administration reflects the rise of the Religious Left: a political coalition of progressive believers, including progressive Catholics like President Biden himself. How stable is that coalition? Listen in!

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Special Issue of the Journal of Law, Religion and State

Even in regular times, religion, law, and state coexist in tense and complex relations. Crises exacerbate the tensions and conflicts, as we saw recently, during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Various religious groups that usually comply with state law disregarded safety rules to conduct religious rituals, endangering adherents and others. Religions and states found themselves in multiple, continuous conflictual situations.

The Journal of Law, Religion and State recently published a special issue tackling such topics on law, religion and COVID-19. All articles are open access till the end of 2021 and can be found here.