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Does someone have the right to harm their own soul? Or if you don’t much like the talk of ‘soul’, does someone have the right to do themselves moral harm?

For many years the assumption in the UK has been that the individual does have the right to do themselves spiritual harm. This came to a very visible head in the controversy in the British Parliament this year about laws permitting same sex marriage, but it had been coming for some time. Thus, in immediate post-WWII England and Wales, it made sense and had public support to have criminal offences of conspiracy to corrupt public morals (for example, by publishing a directory of call girls), but by the late 1970s this had changed. And the question put rhetorically in the public debate was in these terms: ‘Why prohibit victimless behaviour?’ More straightforwardly, ‘Who other than the perpetrator is actually harmed?’

This line of argument strongly defends the liberty of the individual and has a strong European post-Enlightenment feel to it. In my country it was expressed by John Stuart Mill, the highly influential Victorian essayist, in his On Liberty (1859). It is not, though, an exclusively English idea, for Mill drew most of his fundamental argument from Wilhelm von Humboldt’s The Limits of State Action (1791–1792). Mill’s point was that the state was justified in limiting someone’s freedom to act only if the action resulted in harm to others. In fact, Mill’s argument extended to social disapproval as well as state action. He nuanced this by accepting that some societies might not be at a stage where this approach to liberty was feasible. He writes (and this may surprise some), ‘Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.’1

Similarly, liberty did not apply if the individual was, for instance, a minor. This nuancing clearly resembles Immanuel Kant’s claim in his 1784 essay ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ that since ‘we’ are now mature, we no longer need others to make our judgments for us but should make them ourselves. Our ‘maturity’ confers both the capacity for and the right to autonomy. Mill’s point is that this autonomy must in human society be exercised without harm to others.

For Mill, therefore, his own conduct in alienating the affections of Harriet Taylor from her husband and setting up house with her (possibly without consummating until Taylor’s death) was not ‘harm’ to Mr. Taylor or the two children she had by him. Logically it should not be subject either to legal sanction or public disapproval. He and Harriet were entitled to do as much harm to themselves and each other as they wished, for they were mature consenting adults whose actions only dealt with themselves.

Behind this position lay a conception of what a human being is. Mill quotes von Humboldt: ‘[T]he object “towards which every human being must ceaselessly direct his efforts, and on which especially those who design to influence their fellow-men must ever keep their eyes, is the individuality of power and development.”’2 This strong version of individual self-realisation rests in turn on this view: ‘Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.’3

But while Mill has been hugely influential in my country and elsewhere, he has had critics, both non-Christian and Christian. A lot of that criticism has centred on the idea of harm and how Mill actually smuggles in his own value judgments at that point and covertly imposes them. Take the unfortunate Mr. Taylor, for instance. Very few men like being cuckolded, even if the cuckolding is at an emotional rather than consummated level. They experience it as ‘hurt’ or ‘harm’ as do wives whose husbands philander. And those of us who are their friends and companions have no doubt that the harm is savagely real.

I think this line of criticism about harm to others is important and well-taken. But it doesn’t tackle the question with which we started. Do I have the right to harm myself? Mill’s rationale for saying we do as individuals have that right is that we are sovereigns. The image is political with the individual as a little kingdom whose boundaries coincide with our bodies and our thoughts. Within those boundaries, we are rightly independent, little perhaps, but genuinely sovereign entities.

Of course Christians who are committed to the lordship of Christ immediately sense the difficulties here. How does the lordship of Christ, which shows Christ’s sovereignty, interact with my sovereignty over myself on Mill’s view? The issue here is cast in political terms: two competing sovereignties, one of which may be subordinate and derivative. But at the end of day, when Christ says I am to use myself (whether it is my body or my mind) in certain ways, do I have the right to say no?

On this political model, where I am my own little kingdom, we readily talk of sin in similarly political terms and describe sinners as ‘rebels’. I think this is clearly right, but I want to make two supplementary points about it.

First, sin and the self-harm that it sometimes shows is not just rebellion. It is also theft. Second, the language of theft helps de-glamourise sin. Let me explain.

First, theft. Why speak in terms of theft? Because this is the necessary implication of passages such as Ps 24:1–2. The little phrase ‘the earth is the Lord’s’ carries huge freight. The language is that of possession or ownership. This extends our understanding of what it means for God to be the Lord beyond simply a political image (‘king’) to that of property and ownership. The earth belongs to God. It is his possession.

This puts a different complexion on my acts of spiritual self-harm. They do affect more than myself, and they affect in other ways than ‘political’: they compete with God’s rights as owner. This ownership is grounded in God’s creation of all things from nothing, as Ps 24:2 makes clear, grounding God’s claims as owner of all things in the fact of his creation of all things.

On this view, defying God is not just an act of political rebellion; it is a ‘property-act’—it is stealing something that belongs to someone else. My use of gifts or talents for purposes other than those for which God gave them is an act of robbery. And when someone commits fornication with another consenting adult, there is the double theft of stealing the gift of sexuality both with regard to oneself and with regard to the other person.

In one sense this idea of sin as theft is implicit in Augustine’s famous phrase that sin is ‘lust for mastery’ (libido dominandi), for the Latin word for ‘master’ (dominus) can certainly carry the idea of political power. But it is also strongly used for the right of property, the master who owns. Lust for mastery obviously can be manifested in the way I treat others, treating them as if I have rights to ownership. But in view of Ps 24:1–2, lust for mastery is also something I have with regard to myself. I long to cheat my rightful owner and creator of his rights as my owner and creator. In short, I long not to be a creature.

This takes me to the second point: de-glamourising sin. Apologetically, speaking of sin as rebellious sovereignty seems to me to risk glamourising sin in our culture. Given our anti-authoritarian pose in Western culture and our affinity for the rebel, to describe sinners as rebels risks letting people see themselves as heroes. For rebels overthrow governments, and governments are, as a rule of thumb, authoritarian. Aside from Chuck Norris movies, few films glamourise upholding order.

But theft is often different. It smacks of deceit and dishonesty, and our experience of it is its sneakiness. In a modern Western society, perhaps more of us have been victims of theft in its various forms than of the ins and outs of political rebellion. Of course, it is possible to glamourise theft too—as the Ocean’s 11 series did. But I find it significant how strongly those acts of theft are cast in terms of stealing from someone who deserves it and who has significant deceit and dishonesty in their own lives. And it does focus the question, ‘Did God deserve to have me steal from him?’

This article starts with the oft-quoted question, ‘Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name?’ We are right to say that with respect to God, sedition against him is committed in the name of liberty. But there is another crime that is somehow much more mean-spirited: theft. My allegedly harmless actions towards others can be thefts of those others from God, their owner. And my allegedly harmless actions include stealing myself.

[1] J. S. Mill, On Liberty (repr., London: Penguin, 1974), 69.

[2] Ibid., 121.

[3] Ibid., 68–69.

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