Andrew Jason Cohen is associate professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University and a member of Heterodox Academy


In this short piece recently published in Society, I defend extensive toleration of speech on college campuses based on John Stuart Mill’s famous harm principle.  I argue that only prevention of harm is a justification for interference with individuals and that while speech can be harmful, it’s rarely harmful on college campuses- despite the current preoccupation with microaggressions. When we say that only prevention of harm is justification for interference, we do not mean that any claim to be hurt justifies interference. As I say in the piece:

the harm principle allows interference when one person wrongfully hurts another, but not when a person is hurt in ways that are not the fault of another and not when a person is hurt in a way due to the innocent or blameless acts of another.  The harm principle rightly indicates we can interfere with an individual if that individual is at fault—meaning, they wrongfully cause hurt.  In that sort of case, the injured party has a just claim against the other.

This means that when an individual claims to be hurt, interference will only be warranted if they are actually hurt and if the hurt they suffer is due to their being wronged.  Only then is there a harm.  In the case of speech on college campuses, we are presumably talking about psychological harm.

There is no good reason to deny that there are psychological harms.  Bad parents can be psychologically or emotionally abusive to their children who thus suffer concomitant harm.  This psychological harm can, in fact, have additional physical results.  Hence, as I note in the paper,

If a child is raised with emotional abuse, divorce, substance abuse, mental illness, the imprisonment of a parent, and feels unsupported—none of which involve direct physical harm—their life expectancy is reduced by 20 years.  It is very clear that psychological factors affect physical health.

If psychological harm is real, and students sometimes claim (or others claim on their behalf) that they have been hurt by speech acts on college campuses, why shouldn’t we limit those speech acts?  In short, even when students are hurt in this way, they are not wronged because it is what they went to college for in the first place.  One goes to college—or should—expecting to be exposed to views one had not considered, that one opposes, and that one finds appalling.  “That exposure, it is hoped, will force [college students] to exercise (and thus improve) their rational faculties….  This is the point of college, properly and classically understood.”

As I see it:

In the college environment, the real harm is caused when students are not challenged.  Students might start out devout Christians or Leftists (or anything else) and remain so upon graduation, but if they were not exposed to any beliefs that contradicted theirs in the four years they were in school, the school failed them. Miserably.  Any money spent on tuition, fees, etc., were essentially stolen as they did not receive what they paid for.

To offer a genuine college education thus requires that schools allow extensive free speech, especially of topics students are likely to find shocking or offensive.  The Heterodox Academy Guide to Colleges is a great resource that allows prospective students to identify such schools. Such speech “can challenge students—as is required in a genuinely collegiate environment.  That is how students learn and grow.  That is how they find their place as independent adults in the broader world. That is how they become contributors.”

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