The following is a plausible Liberal principle:
- It is only appropriate punish that which harms someone or something else, or is intended or sufficiently likely to do so.
I shall argue against this principle. Recall Mill's very plausible insistence that:
- Being subject to social opprobrium is a kind of punishment.
- Some irrational beliefs are appropriately subject to social opprobrium even though they harm no one else, are not intended to harm anyone else and are not sufficiently likely to do so.
- It can be appropriate to punish something that harms no one else, and is neither intended nor sufficiently likely to do so.
Now, one can get out of this consequence if one makes some sort of a communitarian assumption that no man is an island, that one person's irrationality is a constitutive part of the community's being thus far irrational, and is eo ipso harmful to other members of the community even if they do not themselves follow this irrationality, since now they are made to be participants in a community that exhibits this irrationality. But if one allows such "extended harms", then the principle (1) becomes uninteresting. Likewise, if one brings in "extended harms" to God, where God is said to be harmed in an extended sense provided that one acts against his will.
Could one turn this around and make it an argument for tolerance of irrationality? This would involve insisting on (1) and concluding that harmless irrationality should not be the subject of opprobrium. Yet such opprobrium seems to be an important part of what keeps us rational, and it seems obviously appropriate, especially when the irrationality is a result of the agent's moral failings.