John Stuart Mills On The Harm Principle

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English philosopher John Stewart Mill’s essay ‘On Liberty’ is one of the classic texts of modern liberalism. It has been regarded as hugely influential on modern politics, even more than one may realise. He poses the question; to what extent does society have the right to impose limits on thoughts, beliefs and actions of individuals? The 19th century philosopher thought this question to be of tremendous significance. In this essay I will explain and assess John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle in which he sets out to investigate in is words, “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual”.

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The question he is grappling with is, what extent does society and the government have the right to impose limits on thoughts, beliefs and actions of individuals legitimately? Mill offers a famed and straightforward answer – the Harm Principle. Mill articulated this principle in his book ‘On Liberty’, where he argued that, ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. ‘. If your action harms someone other than yourself then the government can legitimately stop you from doing it, or else you face punishment. If the person you’re harming is solely yourself then it should not concern the law. The classic example is drinking. If you want to drink yourself to a premature death , whatever, that’s your choice, but the second you choose to drive a car, that’s when the law becomes involved, because you have commenced the possibility of endangering somebody else. As the old saying goes, “your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins”.

As usual in philosophy, the devil is in the details. How do you define ‘harm’? That is a whole philosophical debate in itself and it is difficult to do but it obviously has a huge impact on what your liberties are. If my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins, well the next logical explanation is how long is your nose? One popular definition of harm is “making someone worse off than they would otherwise have been”, and that looks pretty intuitive, but we get into some interesting cases involving overdetermination. For example, what about if a doctor was to murder terminally ill patients? That is a real phenomenon, and we do punish them even though at least the doctors would say that they aren’t really harming anybody in the sense of making them worse off. So how do we justify that on Mill’s account? Thomas Jefferson stated that, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and the government to gain ground”. Mill knew that governments possess threats but he also hypothesised a more understated social force which inhibits the liberty of individuals. Societies adopt opinions, beliefs, traditions and attitudes which are considered socially acceptable as the correct way of living and thinking.

Anyone who dares move away from societal norms are shunned and ostracised forcing individuals to fall into conformity as he wrote, “when society is itself the tyrant – society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it – its means of terrorising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandate; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the life, and enslaving of the soul itself”. Mill was convinced that liberty is a requisite ingredient to live a life of well-being and that it is of the upmost importance to take positive steps to ensure that liberty is not demolished by the social force. Mill has been subjected to criticism however. Some say Mill overestimated the threat of the tyranny of the majority and underestimated the threat posed by governments. Mill never addressed the distinction of the different ways that freedoms can be destroyed by governments versus the tyranny of the majority. Mill’s harm principle is distinct from the offense principle.

The basis of comparison is that, in some cases, psychological or social harm may be comparable to physical harm. The difference is based on the assumption that offense may cause discomfort, but does not necessarily cause harm. Offense meets the harm principle only if it is a wrong and also causes harm. The Harm Principle states that the only actions that can be prevented are the ones that create harm, in other words, a person can do whatever he wants as long as his actions do not harm others. If a person’s actions only effect himself then society which includes the government, should not be able to stop a person from doing what he wants. This even includes actions that a person may do that harms the person himself. However we cannot just stop there and think that Mill makes things seem so simple because he doesn’t. If anyone can do whatever they want just long as it doesn’t affect others, problems arise. One such problem may be what to do with people who end their own life. Interestingly Mill would say it would not be okay for this to happen.

For this to make the most sense we need to understand what helps shape the harm principle. There are three important ideas that help shape the harm principle. The first is that the HP comes from another principle called the principle of utility. The principle of utility states that people should only do those things that bring the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. So, if a person is trying to decide between two things he should choose the option that makes the most people happy. The second idea is that Mill says there is a difference between harm and offence. Harm is something that would injure the rights of someone else or set back important interests that would benefit others. An example of harm would be assaulting someone causing them injury.

An offence according to Mill is something that we would say hurt our feelings. These are less serious and should not be prevented because what may hurt one person’s feelings may not hurt another’s, so offences are not universal. The third idea to understand is that it is very rare for an action to only affect the individual himself. Mill argues that no person is truly isolated from others and that most actions do affect other people in important ways. The ethical question as to what extent there should be constraints on free speech is often grounded in the Harm Principle and the offence principle. Mill held that the freedom to hold and express beliefs and ideas of ones choosing should be completely unconstrained. If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than if he had the power would be justified in silencing mankind. Mill explained why freedom of speech is so imperative by setting out ‘Mill’s Four Grounds for Freedom of Speech’.

  1. An opinion we believe to be false might turn out to be true, and suppressing it ‘will rob the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation’. This point highlights that suppressing potentially true beliefs will deprive humanity and hamper progress. Let’s think back to when Galileo’s initial discoveries were met with opposition within the Catholic Church, and in 1616 the Inquisition declared heliocentrism to be formally heretical. Heliocentric books were banned and Galileo was ordered to refrain from holding, teaching or defending heliocentric ideas yet he was right.
  2. False opinions often contain ‘a portion of the truth’ and can help improve received wisdom.
  3. The articulation of false opinions can help holders of true beliefs to appreciate the rational basis for their beliefs. Without contestation, true beliefs risk becoming ‘prejudices’.
  4. The meaning of a true belief will become invigorated through disputation. Without argument and debate, a true belief will become a ‘dogma’ and ‘enfeebled’ (‘deprived of its vital effect’).
31 October 2020

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