John Stuart Mill: the Harm Principle

Mill’s aim

The subject of this essay is . . . the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual . . .

(John Stuart Mill, On liberty , 1859)

An increase in authority (legitimate use of power) necessarily entails a decrease in individuals’ liberty within a given state.  John Stuart Mill, as a liberal, is keen to ensure that the liberty of the individual is only limited when absolutely necessary.

The Problem: Tyranny of the Majority

[S]uch phrases as ‘self-government’, and ‘the power of the people over themselves’, do not express the true state of the case. The ‘people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people [as] those over whom it is exercised; and the ‘self-government’ spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power . . .  This view of things . . . has had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations ‘the tyranny of the majority’ is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.

Mill believes that the fact of living in a ‘democracy’ does not necessarily mean that one is immune from tyranny.  Just as those subjected to the whims of an individual tyrant may be oppressed so may an individual or minority living in a democratic state.  Mill refers to this as the ‘tyranny of the majority’.

The tyranny of the majority can be expressed in two distinct ways.  Firstly, it can be expressed as operating through the official acts of the public authorities (e.g. the majority may vote for a party which stands on an anti-immigration platform).  However, the minority can also be tyrannised without legal sanction through the expression of societal opinion (e.g. ‘They’re all terrorists’; ‘They’re taking all of our jobs’; etc.).  Note also Mill’s point on majorities – in South Africa during the Apartheid era the ruling ‘majority’ (whites) were massively outnumbered by the oppressed black ‘minority’.

The Solution: The Harm Principle

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self protection.  That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Mill’s solution to the problem of exactly when it is, and is not, right to interfere with individual liberty is delivered by way of his ‘harm principle’.

Mill distinguishes between ‘other-regarding actions’ and ‘self-regarding actions’.  When other-regarding actions are such that they cause harm to others it is appropriate to impose sanctions, in line with the harm principle.  However, this must be due to the harm they cause and not merely because they are found to be offensive or disgusting (i.e. laws should not be moralistic).  With regard to self-regarding actions, laws should not be paternalistic.

There is a sphere of action in which society . . .  has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary and undeceived consent and participation . . .  This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty.

Each individual has a right to do as he pleases as long as his actions do not affect others.  It may, however, be worth considering what exactly would count as a purely self-regarding act.  As Mill states:

No person is an entirely isolated being; it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them.

Human Liberty

For Mill, human liberty covers three (or four) distinct areas:

  1. Freedom of thought/ freedom of expression
  2. Freedom of action, whereby those actions cause no harm to others
  3. freedom of association, where such associations are freely formed and not for the purpose of harming others.

Of these, he states:

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest . . .

Freedom of Expression

Mill’s Harm Principle also informs his views on freedom of expression. On this he says:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind … The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error . . .

Mill does place some limits on free expression of opinion, namely, when ‘the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act’.  As such, any expression which causes harm should be censored/ outlawed. However, if the majority merely find a certain opinion disagreeable or disgusting this is something they must bear for the sake of the ‘greater good of human freedom’.

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