John Stuart Mill is considered one of the most prominent philosophers of his time, with his Harm Principle deemed one of his most renowned concepts. He introduced this principle in his On Liberty essay, which sets out to explain the extent to which society controls the actions of a person. The principle on the other hand, states that society has no right to forestall an individual’s desire to commit an action, if this action affects no one, apart from the individual performing it.
Hence, in other words, the only actions that one could preclude from happening, are those which prove to be harmful to others, besides the actor executing it. Yet, despite its seeming simplicity, the concept can become rather intricate. This is because, by predicating that “one is allowed to do whatever he wishes, as long as he does not affect anyone besides himself”, a few issues come into question. Committing suicide, for instance, was a no-no for John Stuart Mill, since he assumed that this would affect no one besides the individual taking his own life away. Although that is debatable, since anyone who is emotionally close to the given individual, could suffer a sentimental breakdown. In order to understand the principle, we need to appreciate and comprehend the following three concepts which shaped it:
- The Harm Principle was firstly derived from the Principle of Utility. This has also been dubbed Utilitarianism, and essentially advocates that people need to do things, which brings the greatest amount of felicity to their community (or to the largest group of persons).
- Mill tried to differentiate harm and offense. Harm is something which would damage an individual’s rights, robbing them from benefits. Tax evasion for one, would rob the state from the financial requirements to build infrastructure for example. An offense on the other hand, tends to be more emotional; as it is more likely to “hurt our feelings”. Mill minimizes the importance of this, since he believes that what might hurt one person, would not necessarily hurt another.
- Lastly, Mill astutely reasoned that only seldom would an action affect a single individual. Due to humans’ social interconnectedness, most actions, always affect people we are affiliated with.
Mill’s Harm Principle, still gives rise to much polemic debate hitherto. An adult might believe that watching pornography does no one harm, whilst others would insist on the fact that it objectifies the opposite sex; viewing it from a commercial standpoint. You might believe that your eating habits affect no one but yourself, until you find out that the healthcare costs are paid by other taxpayers as well; which could have been invested in other areas such as education. Therefore, our seemingly individualistic actions are so much broader than what we could possibly believe. This is why the Harm Principle can never really be applied to any scenario, since no action or event affects only one individual.
“Ten of the Greatest: Philosophical Principles.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2015. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1279320/Ten-greatest-Philosophical-principles.html>.