29. The Harm Principle [SER]

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Image Source:

“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&gt;.

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8 thoughts on “29. The Harm Principle [SER]

  1. I believe that if we think about it even a little, we realize that suicide, the example used above as ultimately a personal decision that causes harm only to oneself, is, in fact, a good example of the opposite: killing oneself ends our own life, but it causes harm, psychological and emotional harm, to everyone except ourselves because we’re dead, but everyone else that cared for us remain alive suffering from our death. In many ways, suicide is an extreme in selfishness and self absorption, inconsideration for all people other than ourselves. So, I would suggest using another example. And I completely agree with the point about food : everyone is free to eat and drink whatever they wish, but society,

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  2. all of us, pay for the hospital bills one way or another in the end. Are we going to ban sugar and carbohydrates, pesticides and chemical additives, trans fats and vegetable oils? Maybe one day.

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  3. I fully agree with your argument. However, I believe suicide to be a prime example to illuminate this intrinsically flawed principle. No event, ipso facto, can ever only harm its actor or perpetrator; the reaches of their action always extend beyond themselves. However, I find the idea that committing suicide to be a selfish and self-absorbing act to be quite disturbing. Committing suicide is essentially a statement, whereby we declare that we cannot handle life, and would rather end it as soon as possible. Should it be moral to forestall anyone from taking their own life away then? If the people onto whom it has a psychological impact are all close relatives or friends, I believe that they cannot be considered these titles (as friends), if they were to preclude him from reaching this gratification (no matter how painful it might be to them). A friend, in my opinion, is a person who provides light and reason, however also a person who wants the best for his friend. Therefore, if the person who wants to commit suicide has good reasons for doing so, and his friends can honestly see no bright future ahead for him, why delude him, robbing him from what he really desires? I know that I am slightly going off track here and prevaricating, yet I still maintain that suicide is a good example to use to outline the inherent flaws this concept has.
    I thank you for your comment!

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  4. Our life is not our life. Our body is not our body. Life is life and body is body. Both is given to us as a gift from nature and are maintained and nurtured by our parents until we can take care of ourselves. If we understand this, how could we ever possibly think that our life belongs to us. It doesn’t. Never has and never will. To believe that it does is delusion. You’re very welcome. I enjoy reading all the posts here. Rare are the people with whom discussions of this kind of nature can be engage in. Somehow most people stop think past their late teens and early twenties, so I take advantage of your current state of intellectual curiosity and thirst for learning. It’s great!

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  5. Those are some very interesting points raised. However, I need to ask in that case, if our lives are given by nature and subsequently nurtured by our recurring environment (parents, school, friends etc…), how can we have any free will? Are our lives really determined to such an extent, that we are almost living a self-fulfilling prophesy based on everything that has ever happened to us.
    I fervently believe that our lives are a duality of both free will and determinism. De facto, the very act of trying to argue against our eerily deterministic lives is an act and sign of free will, is it not? However, then again you could be correct, in that my environment might have raised me in such a way to be critical of myself and my surroundings!

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  6. The points I raised have nothing to do with the discussion around free will. They state the fact that life in all its forms cannot be owned and belong to anyone, no matter what we believe. Of course, most people do believe that their body and their life belongs to them, but this is not so. That’s what I wanted to convey. We are able to act as if they belong to us: you can decide to cut your arm off, and nobody is going to stop you if they don’t know you are doing that; you can also decide to put a knife through your own heart, and again, nobody will stop you if they are not aware of your doing it. But being able to do such things does not in any way mean that your body or your life actually belongs to you in the sense of property ownership. It just means that you can act basically as you wish independently of the consequences of these actions.

    Pushing the point further, when you buy something (a bottle of water, a bag of hazelnuts, a cucumber), does this mean that these things now belong to you? Is the water that’s in the bottle, which came from some mineral spring somewhere, now yours because you bought it? Do the hazelnuts that grew on a tree in someone’s field somewhere now belong to you? How can they? What you pay for is the effort, time, energy, resources that have been expended to make it possible for you to buy that thing in that store. Nothing at all can ever be owned in the sense that we think of something actually belonging to us. Everything is just borrowed and used, and it is for this reason that we have to be really so immensely grateful for everything that we have to change to be able to use.

    Of all gifts, the gift of intelligent and conscious life is by far the most precious. What we do with it depends on us. What we are able to do depends on so many things that it is not possible to even know what they all are. We can interpret the impossibility of actual free will based solely on this recognition. But looking further, beyond that simple but also obvious point, true free will can never exist until we are completely free of all the mental constructs that define our worldview: free not because of an absence of such constructs, but in a realisation that they are not rigid nor inherently restrictive. Otherwise we are simply compelled without even realising it to act and think in the way that we do, in every microsecond of our existence. Luckily, this freedom of the mind is not like a binary state: it can be developed and thus grows with time and practice.

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