John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Who Was John Stuart Mill?
  • 0:25 What Is the Harm Principle?
  • 2:30 Examples Using Mill's…
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
This lesson will cover John Stuart Mills' harm principle, which states that society does not have the right to prevent actions which only affect the individual performing them and nobody else. A short quiz will also follow this lesson.

Who Was John Stuart Mill?

John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher who lived during the first half of the 1800s. He wrote many essays that created rules that people could use to decide what actions were good and bad. One of these essays was titled On Liberty, which explained how much control society has over preventing or allowing the actions of a person.

What Is the Harm Principle?

The harm principle states that the only actions that can be prevented are 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 affect 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 would harm the person himself.

However, we cannot just stop there and think that Mill makes things seem so simple, because he doesn't. If we were to stop our discussion of the harm principle at 'anyone can do whatever they want just so long as it doesn't affect anyone else,' problems arise. One such problem may be what to do with people who want to end their own life. Interestingly, Mill would actually say it would not be okay for this to happen.

For this to make the most sense, we need to understand three important ideas that helped shape the harm principle. The first is that the harm principle 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 offense. Harm is something that would injure the rights of someone else or set back important interests that benefit others. An example of harm would be not paying taxes because cities rely on the money to take care of its citizens. An offense, according to Mill, is something which 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, and so offenses 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.

Examples Using Mill's Harm Principle

One of the biggest examples Mill used his harm principle to defend was the ability to have free speech. Mill felt that free speech was necessary for intellectual and social progress. If free speech was prevented, progress would not occur and thus harm would happen. Thus, in order to prevent harm, we should not limit free speech.

Another example that uses Mill's harm principle is arresting a murderer. According to Mill, society should arrest the murderer because he has harmed others. It's important that Mill would also say that society should not arrest the murderer because we disagree with the murderer's feelings that killing people is okay. Remember, Mill only says we can prevent action based on harm and not feelings or offense.

Lastly, we mentioned that Mill would also disagree with a person committing suicide. It might appear that ending one's own life wouldn't harm anyone other than the person himself. However, Mill would argue that committing suicide would prevent that person from contributing to society in a meaningful way and would thus cause harm. Because of the potential harm, society is able to stop people from ending their own lives.

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