The “Harm Principle:” Who is Harmed?

It’s extremely difficult to draw the line between actions that harm yourself versus ones that harm others. In fact, it is much more complex than John Stuart Mill leads on in chapters three and four of On Liberty. In these chapters, Mill outlines his “Harm Principle,” which states that individuals should be free to act in whatever manner they choose, as long as their actions affect no one but themselves. He states “the liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost” (Chapter 3). If an individual affects only him or herself, then they are free to carry their actions, whether they are beneficial or not. Mill believes that authorities should punish only individuals whose actions affect others. This principle seemed rather simple and rational to me, but the issue is defining exactly who is being affected by the actions.

Mill supports free actions as long as they only affect the individual.

Mill supports free actions as long as they only affect the individual.

Mill believes that we should allow individuals to perform dangerous acts as long as they do not affect other people. In my opinion, harm is dependent upon the values of the individual. It’s impossible to define harm because it differs from each person. That’s the main flaw in Mill’s principle. An individual may do something thinking their actions are only affecting themselves, but that may not be the case.

The "Harm Principle" is more complex than Mill describes. It is quite difficult to determine who is being harmed.

The “Harm Principle” is more complex than Mill describes. It is quite difficult to determine who is being harmed.

Take suicide, for example. An individual that chooses to take their own life is clearly affecting himself or herself. But I doubt they realize the affect that their action will have on others. The harm that is caused for the family and friends of the individual is tragic. Suicide is more selfish than the person realizes. I would think that Mill would classify this action as a “self-regarding vice.” However, the consequences affect more people than only the individual.

Another example of the confusion between self-regarding and other-regarding actions are safety precautions. One of the reading quizzes mentioned the idea of helmet wearing. If an individual chooses to not wear a helmet when motor cycling, they are clearly putting them self in danger. This would be considered “folly” or a “self-regarding vice,” according to Mill. But if the person gets injured while on their bike, their family and friends will be affected, similar to the suicide idea. So an action that is only intended to affect the single individual, can affect many other people. Therefore, should the individual be punished?

Due to Mill’s belief that adults should be able to partake in whatever actions they desire as long as these actions affect no one but themselves, the “Harm Principle” has been the support for the decriminalization of many victimless crimes such as gambling, drug usage, and prostitution.

Mill's "Harm Principle" states that dangerous activities such as drug usage is acceptable as long as it is only affecting the user.

Mill’s “Harm Principle” states that dangerous activities such as drug usage is acceptable as long as it is only affecting the user.

I think it’s harder to classify these actions as folly than Mill explains. It’s not as simple to determine whether or not drug usage, for example, only affects an individual. Families may be equally affected by harmful acts that are only intended to involve an individual.

The bottom line is that the boundary between “self-regarding vice” and “other-regarding vice” is much blurrier than Mill articulates. It’s not easy to distinguish who is affected by people’s actions because it is completely dependent upon the person. While I do agree with Mill in that it is important for authorities to stay out of individual business, sometimes it’s more difficult to separate actions that affect an individual versus ones that affect others.

3 thoughts on “The “Harm Principle:” Who is Harmed?

  1. Pingback: What If the “Harm Principle” Is about Utility? | THE BIG HOUSE OF IDEAS

  2. This is a very sophisticated discussion about Mill’s harm principle. I completely agree with you that it is extremely difficult to draw the line between hurting others and only harming oneself. I especially love your discussion on how can “folly” actions classified by Mill hurt others’ feelings.
    In fact, it seems that there is nothing in the world that will not harm others but oneself. However, does this mean that there is no action justified besides the ones that benefit all people? I don’t think so. Therefore, it would be interesting to investigate how we could revise Mill’s justification of the freedom of action.


  3. I agree with the author that there need to be some exceptions to Mill’s idea of liberty so that we can protect people from both themselves, and protect also from the selfishness that can come from someones actions to only “themselves”. Our society has gotten more economically connected than it used to be in Mill’s day, so that (besides emotional) people have more reasons to be affected by someone taking their own life or being inadvertently harmed by negligence in the absence of safety laws. We have to find a balance somewhere, and that way we can make society the most benefitted with the most freedom.


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