Mill’s Harm Principle
“I can do what I want, and if it doesn’t harm you, you shouldn’t bother me” is, in simple
words, the Harm Principle. John Stuart Mill was an English legal philosopher who
introduced the Harm Principle and stood for the utilitarian concept. Mill also advocated for liberalism, the foundation of which is the concept that regulation and convictions
should be rightfully justified. Individuals cannot be prosecuted without reasonable
grounds; they are permitted personal liberty against the state, law, and any public
authority. The Harm Principle proposed by Mill in his book On Liberty promotes this
concept and will provide the majority of the ideas demonstrated in this article. This
concept is quite controversial and has been debated for many years; one of the
contentions is the contrast between public morality, private morality and how they
integrate into law.
BBC Radio 4 (2014)
Freedom of Action
"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." That is the foundation of the harm principles. Mill proposed that individuals should be permitted to live their life as they desire, partake in what they want, and act the way they want. He believed that the law does not have the right to impede this liberty unless the consequence of this liberty leads to harm to others. In addition, a lawful conviction of these "liberal" actions should be on reasonable grounds. Someone's actions contradicting societally set ethical behaviours do not constitute valid grounds for a conviction. This collective morality should not have a say in people's individual choices. In addition, he stated, "...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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." Mill emphasised that the law, authority, and community do not have the authority to prevent someone's actions "for their sake." People have the right to make their own choices, and these choices should not be punished. He reiterated freedom and liberty as something that is pursuing your own decisions.
Freedom of Speech
Mill did not only advocate for personal liberty in actions but freedom of speech as well.
Mill believed that free speech is critical for world progression. Expressing oneself and
sharing opinions leads to development. While censorship only impedes it, in the case
that it does not destroy it. The individual shall decide their decisions and express them
at their own peril. Furthermore, Mill stated that if an outcome would cause offence, that
is not enough to constitute harm; hence the harm principle is upheld.
Octaviano, E. (2020)
The front-door privacy concept — ‘don’t bring that out on the street’. Mary Midgley
argued that if something is happening behind the eyes of the people it does not mean it
should be ignored. If people are given the discretion of liberty in their choices, when the
“doors” will open, unimaginable things could emerge. Notwithstanding, the view of Mary
Midgley, the Harm Principle revolves around individual liberty that does not cause harm
to others. Mill explains that liberty should not be abused, it should permit one to have
authority over themselves. Furthermore, Sir James Stephen insisted on the fact that harming oneself, is harming others - “there are acts of wickedness so gross and outrageous that they must be punished at any cost to the offender.” In simple terms, he states that the authority has the duty to protect the public morality. It is only appropriate that the law is used towards the benefit of the society by punishing those that go against common morality. To this Mill once again replied that the public do not have the authority to impose their opinions on individuals. A person should choose what they want or do not want.
The Mill’s Harm Principle is not entirely refined; thus, many questions about real-life
contentions arise. What about euthanasia? Does harming oneself fall within the harm
principle? How are foetuses regarded? All these questions are valid; however, they all
have the same moral argument as the harm principle. It is the debate on how much
morality should be integrated into law.
As Mill never addressed these questions himself, people have proposed solutions, for
example, considering the above scenarios as victimless crimes. This extension further
supports the idea of private actions, as all of those crimes do not include a victim. They
do not infringe on other people's rights.
Should the law be able to regulate personal liberty of choice and actions that do not
infringe on other people's rights? - A question that cannot be answered. There are
specific arguments for Mill's Harm Principle and particular against it; hence, it is unlikely
for a concession to be reached. Nonetheless, it can always be debated.
BBC Radio 4 (2014). The Harm Principle: How to live your life the way you want to.
YouTube video. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9IM3ZKNMCk&t=11s.
Courtland, S.D., Gaus, G. and Schmidtz, D. (1996). Liberalism. The Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, [online] (Spring 2022 Edition). Available at:
Macleod, C. (2016). ‘John Stuart Mill’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
[online] (Summer 2020 Edition). Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mill/.
Midgley, M. (2017). Can’t we make moral judgements? London Bloomsbury Academic.
Mill, J.S. (1859). On Liberty. S.L.: Arcturus Publishing Ltd.
Octaviano, E. (2020). Morality and Law Balance. pixabay.com. Available at: