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The Harm Principle - Minimus Noxa

Page history last edited by Evan 2 years, 6 months ago



Justice is a broad and obscure concept which is defined differently by different people. It is a moral concept which people use to justify action and inaction. Justice can be, in its simplest form, having rights and minimizing harm. No one can do anything without rights; no one can act how they want to without them. With too many rights, individuals or groups can be easily harmed by the actions taken by other people.


John Stuart Mill grew up in the United Kingdom in the early 19th century. His father, James Mill, tutored him, and quickly introduced him to philosophy and thinkers of the past, such as Plato and Aristotle. He was well educated and became a large proponent of utilitarianism. In his work On Liberty, he created the Harm Principle. The Harm Principle discusses the rights of individuals and when their actions are no longer just, and harm others, thus calling for the state or society to intervene to mitigate harm.


The Harm Principle states that the only reason for there to ever be power used against an individual, against their will, is to prevent harm to others (Mill 2011, 18). Even if a person’s actions are “foolish, perverse, or wrong[,]” an authority can not use its power against them (Mill 2011, 23). Furthermore, Mill also limits the principle to direct harm. If someone is indirectly affected by the actions of another, nothing can be done. It is only willful actions, when they are directly harming another person, that an authority then can wield its powers against them.




Ben Saunders (2016) critiques the Harm Principle in Reformulating Mill’s Harm Principle, as he believes that the Harm Principle fails to define what actions an authority can use its power to stop. The problem is deciding what actions negatively impact others and need interference, and what actions do not need interference (Saunders 2016). This essentially leaves that to be decided by whatever power has authority, this could either lead to an unjust society as the power in charge could make decisions which best suit them, or the standard could change as varying authorities gain and lose power.


Piers Turner (2014, 300) continues Ben Saunders' critique of the Harm Principle in Harm’ and Mill’s Harm Principle, as Mill failed to define what harm is. This lends to the idea that what is defined as harm, and what is defined as freedoms, is decided by the authority in power. In the West, many states believe that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (or property) are freedoms which all people can enjoy. Yet, this is contrary to the history of most of Western societies, where for centuries minority groups were slaves and not allowed the same freedoms. Furthermore, many of these minority groups are still discriminated against today due to long held prejudicial beliefs. The Harm Principle, according to Turner (2014, 302-3) fails to address actions which are inherently infractions, yet do not cause direct harm, such as trespassing.


Arthur Ripstein (2004, 221) in Beyond the Harm Principle, discusses how acts of harm which do not cause any damage do not violate the Harm Principle. He uses the example of property trespass as an example, which he states is no different from viewing another person’s garden without permission, as neither causes harm. This does bring up a valid question regarding the Harm Principle: why are certain actions harmful in the first place? Ripstein’s primary point is that some instances of harm do not cause immediately identifiable harm and are hard to classify under the Harm Principle. He suggests the Sovereignty Principle: each person is their own sovereign and as long as they have the ability to decide what they wish to pursue based upon their own individual sense of justice, each person can pursue what they see as right (Ripstein 2004, 231). This does not allow for conflict between different senses of justice, as that would violate the very principle of minimizing harm. If a person's sense of justice came into conflict with another, it would become actionable, as it would cause harm. To go back to his trespass example, under the Sovereignty Principle, it would be unjust as it would violate the other person’s sense of self and justice.


Self-Regarding and Other-Regarding Actions


While the Harm Principle defines when an authority can step in and use its power against an individual, it does not necessarily address what actions the authority can interfere with. In Reformulating Mill’s Harm Principle, Saunders questions what actions actually bring harm to others and are actionable by the state. “If everything we do may affect others, then the self-regarding sphere will be non-existent.” (Saunders 2016, chap. 1). All actions taken have some effect on other people. If a person buys the last apple at the store, no one else can buy any apples. This, despite its effect on others, would be considered self-regarding, as it does not affect anyone else's interests. Self-regarding actions should not be not enforceable or actionable by the state, as they do not bring harm to the interests of others.

Other-regarding actions, both those that only affect others, as well as those which affect both the actor and others, are actionable, only if the action is harmful to the interests of others. For instance, open and free speech will bring a person in contact with opinions and views opposed to their own. Even if those views cause them distress, they are not actionable as they do not negatively affect their interests (Saunders 2016, chap. 3).


Self Harm and Consensual Harm


As actions which harm the interests of others are actionable, what of actions that harm oneself? Is the state able to use its authority to stop someone from taking such actions? Mill (2011, 18) argues that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Self harming actions are not actionable as they do not affect the interests of others. Poor decision making in regards to a person's health or finances does not make them actionable as they are self-regarding and do not affect the interests of others. A good example would be smoking. A person who smokes is making a poor health decision, however, since smoking is self-regarding and does not negatively affect the interests of others, it is not actionable.


As for other-regarding actions, they are only actionable as long as the affected person(s) did not consent to said harm. To use the previous example of smoking, if the smoker was smoking around another individual, who did not consent to the harm, then the action becomes actionable as it is other-regarding and is negatively affecting the interests of the individual.


If an individual consents to harm, then despite the action being other-regarding, it is not actionable (Saunders 2016, chap. 3). For instance, if a person chooses to spend time with another while they are smoking, their behavior shows they consented to the harm, which makes it non-actionable. Despite the action being other-regarding and harmful, because the harm was consented to, an authority is unable to use its power against either individual.


Helping Others: Being a Good Samaritan


One way to mitigate harm is by helping others. For instance, Mill believes that the state should provide resources to those who are unable to afford a good education (Mill 2011, 202). This, in relation to the harm principle, can be said that the state must provide food, shelter, and medicine for those who are unable to provide for themselves to minimize harm. This is all state action, what about the actions of individuals in society?


Using the example given by David Brink (2207, sect. 3.6) in Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy, should a person help a drowning child? Not saving the child does not cause them greater harm, as they would have drowned anyways, had the person not been there (Brink 2007, sect 3.6). Yet, saving them would mitigate the harm which would come from them drowning. While not assisting the child would not leave them worse off than before, they would be better off alive than dead, therefore saving them would be beneficial in mitigating overall harm (Brink 2007, sect. 3.6).


As helping others is voluntary, if the state were to use its authority to require individuals to help others in times of need, it would be for the overall benefit of society. The Harm Principle also encompasses helping others in times of need. This also encompasses Mill’s Utilitarianism, which is primarily concerned with mitigating overall societal harm.


The Harm Principle as a Sense of Justice


The Harm Principle is an overarching sense of justice, focusing on minimizing harm while also allowing individuals to have as much control and freedom over their own lives as possible. Rather than minimizing individual freedoms to protect the interests of certain people or groups, the Harm Principle focuses on allowing those freedoms so long as they do not violate the interests of others. By minimizing harm rather than by minimizing freedoms, individuals are able to act and pursue what they see as just so long as they do not bring harm to others.


  • The Whole


    • While much has been said about the individual, Mill’s focus is upon the whole of society and the aggregate of justice within it. By minimizing harm and making decisions which best support the society, the society will be much better off. For example, deciding what to eat is an important decision everyone makes every day. For instance, the options are vegetable stew, or a steak. The stew is better for the environment, but may not taste as good as the steak. On the other hand, the steak may taste amazing, but is not as good for the environment. Mill would argue the best decision would be to eat the stew as it is better for the whole of society, despite the steak tasting incredible. It is the net good of all of society which he is concerned about.


  • The Individual


    • While it may seem that the individual has limited freedoms, as they must make decisions based upon what is best for society, that is not necessarily the case. Once an individual has satisfied their “legal and moral obligations to the state and [society]” an individual's “choice of pleasures” is “their own concern, and must rest with their own judgment.” (Mill 2011, 191). Once an individual has completed all societal commitments, they are free to pursue whatever pleasures they see as just within their interest, so long as it does not interfere or harm the interests of others. This gives the individual much freedom to pursue what they wish to enjoy.


Contemporary Justice


  • Climate Justice


    • Climate change has proven to have severe consequences, and great steps must be taken to mitigate the dire ramifications of disregarding the planet. The Harm Principle would call for greater action, as what is currently being done is not enough to mitigate the catastrophic harm that is to come. While a majority of greenhouse gases were released by a minority of countries, especially rich Western nations, and much of it was done so by past generations, it is still our responsibility to clean up the planet. Inaction, such as not cleaning up the environment or fixing the mistakes of the past, greatly harms the interests of society and violates the Harm Principle. By fixing the mistakes of previous generations, society will be better off as a great harm will have been prevented.


  • Gender Justice


    • Mill (Schneewind, and Miller 2011, 128) argues in The Subjection of Women that women were slaves, unwilling servants to men, lacking in all liberties. He argues that marriage gives a husband complete control over his wife, which is no different from slavery as the wife would have little to no legal or philosophical protections in society or the state (Mill, Schneewind, and Miller 2002, 128). The subjugation of women violates the Harm Principle, as they are deprived of liberty and individuality. They lack the freedom to pursue what they see as right and are therefore servants to their husbands. The Harm Principle supports suffrage and equal rights to women as it does men because all people are individuals with the right to liberty. In the current century, women have much the same rights as men, however there is still prejudice directed towards them. The Harm Principle still supports the efforts of making women equal in the eyes of society, despite the law being equal. Anything that violates the interests of women in their pursuit of equality violates both gender justice and the harm principle, and is not just.


  • Racial Justice


    • Much like how Mill believed in greater rights for women, he also believed in the abolition of slavery in the United States. His argument was similar to that for women, that enslaved people could not freely pursue what they saw as just and lacked liberty. While slavery is now illegal in the United States, people of color are still treated prejudicially and discriminated against regularly. This violates the both racial justice and the Harm Principle as mistreatment of others negatively impacts and harms their interests.




John Stuart Mill provided a theory of justice which mitigates harm while providing individuals the liberties to pursue what they believe to be right. The Harm Principle limits when an authority can interfere with the actions of an individual, allowing them greater freedom from the state. Yet, if their actions would harm another, the state is able to step in and protect the other from harm. This is important as both greater freedoms and decreased harm mean a more just society. Sometimes an individual's actions may harm others, so the state must take action, while at other times no action is necessary. The Harm Principle is a broad and encompassing sense of justice that allows for personal achievement, yet minimizes the harm to society.



  • Anschutz, Richard Paul. 1998. “John Stuart Mill.” Encyclopædia Britannica.

  • Brink, David. 2018. “Mill's Moral and Political Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  • Mill, John Stuart, J. B. Schneewind, and Dale E. Miller. 2002. “The Subjection of Women.” In On Liberty, The Subjection of Women. Modern Library. New York: 123-205.

  • Mill, John Stuart. 2011. “On Liberty. by John Stuart Mill.” The Project Gutenberg eBook of On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill.

  • Ripstein, Arthur. 2006. “Beyond the Harm Principle.” Philosophy and Public Affairs. (Summer): 215-45

  • Saunders, Ben. 2016. "title." The Mind Association. 500 (August): 1005-32

  • Turner, Piers Norris. 2014. “‘Harm’ and Mill's Harm Principle*.” Ethics. 124 (January): 299-326


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