Mill’s Conception of Harm


John Stuart Mill (1806-1859), a British philosopher, civil servant, and political economist, articulated the harm principle. Through his views on liberty, he came up with the concept of harm which holds that an individual’s action should only interfere with other people’s freedom in an event to prevent harm to them. Mill, in 1859, prepared an essay on liberty in which he clarifies that he intended to address the nature and the limit of the power which the society can legitimately exercise over an individual (The Ethics Centre, 2016). For instance in a free society or democracy, the citizens elect leaders who in turn have the constitutional mandate to express authority over them. This authority is however limited in that it should not interfere in the citizens liberties. Mill intended to address at what point some of these liberties can be denied. He also clarifies the situations where compulsion and control are warranted by the legitimate authority over an individual (Ronald, 2016). These situations are referred to as harm e.g they not only include criminal acts but also acts such as preventing people to express themselves or associate themselves. The control can either be in the form of physical force guided by legal penalties such as making an arrest or by moral coercion which includes pressuring one to do the right thing and leads to the interference with the liberty of a given individual. When one is incarcerated for instance they lose some of their freedoms such as free movement. Mill also makes it clear that a person cannot be denied his or her liberty i.e. harmed, for their own good but rather it must be in matters that concern others. Destructive habits such as alcoholism or even extreme ones such as suicide lead to self-harm and are therefore not considered as ‘harm’ per-se. This is the reason why classifying suicide as a crime is such a controversial issue in most countries (Richard, 2013).  It is important to note that liberties are the social and political freedoms that every member of the society is entitled to. Although there is a close relationship between liberty and freedom, the difference is that liberty is evidence by the lack of any restraints while freedom is the ability to do as one wills. Liberty is therefore limited by the rights of others.


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Mill’s view is that harm can only be impacted upon others which mean that a person inflicting harm upon themselves does not warrant an interference of their liberty. This is classified under other-regarding actions and self-regarding actions. Other-regarding actions are those that result in harm to others in which case the imposition of sanctions is warranted in line with the harm principle. These include actions such as detaining people to stop them from expressing themselves or threatening others to stop expressing themselves (Mooney, 2013). Self-regarding actions are those that may cause harm to the doer of the deed such as exposing themselves to danger. Although the inflicting of harm to others is considered immoral and therefore wrong, it must be remembered in both cases (Self-regarding and Other-regarding actions) that laws should neither be moralistic nor paternalistic. The definition of laws not being moralistic means that committing an ‘other-regarding action’ does not necessarily necessitate the denial of liberties, unless it is in a situation where harm is caused. According to Mill, the law does not concern itself with the morality of the action but instead considers the harm that result from the action to other members of the community (Tauriq, 2015). For instance, walking in public naked to express oneself, recreation drug use, and prostitution are morally wrong but victimless crimes. According to Mill, these should not result in a punishment. Laws not being paternalistic mean that law should not be concerned about whether the self-regarding actions are disgusting, offensive, etc. E.g. prostitution is immoral but the law should not be concerned with such a thing. Mill’s harm principle tries to determine when it is right or not right to interfere with a person’s liberty. In other words, to try and clarify at what point harm occurs. Mill identified himself as a liberal and was very ardent to ensure that the liberty of a person can only be limited when it is unquestionably necessary. Mill also clarifies that harm can result in the deprivation of other peoples liberties, in which case the person responsible for the deprivation must be sanctioned.


The Ethics Centre, 2016. Ethics explainer: the harm principle. The Ethics Centre, accessed 6th December 2017 from

Tauriq M., 2015. Allowing People to Harm Themselves. Big Think, accessed 6 December 2017 from

Mooney J., 2013. John Stuart Mill: The Harm Principle. Filmosophy. Accessed from

Richard A. E., 2013. The Incompleteness of the Harm Principle. Technology Review. Accessed from

Ronald F.W., 2016. The Liberty Principle. Faculty. Accessed from


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