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The harm principle holds that the actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals. John Stuart Mill articulated this principle in On Liberty, where he argued 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." An equivalent was earlier stated in France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 as, "Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law."
The belief "that no one should be forcibly prevented from acting in any way he chooses provided his acts are not invasive of the free acts of others" has become one of the basic principles of libertarian politics.
While the phrase "harm principle" was not itself used until 1969, the harm principle itself was first fully articulated by the English thinker John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) in the first chapter of On Liberty (1859), where he argued that:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. 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. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right... The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
Even if a self-regarding action results in harm to oneself, it is still beyond the sphere of justifiable state coercion.
Harm can also result from a failure to meet an obligation. Morality generates obligations. Duty may be exacted from a person in the same way as a debt, and it is part of the notion of duty that a person may be rightfully compelled to fulfil it.
The offense principle
Mill's harm principle is distinct from the offense principle. The basis of comparison is that, in some cases, psychological or social harm may be comparable to physical harm. The difference is based on the assumption that offense may cause discomfort, but does not necessarily cause harm. Offense meets the harm principle only if it is a wrong and also causes harm.
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. Mill said 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 assaulting someone, causing them injury. An offense, according to Mill, is something that 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.
The ethical question as to what extent there should be constraints on free speech is often grounded in both the harm principle and the offense principle. If the exercise of free speech can be causally linked to violence or similar physical harm, it is constrained under the harm principle. Free speech actions such as burning a flag or holding controversial rallies usually fall under the offense principle instead, based on the corresponding question of what constitutes harm (or, alternately, weighing harm caused by limiting a freedom vs harm caused by the exercise of that freedom).
In the abstract, criminalizing all wrongs that cause harm makes the offense principle almost synonymous with the harm principle. However, the definition of what constitutes a wrong may change over time—such that harm may be caused by actions that were not considered wrongs at the time, and vice versa.
Broader definitions of harm
In the same essay, Mill further explains the principle as a function of two maxims:
The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people, if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishments, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection. (LV2)
However, the second maxim also opens the question of broader definitions of harm, up to and including harm to the society. The concept of harm is not limited to harm to another individual but can be harm to individuals plurally, without specific definition of those individuals.
This is an important principle for the purpose of determining harm that only manifests gradually over time—such that the resulting harm can be anticipated, but does not yet exist at the time that the action causing harm was taken. It also applies to other issues—which range from the right of an entity to discharge broadly polluting waste on private property, to broad questions of licensing, and even to the right of sedition.
The harm principle in US libertarianism
- "Freedom of Speech". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 April 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
- Ronald Hamowy, The encyclopaedia of libertarianism, Sage, 2008, p. xxi, ISBN
- John Stuart Mill (1859). On Liberty. Oxford University. pp. 21–22. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
- Menezes Oliveira, Jorge. "Harm and Offence in Mill's Conception of Liberty" (PDF). University of Oxford. Retrieved 6 Jun 2012.
- Cohen-Almagor, Raphael (1993). "Harm Principle, Offense Principle, and the Skokie Affair". 41 (3). Political Studies. Retrieved 6 Jun 2012.
- Simester, A.P.; von Hirsch, Andrew (2002). "Rethinking the Offense Principle". 8. Legal Theory. Retrieved 6 Jun 2012.
- "2016 Platform". Libertarian National Committee. 2016. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
- Baselines, at Legal Theory Blog.