Problems with J.S. Mill’s Harm Principle

Taylor asked:

What would be the most prominent objection to John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle “[T]he 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.”

Any help with objections to the Harm Principle would be greatly appreciated to help me further understand the idea.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

J.S. Mill’s Harm Principle is an essential component in his case in On Liberty (1859). Intuitively, the idea seems clear. Living together as responsible individuals in a free society means that we have to take care not to infringe upon others in a way that hurts them, or limits their freedom of action.

At the same time, each individual is responsible for the actions that affect his or her own welfare. So long as my actions do not hurt others, then I should be free to do things I enjoy, or which give meaning to my life, regardless of the risk to myself. It is not up to others, it is up to me alone to decide what is in my own best interests, so long as I am the only one who suffers when things go wrong.

What is wrong with that? There are actually two objections I can think of, neither of which is more prominent than the other.

At one time the law in the UK did not require the wearing of seat belts in cars, or crash helmets on motorcycles. The law was changed, because of the carnage caused by car and bike accidents. But surely, on Mill’s view it should up to the individual to decide on the risks and benefits? Well, no (so the argument goes) because when you get smashed up in a car accident, or brain damaged in a bike accident, the National Health Service — funded by tax payers — has to foot the bill. Moreover, the extra strain you put on the emergency services means that someone else will have to wait that bit longer for an ambulance, or to be treated in an accident ward.

The trouble with that argument is that you could extend it indefinitely. One can draw up a long list of ailments and diseases attributable to poor self-management — for example, obesity, lung disease, sexually transmitted diseases, sports injuries — that would be reduced dramatically by instituting the appropriate legislation. Ban the eating of more than one double cheeseburger and fries per week, why not? It could be done, by issuing food rationing books as Britain did in the Second World War.

The fact is that society at large has an interest in your well being, not just for your own sake (which would be ‘paternalism’ according to Mill) but because the things you do to yourself impinge on the well being of others. But there are limits. Exactly how these limits are defined is difficult to explain. As there is no universal agreement on what the limits are, legislators have to take a practical approach, based on an assessment of which laws would be enforceable, and also acceptable to the majority of citizens. On that question, Mill’s harm principle has nothing to say.

The other objection focuses on the people who consider themselves to be ‘harmed’ by a person’s actions.

Let’s say that one of my favourite dishes is Lamb Madras, which I always cook on a Monday. Every Monday, my neighbours have to put up with very strong cooking smells coming from my kitchen window. ‘It’s only once a week!’ is all I can say in my defence.

Sometimes, when I am driving my car I like to listen to trashy Euro House music with the bass turned full up. Not everyone likes Euro House, but, it’s my choice isn’t it? If my music annoys you, it’s only for a short while, as I wait for the traffic lights to change.

These are just examples of how the choices we make for ourselves, the things we like, impinge on others. A lot depends on how easy going you are, whether or not you feel that I have ‘harmed’ you by my actions. Unwanted smells or unwanted noise are potentially cases of harm, but we only object to them when this goes over a certain threshold. However, as with the previous objection, how that threshold is defined is difficult to explain. It’s no good saying, ‘It’s harm when other people object,’ because that begs the question whether they are right to object, whether their objection is reasonable or not. On that question, once again, Mill’s Harm Principle is silent.

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