J.S. Mill and the definition of ‘harm’

Jack asked:

I’m curious about the nature of “harm.” As I understand it, it is often required measurable damage of some sort to the other party. But does that mean then, as long as the party is ignorant of the act then no harm is done?

For example, X act is both illegal and immoral (in most cultures). If X act was done to an aware being, it would cause some form of harm (such as psychological, mental, social). To be clear, the harm done would require knowledge of act X. But if that same being were completely unaware of X act occurring to them, it would seem they would never notice the existence of X act and without awareness of X act, there could be no harm.

So then can it be said that X act isn’t an act of harm? That because it may not result in harm (if the other party is not aware of act X) in all instances, the most that could be said about it is that despite it being illegal and immoral 100% of the time, it isn’t an act of harm itself, it can only result in harm under certain conditions. Is this accurate?

The confusion lies in the idea of “harm” being an affront to another, regardless of consequences or measurable harm. If the other party is devalued in some way, regardless if they acknowledge it or feel effects from it, by devaluing a human being it can still be said to be harming them.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The question of harm and its definition typically arises in relation to J.S. Mill’s Liberty Principle

“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.” (On Liberty, 1859)

But what exactly constitutes ‘harm’?

Before we go any further, we need to clear up an ambiguity where you say, ‘as long as the party is ignorant of the act then no harm is done’.

Let’s say that by subterfuge I get hold of your Ethics exam script before it reaches the examiner and make changes that result in your achieving a lower score than you would have otherwise. A few pages go missing. The word ‘not’ is added in a few places, and removed in others. When the results come in, and you see that you have failed the exam, you have no idea at all that any harm was done to you. You blame yourself for your bad performance.

That would be a case of harm even though you were unaware that you had been harmed. What you are very much aware of, is the result of my malicious action: your disappointing exam result. That’s harm by any reasonable definition.

But what about a case where you don’t experience any negative effects of my action? Let’s say as I brush past you in the street, I stick a piece of paper on your coat with the words, ‘I am a dork.’ You carry on your way, blissfully unaware that people are sniggering behind your back. By the time you reach home, the piece of paper has fallen off. (Someone you know might see what I did and tell you, but for the sake of the example we’re assuming that doesn’t happen.)

As in the previous example, here is a flagrant case of harm, even though this time you experience no negative effect whatsoever.

More interesting and controversial, are cases where a person feels ‘affront’, feels that they have been ‘harmed,’ but despite feeling that way no harm has in fact been done to them. An example that has been cited is someone who feels affronted by the sight of a gay couple kissing in public. You have no right to feel that way, so no real ‘harm’ has been done, we would say.

The problem with this is that a different judgement would be made in New York or in Tehran. What would Mill’s view be? The whole point of the Liberty Principle is to cut through ethical disputes that depend on this or that person’s feelings or ‘intuition’ about what is right or wrong. Feelings of ‘harm’ that result solely from your holding ethical or religious beliefs that are different from someone else’s ethical or religious beliefs are not examples of real harm.

Mill wanted to see vigorous debate between different ethical and religious, or indeed anti-religious, views. Provided the debate is polite, he believed, and not conducted in an atmosphere of animosity, no ‘harm’ is done to any side.

Then what if I make a ‘V’ sign to your face, clearly intending to insult you? Maybe you feel deeply hurt and affronted. ‘You shouldn’t be so sensitive,’ I might say in my defence. The difference here concerns accepted conventions. The ‘V’ sign is widely read as an insult, and it was indeed my intention to insult you that resulted in your feeling insulted, i.e. harmed.

Bad language, or rude gestures, where they are meant to be hurtful to another person, are cases of ‘harm’. Whether the actions actually cause upset or psychological discomfort in a particular case is in fact irrelevant. What is important is the intention. By making a ‘V’ sign to you, intending this as an insult, I have caused you ‘harm’ — something concerning which, in Mill’s words ‘power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community’ — even if you just laugh it off. You ought to take exception to what I have done, because it was not acceptable behaviour, by Mill’s Principle.

On the other hand, hurting someone’s feelings, by making a statement that you had every right to make, is not an example of ‘harm’. Nor is punishment a case of ‘harm’, when justified and administered in the appropriate context. All this goes to show that the question of ‘harm’ is a question about rights.

Mill’s starting point is that I have the right to do any action if the only person harmed is myself. Others may be hurt by my actions, but they are only ‘harmed’ when a certain line has been crossed. Defining that line has proved to be quite difficult in practice.

You will find more on this topic in my answer Problems with J.S. Mill’s harm principle.

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