Mill’s harm principle Notes for April 6

Main points

This class was about the interpretation of Mill’s harm principle.

I said that Mill’s official way of defining the harm principle posed quite a few problems. However, there is a more modest way of understanding it that is perfectly sufficient for our discussion of paternalism.

Self-regarding actions

Mill tries to establish two categories of actions: those that harm others and those that are purely self-regarding. Why? Because that would answer questions about when state coercion is legitimate. It can be used against actions in the first category but not those in the second.

Unfortunately, he introduces a third category: actions that are potentially beneficial to others. Here is where he did so (I am not sure if this is in the part excerpted in our textbook and it’s faster to copy and paste):

If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a prima facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation. There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow-creature's life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man's duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing. A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury. The latter case, it is true, requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former. To make any one answerable for doing evil to others, is the rule; to make him answerable for not preventing evil, is, comparatively speaking, the exception. Yet there are many cases clear enough and grave enough to justify that exception. In all things which regard the external relations of the individual, he is de jure amenable to those whose interests are concerned, and if need be, to society as their protector.** Mill, On Liberty Ch. 1, par. 11.

This is a problem for two reasons. First, it means we no longer know when state coercion can and cannot be used, since some acts that fall into the category of the potentially beneficial can be coerced and others cannot. Second, this category threatens to swallow up the category of potentially beneficial actions.

The latter problem is especially pressing for a utilitarian, for reasons that we discussed.

An alternative

Instead of trying to categorize actions, why not look at the reasons for interfering? That is, we can look at the harm principle as ruling out a list of reasons for interfering with individual liberty. That’s too narrow to capture what Mill meant, but it will do for our purposes.

Mill’s point, then, is that interference for these reasons is always a bad idea. It makes either the individual whose liberty is limited or the society as a whole worse off than it would otherwise be.

Bear in mind that Mill need not argue for this conclusion by looking narrowly at the particular policy at issue. His objection can be to giving the government the power to interfere in these ways. For instance, it might well work out for the best to interfere in some cases. But, Mill can say, when we add in all the other cases where it does not work out for the best, the balance is negative.

Of course, whether that’s true or not is something to be seen. I just want to remind you to think broadly when assessing Mill’s claims.

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2009. It was posted April 6, 2009.
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