Mill’s harm principle Notes for March 29

Main points

We talked about Mill’s famous harm principle. Specifically, we talked about two ways of understanding it and the relationship between the harm principle and utilitarianism.

How to understand it

When can the government use coercion? The harm principle proposes an answer: it can do so to prevent behavior that will harm others but it cannot do so to prevent people from engaging in purely self-regarding acts.

Of course, Mill immediately adds a third category: acts that are potentially beneficial to others. This generates two problems. First, it threatens the basic strategy. Since Mill thought that government could force people to do some, but not all, of the acts in this category, we no longer have a clear relationship between the categories of acts and the legitimacy of government coercion. Second, the category of potentially beneficial acts threatens to swallow up the category of purely self-regarding actions. For even the most innocent actions, there is usually an alternative that would benefit someone.

I noted that there is a different way of looking at the harm principle. You could see it as claiming that specific reasons for government interference are illegitimate: paternalism, moralism, and offensiveness.

The relationship with utilitarianism

There are many a good utilitarian reasons for allowing individual liberty. There are some obvious points: people generally behave in ways that make them happy if left to their own devices and government almost never knows more than an individual does about how to make that person happy. Jon added Mill’s beliefs that liberty, making choices for oneself, itself is something that makes us happy. And Alan added that people learn how to make themselves happy by making choices on their own.

But utilitarians can’t regard the harm principle as the most fundamental account of the limits of the state’s power. The re-written version in the handout has to be their view. And it isn’t hard to come up with cases in which it appears that utilitarians would reject the harm principle. As Rawls points out, when you aggregate over large populations, individual liberty can lose out to the aggregated desires of many others.

Of course, we would do well to remember that Mill is talking about a general government policy. He can always insist that even if it makes good utilitarian sense to override individual liberty in a particular instance, it may not make sense to give the government the power to make that decision. After all, when governments have that kind of power, their bad decisions typically outweigh their good ones, according to Mill.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted April 1, 2010.
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