Harm principle

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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." [1] 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."

An individual is that which exists as a distinct entity. Individuality is the state or quality of being an individual; particularly of being a person separate from other people and possessing their own needs or goals, rights and responsibilities. The exact definition of an individual is important in the fields of biology, law, and philosophy.

Harm is a moral and legal concept.

John Stuart Mill British philosopher and political economist

John Stuart Mill, usually cited as J. S. Mill, was a British philosopher, political economist, and civil servant. One of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism, he contributed widely to social theory, political theory, and political economy. Dubbed "the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century", Mill's conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control.



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. [2]

The harm principle was first fully articulated by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) in the first chapter of On Liberty (1859), [1] where he argued that:

<i>On Liberty</i> Book by John Stuart Mill

On Liberty is a philosophical work by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, originally intended as a short essay. The work, published in 1859, applies Mill's ethical system of utilitarianism to society and the state. Mill attempts to establish standards for the relationship between authority and liberty. He emphasizes the importance of individuality, which he conceived as a prerequisite to the higher pleasures—the summum bonum of utilitarianism. Furthermore, Mill criticizes the errors of past attempts to defend individuality where, for example, democratic ideals resulted in the "tyranny of the majority". Among the standards established in this work are Mill's three basic liberties of individuals, his three legitimate objections to government intervention, and his two maxims regarding the relationship of the individual to society.

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.

Liberty Ability of individuals to have agency

Broadly speaking, liberty is the ability to do as one pleases. In modern politics, liberty is the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behavior, or political views. In philosophy, liberty involves free will as contrasted with determinism. In theology, liberty is freedom from the effects of "sin, spiritual servitude, [or] worldly ties".

Will, generally, is the faculty of the mind that selects, at the moment of decision, a desire among the various desires present; it itself does not refer to any particular desire, but rather to the mechanism responsible for choosing from among one's desires. Within philosophy, will is important as one of the parts of the mind, along with reason and understanding. It is considered central to the field of ethics because of its role in enabling deliberate action.

Even if a self-regarding action results in harm to oneself, it is still beyond the sphere of justifiable state coercion.

Harm itself is not a non-moral concept. The infliction of harm upon another person is what makes an action wrong. [4]

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 fulfill it. [3] [4]

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)

The second of these maxims has become known as the social authority principle. [5]

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 to the right of sedition.

Modern examples

In US libertarianism

The United States Libertarian Party includes a version of the harm principle as part of its official party platform. It states:

Criminal laws should be limited in their application to violations of the rights of others through force or fraud, or to deliberate actions that place others involuntarily at significant risk of harm. Therefore, we favor the repeal of all laws creating “crimes” without victims . . . [6]

See also

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  1. 1 2 "Freedom of Speech". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 April 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
  2. Hamowy, Ronald, ed. (2008). The Encyclopaedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. p. xxi. ISBN   978-1412965804.
  3. 1 2 Mill, John Stuart (1859). On Liberty. Oxford, England: Oxford University. pp. 21–22. Retrieved February 27, 2008.
  4. 1 2 Menezes Oliveira, Jorge (2012). "Harm and Offence in Mill's Conception of Liberty". Oxford, England: University of Oxford. p. 13.
  5. Rossi, Philip J. (2012). The Social Authority of Reason. Albany, New York: SUNY Press. p. 60. ISBN   978-0791483367.
  6. "2016 Platform". Libertarian National Committee. 2016. Retrieved 25 February 2017.