A Critique of Mill’s Harm Principle

If we ask the question “How would a society’s happiness be maximized?”, John Stuart Mill, an advocate of utilitarianism, would answer “by defending personal freedom of the individuals”. In fact, his commitment to following a utilitarian approach to forming an ideal society is the reason for his attempts of defending individual liberty in his book “On Liberty”. Mill tries to construct a way to formulize liberty and thus comes up with a principle called ‘the harm principle’. Or, as Mill describes ‘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.’ This obvious yet a questionable approach to individual liberty has formed the fundamentals of modern liberal democracies and even economies. To expand our knowledge and better understand Mill’s formulation, let us dig deeper into the harm principle.  

Imagine a flat where one gloomy resident lives an unusual life by spending most of his time drinking. And all the neighbors are irritated by him because of his potentially bad influence on the children in the apartment. Therefore, the man is considered to be causing harm to all the other residents. According to Mill’s harm principle, one would say that it is appropriate to kick him out of the apartment even though he did nothing but live his own life. Or a step further, in utilitarian grounds, the other residents may even decide to kill the man if that somehow brings an end to the problem and contributes positively to the overall happiness. It is apparent that if we had lived in such a world, any action’s consequences could be stretched far enough to make it seem harmful in an indirect way. However, approaching harm in such a straightforward perspective is of no use. Therefore, “We can divide actions into two classes: purely self-regarding actions and other-regarding actions. Other regarding actions affect or involve at least one other person. Purely self-regarding actions concern on the agent, or if they do involve others it is with their free consent. (Wolff 2016: 112)”. It could be said that regulating some other-regarding actions that cause harm to another agent’s self-regarding action is indeed justifiable. But should all ‘harmful’ other-regarding actions be prohibited? For instance, would I not be allowed to try convincing people to publicly protest an injustice even though some may be offended by my offer? Since Mill advocates ‘indirect utilitarianism’, which proposes that we should endorse rights even though they may not contribute the most happiness at first because in the long term it could cause a greater harm if not defended, my actions would not be objectionable. Therefore, not all forms of other-regarding actions should be prohibited according to Mill. However, this approach does not include an answer to cases such as pornography in which one’s self-regarding action, which is to earn for a living, ‘harms’ another person’s self-regarding actions or interests. And this is where the major leak in Mill’s Liberty Principle begins.  

To address cases such as pornography and public nudity, in which one’s self-regarding action harms other agents’ self-regarding action in moral grounds, Mill states “There are many acts which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners, and coming thus within the category of offences against others, may rightfully be prohibited. Of this kind are offences against decency; on which it is unnecessary to dwell…the objection to publicity being equally strong in the case of many actions not in themselves condemnable, nor supposed to be. (Mill 2001:90)”. Here, it is deducible that according to Mill, certain actions are not objectionable in private but could be taken action against when done in public. However, such acts would be prohibited on the grounds of, in Mill’s wording, ‘decency’. And this creates a wide range of conflicts when morality is preferred over an individual’s liberty. Since the idea of ‘objective morality’ is invalid in a world in which millions die to fight for what they think is moral and consider the other as immoral, Mill’s statement falls in a pit. An example illustrating the inappropriateness of liberty depending on ‘decency’ would be today’s issue of homosexuality. Religious groups argue that homosexuality is indecent and harms the structure of family and displeases God, therefore harms their personal interests. On the other hand, some other groups argue that it is indecent to prevent a person from choosing a partner and interfere with their interests as long as both have their consents. Therefore, when personal interests interfere, an action may oppose to Mill’s harm principle but sound reasonable when looked in other perspectives. 

After analyzing the appropriateness of regulating certain actions, let us move on by looking at the regulation of words and thoughts. Mill emphasizes on complete freedom of thought and discussion. He expresses his concerns by saying “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (Mill 2001: 18)”. According to Mill, whether an opinion is true or false, suppressing it would be considered “robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation. (Mill 2001: 19)”. Therefore, in utilitarian grounds, it could be considered as prohibiting a social benefit. Moreover, if the surpassed opinion is false, we would not be able to reconsider or challenge our true views. And if the surpassed opinion is true, which is worse, we would be deprived of knowing the truth and not be able to straighten our false views. However, this reasoning of Mill faces us with two ambiguities. “First, we may surely claim enough knowledge, and confidence in it, to justify censoring certain expressions of opinion. For example, can’t we be completely confident that racism is wrong, and therefore that expressions of racism may be censored without any danger that we shall ‘lose the truth’? Second, claiming this degree of confidence is not to assume infallibility. Every time we act, we must act on what we believe to be true. It would be cowardice to allow false and unethical opinions expression just because we ‘may’ be wrong. (Lacewing: p2)”.  To understand the falsity of the first question raised by Lacewing, we have to look at history, the most natural source for admonition. In 17th century, William Harvey was the first scientist to describe blood circulation to the heart, brain, and body in detail. However, contemporary scientists were reluctant in believing a 2nd century physician’s, Galen’s, writings about how the liver creates blood from food then sends it through the left side of the lungs and heart. Therefore, Harvey was silenced, and he had to become a recluse for the rest of his life as a scientist. However, Harvey’s findings are now acknowledged by all modern scientists and are considered to be groundbreaking. Including the example of Harvey, history indicates how mistaken the assumption in the first question is. If we now analyze the second question about certainty in our beliefs, “Mill’s response is that there is nothing wrong with certainty. But if we have it, it must and can only rest of the freedom of expression itself. To develop and defend our points of view, to correct our opinions and weigh their value, we need free discussion. (Lacewing: p2)”. It is apparent that Mill would answer by saying that allowing free discussion would urge you into questioning and perhaps tuning how certain you are. But are there no restrictions whatsoever? While Mill believes that censorship is never justifiable, he acknowledges that freedom of expression could be limited under some cases. For us to better understand, he talks about an example: “An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an exited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard. (Mill 2001: 52)”. Therefore, Mill argues that in cases like this in which freedom of expression would certainly cause harm to others, an individual’s freedom of expression could be restricted. While this seems logical when the potential harm is apparent, it continues to form ambiguities related to ‘harm’. For instance, in any form of hate speech, according to Mill it could always be argued that it is not right to completely ban it since we could be deprived from a proportion of truth. At the same time, allowing hate speech could psychologically harm a group and thus interfere with their self-regarding interests. Or in other scenarios, a person’s words could urge others into harmful acts in which the harm is not so apparent. If we glimpse again back to history and analyze colonialism, European leaders in the 15th century benefited from “freedom of expression” when claiming that some nations and races were “unenlightened” and needed to be modernized. By doing so, a new concept was introduced to society which lead them into supporting the movement. Even though the movement was not considered harmful by the European societies of the time including that of Mill, modern research in social science unleash the amount of harm caused to the colonized. Therefore, unlike Mill’s corn-dealers example, cases in which the harm caused by one’s freedom of expression is not so direct but is harmful in the long term indicate that Mill’s formulation of freedom of expression and thought collapses when it encounters a slightly more complex problem concerning the limits of freedom of expression.  

Apart from the limits of freedom of expression and thought, Mill uses the idea of freedom of expression to protect minorities. ‘The tyranny of the majority’ or in Mill’s words “the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling… the tendency of society to impose, by means other than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices on those who dissent from them. (Mill 2001: 9)” has been evident even in the most democratic societies. “The fact that ‘the people’ make the laws does not rule out the possibility that the majority will pass laws that oppress, or are otherwise unfair to, the minority. (Wolff 2016: 104)”. As can be inferred, “the word of the people” does not necessarily represent everyone’s thoughts and probably exclude those voices from minor numbers. Even though Mill forms reasonable chain of claims to protect the minor voices in society in his argument of freedom of expression, he further goes on by stating that “We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood… For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which race itself may be considered as in its nonage (Mill 2001: 14)”. If we scrutinize the first half of this bold statement, excluding underaged children is justifiable since we are not born with the rationale to think for ourselves and we are bound to develop our reasoning while being under the safeguard of others. However, if we look at the latter half of his statement, Mill believes in the inferiority of some races, regards them as “backward” and excludes them as well. Firstly, his utterly racist statement gives rise to a contradiction and incompleteness. If his doctrine is not applicable to “backwards states”, then his formulation of liberty assumes that there exist people of specific races or nations that have inferior views and lifestyles because such people are not rational enough to be able to ‘improve by free and equal discussion`. However, he also stresses on not oppressing unpopular views, thoughts and lifestyles, as mentioned before. Secondly, if his principles are to be applied to civilized only, how are we supposed to draw a line between ‘uncivilized’ and ‘civilized’? For instance, 3 centuries ago women did not have any political rights in almost all the European states in which some were considered as civilized. However, today the most prominent factor for labeling a society as ‘uncivilized’ is by analyzing the place of women’s rights in that society. The point is that Mill has not explicitly formed a well-defined formulation of what a civilized society is. Even if he had done, we would still not be sure if the societies we call uncivilized are truly incapable of ‘being improved by free and equal discussion` since every ‘civilized’ nation once was considered as ‘uncivilized’. Therefore, it is illogical to label any society as civilized or not without the existence of any universal criteria. And it is further illogical to exclude some societies from liberty just because they have an unpopular lifestyles and thoughts, which is against Mill’s statements regarding protecting minorities. 

To conclude, Mill believes that a society can only strive to develop in the presence of freedom of thought and expression. He also forms a principle called ‘the harm principle’ in order to answer the question of when the state can interfere with an agent’s actions. He believes that the harm principle would function because of the indirect utilitarian ground it has, to produce empathy. However, John Stuart Mill never further elaborates on how we should approach what harm really means. In his indirect utilitarian grounds, we can get an idea of what side we should take according to the harm principle when an agent’s other-regarding acts harm another’s self-regarding interests. However, when self-regarding interests interfere, in cases such as pornography and homosexuality, it becomes ambiguous to decide what is indirectly harmful or useful to the society since both the sides would have an argument of what is morally right or reasonable, especially when considering Mill’s standard of ‘decency’. Mill also talks about why we should always pursue complete freedom of speech and expression even though it is not unobjectionable in times when speech can cause an apparent harm to others. Nonetheless, historic examples illustrate how some forms of hate speech could lead to initially seemingly benign harmful acts. In addition, Mill tries to defend his advocacy of freedom of speech and expression by trying to protect unpopular opinions and lifestyles of minorities. Nevertheless, he states that his liberty principles are not applicable to specific societies which he thinks are inferior in thinking and therefore causes a contradiction in his claims. So, even though Mill tries to form a reasonable chain of claims to maximize individual liberty in a utilitarian manner, he fails to elaborate and fails to form a unified understanding of what ‘harm’ is. Moreover, most of his claims regarding limiting one’s actions, speech, lifestyle and expression by following his harm principle do not form a justifiable structure with a porous definition of harm. 


J. Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Third Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) 

Michael Lacewing, Mill on Freedom of Thought and Expression  

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, (Batoche Books 2001) 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: