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What is Harm and Does it Matter?

One of essentially the most generally mentioned ideas of ethical and political philosophy — if not the mostly mentioned — is Mill’s Harm Principle. Introduced in Chapter 1 of his well-known polemical essay, On Liberty, the Harm Principle is set out within the following method (all quotes are from a Wordsworth classics version – web page numbers might range throughout editions):

The object of this Essay is to claim one quite simple precept…That precept is, that the only finish for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the freedom of motion of any of their quantity is self-protection. That the one objective for which energy might be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised neighborhood, towards his will, is to forestall hurt to others. His personal good, both bodily or ethical, is not a ample warrant. 

(On Liberty, p 13)


Thus acknowledged, the Harm Principle looks like a sturdy, and in some ways enticing, assertion of classical liberal or libertarian political philosophy. “Don’t tread on me!”, it appears to be saying. Governments can’t be too zealous or overreaching in moralistic and paternalistic interventions into particular person behaviour. They should take a step again and permit us all area to experiment and develop as people.

Those accustomed to Mill’s essay, and the following philosophical and authorized debates it has invoked, will, nonetheless, know that the Harm Principle is something however ‘one quite simple precept’. For starters, it is not clear that it is actually ‘one’ precept. Mill asserts a number of variations of it in On Liberty and qualifies it in quite a few methods. Furthermore, it is not apparent that it is ‘easy’ in its software. What precisely counts as ‘hurt’? Is ‘hurt’ a crucial or ample situation for presidency interference?

It’s not potential to do justice to all of the nuances of the philosophical debate concerning the Harm Principle in what follows. Instead, I’ll take a extra modest method. I’ll attempt to spotlight some complexities in Mill’s formulation of the precept. I’ll then talk about a few of the specific issues that come up in relation to the idea of hurt and take into account whether or not the lack to formulate a totally satisfying principle of hurt undermines the credibility of the precept. In quick, and following an argument put ahead by Anna Folland, I’ll recommend that the Harm Principle is credible, regardless of the vagueness of the idea of ‘hurt’.

1. Mill’s Formulation of the ‘Very Simple Principle’

Several essential questions come up from Mill’s formulation of the Harm Principle. The first, and in some methods most vital, is whether or not it states a crucial and/or ample situation for interference with particular person liberty. The quoted passage above offers sturdy help for the concept it states a crucial situation for interference. He talks concerning the ‘sole finish’ and the ‘solely objective’ for which interference is warranted.

But does the precept additionally state a ample situation for interference? The preliminary formulation is not clear on this level, nonetheless, Mill’s subsequent discussions recommend that it doesn’t. He analyses when, precisely, we’re morally justified in interfering with dangerous conduct. He thinks there are some sorts of dangerous conduct (e.g. mendacity) that don’t warrant interference. In these analyses he leans into his extra normal utilitarian philosophy, asking whether or not the advantages of interference outweigh potential prices. So, in different, phrases, the Harm Principle, for Mill, works as an preliminary filter for interventionist insurance policies. First we ask whether or not we’re intervening in conduct that is dangerous to others. If the reply is ‘sure’ (and provided that it is ‘sure’), we ask extra questions concerning the prices and advantages of the proposed intervention.

This is a smart view. If all conduct that was dangerous to others justified exterior interference, the Harm Principle would, arguably, be overinclusive and can be anathema to many liberals and libertarians. We will discover this is extra element beneath after we take a look at points that come up with the idea of ‘hurt’. But, smart as it could also be, this interpretation of the Harm Principle raises issues when thought-about in mild of Mill’s broader philosophy. Mill is not a rights theorist. He doesn’t consider in absolute particular person rights. As he himself places it:

I forego any benefit which could possibly be derived to my argument from the concept of summary proper, as a factor unbiased of utility. I regard utility as the last word attraction on all moral questions; however it should be utility within the largest sense, grounded within the everlasting pursuits of man…Those pursuits, I contend, authorise the topic of particular person spontaneity to exterior management, solely in respect of these actions of every, which concern the curiosity of different individuals. 

(On Liberty, p 14)


What is he saying right here? In essence, he is saying that the Harm Principle is justified by the precept of utility. A broad, non-interventionist stance, serves the precept of utility — the best happiness of the best quantity — within the ‘largest sense’. It could possibly be that, particularly instances, utility is served by intervening in particular person behaviour even when that behaviour is not dangerous to others, however it is higher to undertake a normal rule towards intervention since, over the lengthy haul, this is extra prone to undermine the best happiness of the best quantity. As far as I’m conscious, Mill doesn’t present a extra detailed utilitarian argument in defence of this blanket coverage of non-intervention. It sounds believable to me, and I want to consider it, however it could be unsuitable.

A second query that arises is: ‘To whom does the Harm Principle apply?’ The apparent reply is ‘the federal government’. The authorities is not justified in introducing insurance policies that intervene with particular person behaviour, until that behaviour causes hurt to others. And, actually, most up to date policy-related debates concerning the Harm Principle, deal with authorities intervention. But Mill clearly intends the precept to use extra usually. One of the important thing concepts in On Liberty is that there could be a ‘tyranny of the bulk’ and that minority views and minority existence should be protected towards interference by busybody majorities. So, for Mill, interference by our social friends and social majorities is simply as a lot an issue as authorities interference. Indeed, a lot so, that one of many duties of an efficient authorities is to offer for the freedom of minorities.

A 3rd query that arises is: what counts as a liberty-undermining interference? Mill offers some steerage on this. Right after the most-quoted passage stating the ‘quite simple precept’, he says:

[Man] can’t be rightfully compelled to do or forbear as a result of it can be higher for him to take action, as a result of it will make him happier or as a result of, within the opinions of others, to take action can be smart and even proper. These are good causes for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him or persuading him, or entreating him, however not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do in any other case. 

(On Liberty, p 13)


From this, it appears that liberty-undermining interference is restricted to coercive interference. This would come with threats of punishment or imprisonment for failing to do one thing, but in addition, maybe, different threats of hurt. Remonstrating with individuals or making an attempt to influence them by way of reasoned debate is advantageous, even when this issues conduct that doesn’t hurt individuals. This could be interference however it is not liberty-undermining interference. This concession is attention-grabbing insofar as it permits some busy bodying interference by majorities within the type of public schooling campaigns. So, for instance, a authorities schooling marketing campaign supposed to discourage individuals from smoking or consuming alcohol would, on Mill’s reasoning, be acceptable as long as it does not quantity to coercion.

A extra advanced edge case of interference can be that of ‘nudging’. This an concept that comes from the work of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. In essence, it entails using methods for pushing (nudging) individuals to make selections that serve their very own welfare (or that of the overall inhabitants) that bypass rational cognitive schools. For instance, putting wholesome snacks in somebody’s eyeline nudges them to favour well being ysnacks over unhealthy ones. This does not contain reasoned dialogue however it does not contain coercive interference both. Where this stands inside Mill’s framework is open to dispute and there is, in fact, a really in depth and detailed debate about it within the philosophical and authorized literature.

A fourth query that arises is: does the precept apply to all individuals, regardless of age or standing? Mill is clear on this level:

It is maybe, hardly essential to say that this doctrine is meant to use solely to human beings within the maturity of their schools. We should not talking of kids, or of younger individuals beneath the age which the regulation might repair as that of manhood or womanhood. 

(On Liberty, p 13)


This is an inexpensive, mainstream place. Of course, the age fastened by the regulation is, all the time, going to be considerably arbitrary. If the capability to make selections for oneself is largely a operate of cognitive means and emotional intelligence (and so forth) then there’ll, undoubtedly, be individuals formally designated ‘kids’ by the regulation that must be handled as equal to adults, and vice versa. We could possibly overcome this drawback by making use of purposeful capability assessments — i.e. assess whether or not individuals have the capability to make selections for themselves in sure domains — however these might be troublesome to make use of in observe. A bright-line cutoff between youth and maturity, for all its arbitrariness, is typically the only method.

What is most likely much less well-documented is the truth that Mill thought the maturity restriction may apply to complete civilisations in addition to people:

For the identical purpose, we might omit of consideration these backward states of society during which the race itself could also be thought-about in its nonage…Despotism is a legit mode of governance in coping with barbarians, offered the tip be their enchancment, and the means be justified by truly effecting that finish…there is nothing for them however implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they’re so lucky as to seek out one. 

(On Liberty, p 13-14)


This will, little question, reek of racism and cultural prejudice to the trendy reader. Mill is suggesting that complete peoples might be so backward and immature that they want the serving to hand of a benevolent dictator. That mentioned, I believe there could also be one thing to the purpose he is making. Hobbes, in spite of everything, makes an identical argument, particularly, that liberty is, in some sense, a luxurious for societies which have achieved a degree of prosperity and safety. I agree with that, to some extent, and Mill himself alludes to a continuing stress between safety and liberty in his writings. What I do not agree with is the suggestion that despotism is the path to attaining the extent of prosperity and safety wanted for discussions of liberty to change into salient. Indeed, my studying of social historical past is that openness and freedom, mixed with sturdy and secure authorities, are sometimes drivers of prosperity, not luxuries to be loved after prosperity is obtained.

Mill locations another, miscellaneous constraints on the Harm Principle. For occasion, at one level he suggests that individuals could be legitimately compelled to do issues that profit different individuals:

There are many constructive acts for the good thing about others, which [a person] might rightfully be compelled to carry out; comparable to, to provide proof in a courtroom of justice; to bear his share within the frequent defence, or in another joint work essential to the curiosity of society of which he enjoys the safety… 

(On Liberty, p 14)


There is a sure frequent sense to those examples, and implicit in a few of them is the stress between safety and liberty to which I simply alluded. Nevertheless, I discover it laborious to reconcile the overall declare being made with a strict interpretation of the hurt precept. Why can I be legitimately compelled to do issues to learn different individuals if my failing to take action doesn’t hurt them? The reply to this may lie in what precisely we imply by ‘hurt’ within the context of the hurt precept. It is to this thorny subject that I now flip.

2. What is hurt? Comparative Accounts

One factor Mill doesn’t do is present us with any normal principle of hurt. This may appear odd on condition that hurt is the central idea within the Harm Principle. But maybe it is good to keep away from overly summary occupied with hurt. There are paradigmatic instances of hurt to others, there are paradigmatic instances of innocent conduct, and there are borderline or troublesome instances. So, for instance, if my passion is going round smashing individuals’s fingers with a hammer, then clearly my conduct is dangerous to others and I can justifiably be stopped. If I like to stay needles in my very own fingers, within the privateness of my own residence, then clearly my conduct is dangerous to nobody apart from myself and I shouldn’t be stopped. If I play loud music, late into the evenings, and this upset my neighbours, then this is extra borderline case. We can have an argument about whether or not it actually counts as hurt, and whether or not it might be justifiably stopped.

Many philosophers do not like having fuzzy or contestable ideas on the coronary heart of our moral theories. They search theoretical and summary purity. They desire a normal principle or account of hurt that tells us whether or not or not particular conduct falls foul of the Harm Principle. You can perceive why. A normal, summary principle of hurt could possibly be used to evaluate novel or controversial instances of hurt and give us a transparent reply as as to whether it might be justifiably interfered with or not. No shock then that many philosophers have tried to offer a normal principle of hurt that we are able to plug into Mill’s precept.

Some, nonetheless, have argued that no normal and satisfying principle of hurt exists. Anna Folland, in her article ‘Mill’s Harm Principle and the Nature of Harm’, examines these critiques in some element. The critics all comply with the identical technique. They introduce some normal principle of hurt — oftentimes one which has intuitive attraction or help from different debates — and argue that it is below or over inclusive in some essential respect. In different phrases, they argue that the idea would establish conduct as dangerous that most individuals agree mustn’t depend as dangerous or, vice versa, would fail to establish instances as dangerous that ought to depend as dangerous.

Let’s take into account three examples. The first is the Temporal Comparative account of hurt (TCA) (definitions taken from Folland’s article):

TCA: An occasion e harms a topic s if, and provided that, e makes s worse off (by way of effectively being) after e than s was previous to e.


Assume I used to be wholesome and well-functioning yesterday. Today, a person on the street punched me within the face and gave me a black eye. Clearly, I’m worse off now, after the punch within the face, than I used to be yesterday, earlier than the punch. The punch has harmed me.

Sounds smart, proper? Not so quick. Critics argue that the TCA does not deal appropriately with some instances. Suppose that your youngster has contracted a virus and has a horrible sore throat. You may, should you so determined, get rid of their ache by giving them some medication, which you might have freely at hand. On the TCA, you don’t hurt them by failing to provide them the medication. But, arguably, the failure to intervene on this case is a sort of hurt. Similarly, think about a case during which a baby suffers from some debilitating sickness as a result of her mom smoked all through her being pregnant and each dad and mom have smoked, in her presence, from the second she was born. Their actions clearly hurt her, however they do not make her worse off than she beforehand was for the reason that dangerous actions coincided along with her conception and start.

Counterexamples like this lead individuals to reject the TCA and favour different theories. One such different is the ‘baseline from Mankind’ comparative account (MCA):

MCA: An occasion e harms a topic s if, and provided that, e makes s worse off (by way of well-being) than the conventional well-being degree of mankind.


This avoids the counterexamples to TCA, however faces some counterexamples of its personal. For occasion, if somebody is extraordinarily rich, relative to the common individual, then stealing their cash in order to carry them right down to the common degree of wealth wouldn’t depend as hurt, on the MCA. This is counterintuitive. Similarly, if somebody is extraordinarily enticing (admittedly extra a subjective high quality), then disfiguring them in order to make them extra averagely enticing wouldn’t depend as hurt. This is additionally counterintuitive. This makes the MCA a non-runner.

This results in one last principle of hurt, the Counterfactual Comparative principle (CCA):

CCA: An occasion e harms a topic s if, and provided that, s would have been higher off (by way of welfare over her lifetime) within the absence of e.


This is a extremely popular principle of hurt. It pops up in quite a few utilized moral debates. For instance, I’ve seen individuals suggest it as the idea that explains why dying is dangerous. It additionally avoids the pitfalls related to the 2 earlier theories. But it faces issues of its personal.

The principal one is that if hurt is outlined by comparability to what would have occurred in some counterfactual potential world, then we have now to choose an applicable reference class of potential worlds. But, relying on how we choose the reference class, conduct might be deemed dangerous or non-harmful in considerably arbitrary methods. For occasion, if I, as a mother or father, fail to offer non-public music classes to my youngster, am I harming them? Intuitively, most individuals would most likely say no. But maybe there is counterfactual potential world during which they do significantly better, by way of welfare, in the event that they obtain the non-public music classes. So my failure to pay for them is a hurt if I examine this world with that world. In quick, bizarre issues begin to occur whenever you begin evaluating this world with counterfactual ones. If you select counterfactual worlds during which individuals do significantly better than they do within the precise world, then they harmed by nearly all the pieces that is taking place to them within the precise world. Conversely, should you select counterfactual worlds during which individuals do a lot worse than they do within the precise world, they aren’t harmed.

There are another theories of hurt, however these three are a consultant pattern of those debated by philosophers and every fails to offer a totally satisfying underpinning for the Harm Principle. What will we conclude from this? Critics conclude that the Harm Principle should fail. Folland, in her evaluation, is not so fast to attract this inference. As she factors out, critics are adopting one thing like this argument:

  • (1) In order for the Harm Principle to be acceptable, it should be grounded in some absolutely satisfying principle of hurt.
  • (2) The solely believable candidate theories of hurt are the TCA, MCA or CCA (…and so forth)
  • (3) Neither the TCA, MCA nor CCA (and so forth) offers a totally satisfying principle of hurt.
  • (4) Therefore, the Harm Principle is not acceptable.

But there are a variety of the way to reject this argument. One method can be to reject premise (2) and argue that there are different believable candidate theories of hurt or that, maybe, some mishmash of theories could possibly be absolutely satisfying (it’s not both/or). Another method can be to reject premise (1) and argue that the destiny of the Harm Principle doesn’t relaxation on articulating a totally satisfying principle of hurt. Folland suggests this could be proper response to critics. She does so on the grounds that hurt options in lots of moral debates and ideas and but hardly ever will we require those who deploy the idea to articulate a totally satisfying principle of it. It is prima facie believable that hurt is a significant moral idea that delineates between acceptable and non-acceptable conduct. That we have now some issues offering a totally satisfying principle of it doesn’t undermine its use within the Harm Principle.

I believe this is right. I’ve lengthy been uneasy with the argumentative requirements employed by ethical (and different) philosophers, which appears to recommend that we must always reject normative ideas in the event that they fail to offer intuitively satisfying outcomes throughout all potential worlds. I’m not certain any precept may fulfill such a requirement.

3. What is hurt? Miscellaneous issues

There are different issues with the idea of hurt. One issues the excellence between hurt to self and hurt to others. This is central to Mill’s precept. He thinks hurt to self can’t present a justifiable foundation for coercive interference. He thinks hurt to others can. Some argue, nonetheless, that this formulation is not fairly proper. The essential distinction is not between conduct that is dangerous to self versus dangerous to others. The essential distinction is between conduct that is consented to versus unconsented to. If I hurt you, however you consent to being harmed, then it can be unsuitable to coercively intervene with that alternative. Although Mill avoids this formulation, it is constant along with his different views, comparable to his declare that freedom of affiliation is one of many basic types of private liberty:

from this liberty of every particular person, follows the freedom, throughout the identical limits, of mixture amongst people. 

(On Liberty, p 15)


A associated, and maybe extra major problem, issues the causal relationship between self hurt and hurt to others. Sometimes conduct that is, primarily, dangerous to the self is additionally, not directly, dangerous to others. If I wish to drink myself into oblivion, you may argue that this is my proper, as a free individual. But, in fact, my choice to take action may hurt my household. It may deprive my kids of care and assets they should survive. So can we coercively intervene with the choice to drink?

Mill has an extended dialogue of this subject in On Liberty, specializing in the arguments of temperance activists and prohibitionists (seeking to ban the sale of alcohol). He rejects an outright ban, arguing that ingesting is a non-public pleasure throughout the sphere of non-public liberty. But, he accepts that if ingesting turns into dangerous to others, coercive interference could also be justified. He additionally argues that these occupying sure social roles — e.g. cops, surgeons — could also be justifiably banned from ingesting, at the least whereas on responsibility.

Another drawback issues the gravity of hurt wanted to justify coercive interference. Some persons are unwilling to simply accept that any and all harms meet the brink wanted to justify coercive interference. Perhaps essentially the most elaborate dialogue of this subject might be present in Joel Feinberg’s, multi-volume work on the ethical limits of the legal regulation, which is, in impact, an prolonged dialogue and software of Mill’s precept. It’s inconceivable to seize the nuances of Feinberg’s place in a brief abstract, however the gist of it is that he distinguishes hurt from hurts and offensive conduct. A hurt, for Feinberg, is one thing that units again your life pursuits. So it is a fairly critical sort of damage to your ongoing life plans and private welfare. A harm is a extra trivial and momentary sort of damage, e.g. a graze upon your knee. Offensiveness is psychological displeasure or misery attributable to the conduct of others. For Feinberg, harms justify coercive interference, however hurts and offensiveness don’t. But Feinberg ties himself up in knots about this, finally conceding that some sorts of offensiveness, if they’re sufficiently persistent and critical, may justify coercive interference, partly on the grounds that they find yourself being dangerous if they’re persistent and critical.

Others counter argue that Feinberg’s try to tell apart between totally different ranges of hurt is pointless. For occasion, Turner argues that the Harm Principle must relaxation on an expansive definition of hurt. Virtually all hurt to others, regardless of how trivial, raises a prima facie case for coercive interference. Whether coercive interference is then justified depends upon whether or not it passes the ‘biggest happiness’ check: i.e. do the advantages of the coercive interference outweigh its prices. Since all coercive interference is itself dangerous, this is a troublesome threshold to cross within the case of comparatively trivial harms. Less intrusive and coercive insurance policies will nearly all the time be preferable.

4. Conclusion

The foregoing is a abstract of a few of the key challenges going through the Harm Principle. Mill’s declare that it is a ‘quite simple precept’ is each true and deceptive. It is true insofar as it is simple to state the precept, and it is intuitively interesting. Nevertheless, it is deceptive insofar as its sensible software raises quite a lot of complexities. Still, the mere proven fact that it might be contentious and that there might be troublesome edge instances is not, in itself, a purpose to reject the precept. One can see why it stays widespread to today.


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