The Harm Principle essay

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873), a British philosopher wrote many essays concerning the rules that determine whether the actions that an individual commits are good or bad. On Liberty is one of these essays, and it provides rules on when the society should interfere with the acts of an individual. As the name suggests, the harm principle advocates that the society can interfere with an individual’s act only if it causes harm to the society. If it does not affect others, then the society has no control over them. This paper is aimed at discussing the Mill’s harm principle and how it would handle cases such as suicide, consumption of heroin, dueling, prostitution and spread of computer-generated child pornography. Also, it will outline reasons why the harm principle is not the rule that best promotes happiness in the society.


The harm principle does not stop on the control the society has on the acts of an individual. According to this principle, individuals can do anything as long as their actions do not affect others. For a more concrete reasoning of the harm principle, Mill had to put some requirements. First, he stated that the harm principle has to conform to the principle of utility, which states that all acts should bring happiness to a large number of people. Secondly, Mill states that harm and offense are different things. According to the philosopher, harm is an act that injures the rights of other people, whereas offense is something that hurts other people’s feelings. Lastly, Mill argues that an act cannot affect only those who commit it as no one is totally isolated from others in the society.

The Harm Principle and Societal Issues

The society may apply this principle to control the conduct of individuals who may cause injury to the interests of other people or their rights. The society may also apply public opinion when there is a need to regulate conduct that may cause harm to others in terms of their welfare. According to Mill, “As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it.” The first aspect the paper is going to discuss is suicide. The harm principle makes it clear that if someone has an intention to harm another member of the society, then the person who breaks the law is bound to receive punishment. However, an intention of harming himself/ herself is permissible because there is no law that prohibits people from harming themselves. According to Mill, it is their right and prerogative. This idea is a complex issue that can take many twists and turns.

There have been a lot of debate about the legality of suicide, and this has created great controversy over the issue. However, in spite of the complexity of the issue, physician-assisted suicide has become legal in some parts of the world. The aim of the practice is to help terminally ill patients to overcome their miseries by assisting them in committing suicide. Though Mill agrees that there should be punishment for those who harm others, it becomes a different case when a person asks someone else to harm them. According to the harm principle, it is safe to say that the theory applies only to individuals who have no outside help when harming themselves.

Though Mill has no issue about people doing harm to themselves as long as they do not harm the society, in reality, harming oneself can have a harmful effect on a part of the society. Mill also knows this, and that is why he raised an objection that “No person is an entirely isolated being, so it is impossible that anything one does that harms themselves will also not harm people close to them.” Therefore, since suicide is bound to cause harm to others and the society in some way, the society should not allow it. Furthermore, basing on the principle of utility, suicide does not cause happiness to a greater number of people in the society, and thus it is harm.

The second aspect is the application of the harm principle to consumption of heroin. Apparently, use of drugs does not cause direct harm to other people, in other words, the harm is indirect. The strongest arguments that the harm principle can bring must involve the risk of drug users harming other people as a result of their drug use, whereby the act of using drugs is not harmful but is bound to cause a harmful act to occur. There are two main types of harm: the risk of societal harm and the risk of harm to private persons.

The harm principle implies that certain activities that people indulge in have a risk of causing harm to others, and therefore the law should consider them as criminal activities. Among the most common arguments against the drug use is the increased likelihood of harm to people. For example, the society has linked drug use with criminal activities, which are bound to cause harm to others. In this sense, it is safe to say that consumption of heroin is bound to bring harm to others. Therefore, the society has to control individuals who consume illegal drugs for the good of other people.

Apart from harm to private persons, there is societal harm, which is a harm that is of public interest. The public interest is a common interest that almost all society members have. An act can be harmful to the society even if an individual considers it does not inflict harm to him/ her. In case of drug use, and in this context, consumption of heroin, there may be an argument that if an individual takes a drug in small amounts, then he/ she causes a relatively small harm to the society. However, if one takes the aggregate amount of heroin that is consumed, then he/ she would realize the scope of harm the activity inflicts to the society.

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The next aspect the paper investigates is dueling. It is inconsistent with the society’s value of freedom to prohibit dueling. Dueling involves two adults who have the consent of performing whatever they please to, including activities that can harm their bodies. The main guiding principle of dueling is that there should be a mutual consent between the adults who involve themselves in the practice. While the society has the responsibility to protect its members, it does not have the right or power to interfere with the freedom and wishes of an individual. Individuals may choose to do harm or damage to themselves provided that they do not harm other members of the society. If they harm others, then the society has to intervene and make the individuals responsible for their actions. Though the purpose of a duel is to harm another person, the fact that there is a mutual consent of accepting any harm is consistent with the harm principle. Therefore, this principle would support dueling by there being a mutual consent between the individuals who want to participate in the activity.

The issue of prostitution can best fit in what Mill describes as trade. He claims that all trade is a social act and selling also affects other people’s interests as opposed to being primarily self-regarding. Due to trade being able to have an effect on others, and therefore likely to cause harm to them, there should be legislation to govern the conduct of trade. Though there are some restrictions in the act of trading, it is a complex issue to define restrictions on what people can trade. Prostitution comes as a challenging and complex issue in this sense. Since it is impossible to ban people from engaging in sexual activities, it would be a challenge to prohibit them from having sex for money. Therefore, according to the harm principle, someone is free to trade their body.

An issue that arises in the case of prostitution is that if people have the freedom of selling their bodies, should other people have the freedom of encouraging them to perform the act? Mill claims that people are free to receive advice about the actions they are to engage in, so they also have the ability to give advice to others. The case is especially clear when considering a pimp who encourages people to sell their bodies for him to make a living. However, advice should not result in a person making money from it, as this makes the advice illegal. On the other hand, such advice is harmful to the prostitute. Therefore, the society needs to protect prostitutes from the advice that causes harm to them and offer them an opportunity to make decisions on their own. All forms of trade involve other people’s interests, so restrictions that there are on trade do not always violate the harm principle. It is, therefore, evident that Mill’s discussion results in complexities when dealing with individual liberties and social harms.

Another aspect to consider is child pornography and the control the society has over the issue. Computer-generated child pornography may result in harm to children. Pornography that is violent and degrading may cause a lot of harm to the society regarding children’s social standards. Further, child pornography may cause harm to the society as there is a chance that spread of these materials on a repeated basis may be a cause of rape. In particular, it is the case for persons who already contemplate about rape and, when they find pornographic material, their urge to rape may increase. As a result, this may result in increased incidences of rape. The argument does not imply that the only cause of rape is pornography, but it may have influence the incidence of rape in some cases. Rape in itself causes a lot of harm to the society. Both the victims and the people who are close to them experience harm in one way or another.

Apart from rape, spread of child pornography may be harmful to the society as children indulging in the act may be susceptible to unplanned pregnancies, sexual illnesses and sexual addiction. As the number of children having exposure to pornography increases, they get to acquire extremely dangerous behaviors from pornographers. When the consumption of child pornography increases, then the pornographers see the need of recruiting more children for their shows. The act is illegal in itself. Further, when children indulge in pornography, it endangers their health as it encourages expressing sexual behaviors without responsibility. Apart from this, the children may get pregnant, which ultimately causes harm to them and the society at large. The children may drop out of school, choose to abort and impose a financial strain on their parents. Though some people may consider that computer-generated child pornography affects only the children involved in it, in reality, it may have a harmful effect on a large portion of the society.

The Harm Principle and Happiness

Though Mill may argue that the harm principle is the best rule to promote happiness to the society, it is not usually the case. First, the harm principle is not applicable to all members of the society. For instance, children are not included in the harm principle. Children have no idea what harm is, and if they indulge in an activity that may cause harm to others, then the society may only consider it an accident. Secondly, there is the issue of ‘backward societies’that may have a totally different way of life. What people typically consider harmful may not be harm at all to them. As a result of this exclusion, it becomes clear that harm is not an absolute term but rather a relative one. Not only is harm relative in its meaning but also in the way people use it.

Another issue that may make the harm principle not the best rule in bringing happiness to the society is that it allows people to interfere with the liberty of others. Such a condition is not likely to result in happiness in the society. To counter this argument, Mill adds the utility principle to the harm principle and points conditions that would allow one to interfere with the liberty of others. The two conditions that would warrant such intervention are the cases of preventing harm and interfering with another person’s liberty in the interest of the general public. Other ways that the harm principle does not necessarily bring happiness to the society include the cases whereby an individual performs an activity that may result in harm to himself/ herself and other people decide to copy his/ her actions and as a result, end up doing harm to themselves. Such case implies that the authorities can interfere with the liberty of people when, in fact, it is not necessary.

With the reasons why the harm principle does not always necessarily bring happiness to the society, it should not be the rule in the society. The harm principle is deficient for the society to use as an expression to limit its resort to counter harmful behavior by persons. The institutional deficiencies of the harm principle come directly from the description of the proper limits of the criminal law regarding the consequences of an individual’s conduct in which there can be immunization against punishment. Rather than using the harm principle, the society should use limit resort to an individual’s criminal sanction along with jurisdictional or procedural lines.

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According to the harm principle, people have the right to do what they want as long as their actions do not have a harmful effect on others. Though this principle may be sufficient in certain scenarios, in others, it is insufficient to intervene in the activities of individuals because harm is a relative term. Even Mill argued that no individual lives in entire isolation because everyone is bound to have a relation to other people. As a result, it becomes a complex process to single out activities that the society may think as such that cause harm to an individual or to others. As each activity is bound to have an effect on other people, the harm principle is not that effective in providing rules to the society. Furthermore, the fact that the harm principle excludes certain people in the society, for example, children and people from barbaric societies, make the harm principle empty in some way. Therefore, the harm principle is not the best rule that would warrant happiness in the society.

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The Harm Principle essay

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