In but also negligent behaviour, cruelty and discrimination.

In this essay, I will be arguing
whether J.S. Mill really treats the Harm Principle as the sole legitimate basis
for restricting the liberties of individuals or not. The Harm Principle was
developed by John Stuart Mill, who wrote many essays that created rules that
people could use to decide what actions were good and bad. The Principle
implies that the only actions that can be prevented are ones that produce harm.
In simpler terms, an individual can do whatever he wishes as long as his
actions do not harm others. Essentially, J.S. Mill developed a view of ‘true’
freedom based on the absence of constraint. Mill divided our actions into two
types: the first were self-regarding actions, i.e. those that do not affect
other people. In Mill’s day, such actions would have been mainly those of
religious observance and the development of beliefs and personal morality. In a
modern context, they might include drug use, smoking and drinking alcohol. The
second type was other-regarding actions that do affect others adversely, such
as assault or theft, but also negligent behaviour, cruelty and discrimination.
Therefore, if a person’s actions only affect himself, then society, which
includes the government, should not use force to stop a person from doing what
he wants. In comparison to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he argues freedom as an
absolute value. Freedom is human essence which cannot be compromised and
involves a choice between alternative goals. Further, freedom is the condition
of morality; that man is a being responsible for his own acts, capable of good
and evil. However, inanimate objects and animals are not accountable because
they are determined by material laws. Thus, when a man is coerced he is reduced
to an object; he is no longer a man, renouncing their role as moral agents.


Mill stresses that democracy has
its own dangers, which is the threat of the tyranny of the majority. 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.
Regardless, the rights of the minority must be safeguarded. The solution to
this, according to Mill, is to severely limit the powers of representative democracy.
Mill is concerned with the question of ‘the nature and limits of the power
which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual’ (Mill, 1859, p.88). Mill suggests that we
should reserve significant powers for the individual. There are limits to state
intervention, and also limits to the proper use of public opinion as a way of
shaping beliefs and behaviour. The key question is; how much power should the
state have? According to anarchists, the state has no acceptable limit to the
liberty of the individual. In contrast to Hobbes, he claims that the state has
no obligation to pay any regard to all to the liberties of its subjects. It
could enforce whatever rules and restrictions it wishes (Wolff, 2016, p. 105). Whereas Mill believes that if people are
given complete freedom then some will most definitely abuse it, using the
absence of government to exploit others. As he puts it, ‘All that makes
existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the
actions of other people’ (Mill, 1859, p.91).
Anarchy indicates living without the law, and, according to Mill, our lives
would not be worth living for.

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There is this question on what
grounds may the state interfere to prohibit people from acting as they wish?
Mill spots that different societies have ‘solved’ this problem in numerous
ways. For example, some have prevented the practice of particular religions, or
even suppressed religion completely. While others have imposed censorship on
the press and other media. Many have outlawed specific sexual practices.
Homosexual acts between men were illegal until the 1960s in many parts of the
world and remain so in some. All these restrictions on people’s liberty were
carried out through the exercise of state power. Another question comes to mind
and that is whether the state has the right to interfere in people’s lives and
liberties in any of these ways? Thus, Mill seeks a principle that will allow us
to decide each case on its real merits, rather than forsaking the matter to
arbitrary custom and popular morality – known to be Mill’s greatest enemy.
Mill’s ‘Liberty Principle’ or the ‘Harm Principle’ cites that, “the sole
end for which mankind is warranted, interfering with the liberty of action of
any of their number, is self-protection.” Social
& political philosophy spring mill’s harm principle and Utilitarianism (2009) Available at: (Accessed: 9 February 2017).
In other words, you may justifiably limit a person’s freedom of action only if
they threaten harm to another. In modern time this principle may seem
outstandingly obvious, but this was not the case throughout most of history.
For centuries people have been persecuted for worshipping the wrong God, or for
not worshipping at all. But what harm did they cause to anyone, except possibly
to their own immortal souls?


Mill states that the principle
applies to ‘any member of a civilised community” (Social & political philosophy
spring mill’s harm principle and Utilitarianism (2009) Available at: (Accessed: 9 February 2017).
This suggests that Mill does accept restrictions on the liberty of the
uncivilised. He clearly claims that the principle is meant only to people in
‘the maturity of their faculties’ (Mill, 1859,
p.95). First, the principle does not apply to children; until someone
‘comes of age’ – whenever society agrees that is – they may need protection
against their own actions. Second, it does not also apply in ‘backward’ societies,
for example, when society is barbaric. Both children and ‘backward’ societies
have not yet developed to a point at which force can be replaced by ‘free and
equal decision’ Lacewing,
M. Mill’s ‘harm principle’. Available at:
(Accessed: 12 February 2017). Once they have, nonetheless, the principle
applies. At this point, to help them acknowledge what is good for them, we need
only talk with them. If they disagree with us, it’s not because they cannot
comprehend or respond rationally to what we say, but simply because they
disagree with us about what is good for them, and we should not override them
with force Lacewing,
M. Mill’s ‘harm principle’. Available at:
(Accessed: 12 February 2017). What’s
essential at this stage is not whether Mill was right or wrong about
barbarians, but the condition he laid down for the application of the
principle. Liberty is valued as a means to improvement – moral progress. Under
some circumstances liberty will have the opposite effect, and yet progress will
have to be affected by some other means. But when society is matured – when we
have progressed to an appropriately educated and civilised level – state
interference in individual action should be controlled by the Harm Principle.


One of Mill’s key beliefs was
that there should be complete freedom of thought and discussion. For Mill, the
fact that a view is unpopular is no reason to ignore it. He notes that “if
all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person was of the
contrary opinion, mankind would be more justified in silencing that one
person” (Mill, 1859, p.100). Mill
argues, we have a good reason to welcome the advocacy even of unpopular views.
To suppress them would be to ‘rob the human race, posterity as well as the
existing generation’*. Mill maintains that, whether the controversial view is
true, false, or both, we will never gain by refusing it a voice. If we suppress
a true view, then we lose the opportunity to exchange error, whole or partial,
for truth. On the other hand, if we suppress a false view we lose in a
different manner: to challenge, reconsider and maybe reaffirm, our true views.
Nevertheless, there is nothing to gain by suppression, whatever the truth of
the view in question.


To see if it’s really harmful in
suppressing a false view, Mill points out the distinction between ‘our being
certain of a view, and ‘the view being certain’ (Wolff,
2016, p. 107). Not to identify this is to assume infallibility, but
enough empirical evidence has been provided of how mistaken this assumption is.
Many beliefs that were once held as certainties have been considered by later
generations not only to be false but also to be meaningless. For example, Mill
uses the case of Socrates and Jesus, Socrates being executed for impiety and
immorality, and Jesus for blasphemy (Wolff,
2016, p. 108). Both were tried by honest judges, acting in good faith.
Yet both perished in societies where the notion of infallibility led to
statutes prohibiting the advocacy of views contrary to established traditions.
Moreover, the moral systems of both Socratic philosophy and Christianity were
suppressed because they clashed with established views ‘known for certain’ to
be true. This demonstrates the view that the human race is capable of
monumental error. Hence why Mill never believes we have the right to claim


For classical liberals, all
individuals are free and equal. Hence, negative freedom means freedom from any
limits or restraints. Negative freedom advocates, for example, freedom of
speech, freedom of association, freedom of property ownership and freedom from
state interference. These freedoms are protected by the capacity of humans to
have reason. Classical liberals see the state as a threat as it is the chief
constraint on the freedom of the individual. The only role of the state within
this concept of negative freedom is to keep the peace. There is no role for the
state in managing the economy. In order to maximise negative freedom, the state
must be minimal as the main threat to negative freedom results from government,
laws and physical constraint. Classical liberals believe that all individuals
have freedom and the power to exercise this freedom.


On the contrary, modern liberals
have criticised negative freedom for creating huge social inequalities, which
in effect, limit the capacity of individuals to be free. Positive freedom means
being free to achieve and having the power to realise one’s own potential and
freedom. The main threats to positive freedom are social disadvantages and the
inequalities that prevent individuals from achieving their potential. For
modern liberals, the state has a positive role to play in ensuring that
individuals are free to have self-masters and self-realisation. Positive
freedom results both from universal welfare, education and a mixed market
economy and from guarantees of freedom enshrined in law. The state has an
empowering role in ensuring positive freedom through taxation, and thus some
interference in the economy is necessary to enable this. The state remains
limited, as welfare is used to support individuals to achieve on their own
merits, rather than by distributing wealth. Accordingly, by freeing individuals
from poverty they are able to exercise freedom. This is supported by the state
guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination and freedom of
association through laws or a Bill of Rights. As a whole, according to modern
liberals, the role of the state continues to be minimal but interventionist,
and it is vital in ensuring individuals have freedom.


Conversely, the term ‘negative
liberty’ was not used by Mill himself; the modern philosopher Isaiah Berlin
coined the term a century later to describe Mill’s view. By ‘negative’ he did
not imply any criticism of the idea but rather that it referred to an absence
of restraint. We can also trace the concept of positive liberty back to the
English moral philosopher, T.H. Green. He rejected the classical liberal view
of Mill and others that society is made up only of self-interested individuals.
In its place, he saw society as ‘organic’ and its citizens as interdependent as
well as independent (McNaughton, 2009, p.7).
In other words, citizens are not merely motivated by self-interest but also by
a desire to promote the common good. It follows from this that individuals
achieve self-fulfilment not merely through pursuing their own happiness, but
also by pursuing social goods such as the welfare of others. Green’s freedom is
positive in that we can achieve personal satisfaction by doing good for others
as well as for ourselves. A modern conception of positive liberty is that there
should be the widest possible degree of choice and opportunity for everybody.
Given freedom and choice, we will exercise a sense of social responsibility by
pursuing the common good. Nonetheless, this doesn’t make Green a socialist. He
still believed that the state should promote individual liberty and that we
pursue self-interest, but he asserted that freedom is not one-dimensional: it’s
both individual and social in nature (McNaughton,
2009, p.7).  


The utilitarian tradition of
liberalism held, as its fundamental belief, that each individual is the best
judge of his or her own interests. For Jeremy Bentham, the concept of freedom
was relatively straightforward. As individuals, we are motivated to pursue
pleasure and to avoid pain. As Mill puts it, “regard utility as the
ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest
sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”
Social & political philosophy spring mill’s harm
principle and Utilitarianism
(2009) Available at:
(Accessed: 9 February 2017). This simply means, we know what we wish to
pursue and what we wish to avoid in order to progress as a fully developed
human being. For Bentham, being allowed to make those decisions for ourselves
and to act on them was the essence of freedom. He believed that the role of
government should not be to make those decisions for us, nor should the
government prevent us from following our own self-interest, unless, we prevent
others from pursuing theirs (McNaughton, 2009,
p.6). Henceforth, the enlightened pursuit of self-interest became a
central liberal idea and one that coexisted well with free-market capitalism.


Overall, as a response to whether Mill treats the principle as the sole
legitimate basis for restricting the liberties of individuals; he cannot think
that harm prevention is sufficient to justify restricting liberty. As soon as a
person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction
over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be
promoted by interfering with it becomes open to discussion. Further on, Mill
makes clear that harm prevention is required but not sufficient to justify
restrictions on liberty. It must by no means be supposed, because damage, or
probability of damage, to the interests of others, can alone justify the
interference of society, that then it always does justify such interference.
These assumptions imply that Mill is not committed to a simpler version of the
sufficiency of harm for restriction on liberty. Nevertheless, these claims are
compatible with Mill approving a weaker version of sufficiency. If anyone
commits a hurtful act to others, there is a prima facie case for punishing him
by law or, where legal penalties are safely applicable, by general
disapprobation (Brink, D. (2014) Mill’s moral and political
philosophy. Available at: (Accessed: 12
February 2017). This shows that Mill’s position is that
causing harm is always pro tanto reason, a non-negligible reason, to adjust the
action, but a reason that might be outweighed by countervailing reasons not to
adjust (Brink, D. (2014) Mill’s moral and political
philosophy. Available at: (Accessed: 12
February 2017). If the adjustment is more harmful than the
behaviour in question, it might be best not to adjust, despite the pro tanto
case for regulation. This indicates that we should differentiate stronger and
weaker versions of the idea that harm is sufficient to justify the regulation.
Therefore, weak sufficiency means harm to others is a pro tanto justification
of regulation; whereas strong sufficiency implies that harm to others is a
conclusive justification of regulation. As a result, there’s a convincing case
for thinking that Mill rejects strong sufficiency but embraces weak sufficiency