Ramble. Focus. Ramble.

Problems with Mill’s Harm Principle

What is Mill’s Harm Principle?

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 is the harm principle in Mill’s words. So, a group or a person can interfere with another person’s liberty, against his will of course, only to prevent harm to others. This is the limit to your power. This is exactly how Mill believes he can protect an individual opinion from a collective opinion. The collective opinion is one that comes from the majority and prevails in the society as a popular opinion. It is also, at times, called custom or norm. The individual opinion needs to be protected against this opinion. Why? Read this other post I wrote a few days ago: On Liberty: Chapter 2

His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

You can talk him out or persuade him when it comes to his own good but you cannot interfere with his liberty.

I have to give him credit for clarifying the difference between immoral act and a harmful act. Something immoral does not always harm others like homosexuality, premarital sex, etc.

Now I have collected a few arguments that make the harm principle look very weak, indeed. I took some out of a few random articles I skimmed and there are perhaps one or two that I came up with myself. Since, this isn’t a hard-core academic essay I am going to get away without giving any article credit with the information I am going to paraphrase here.

Problem No. 1

The harm principle does not apply to everybody. Firstly, let’s simply exclude children from this principle; they don’t know what harm is and if they cause harm it can easily be called an accident. But then there are barbaric societies. They have different ways of life. Their ‘harm’ is not our ‘harm’! I would say, that’s where the problem lies. Harm is a relative term, not only in its meaning but also in the way it is used. I can say, ‘you broke my mug, you have done harm to me’ and someone else may not bother at all about a mug.

Problem No. 2

The harm principle provides us the necessary condition for interfering with someone’s liberty but is this condition sufficient? Take a look at the economic competition thing. People lose all their money somewhere and that is quite some harm but should the system be abolished because it is allowing some people to harm others? ‘No’ is the answer to both these questions.

Therefore, Mill adds his utility principle to it and says, one can only interfere with someone’s liberty:

  • to prevent harm


  • if the interference is in general interest (majority’s interest)

Problem No. 3

Harm principle applies to ‘inactions.’ For instance, if I don’t clean my room and that somehow causes harm to my mother, I should be compelled to clean my room. There are a billion things that can cause harm to others, like this. And that means the harm principle allows authorities to interfere with our liberties A LOT and that is probably not what Mill wanted.

Also, if I am causing harm to myself and someone wants to do what  I am doing with myself, they end up causing harm to themselves, is it my fault? Am I to be punished for that?

Problem No. 4

It’s funny how Mill set out to limit the use of power and to ensure the rights to liberty and he ends up somewhere else. He wanted to keep a check on the popular opinion so it does not kill the individual opinion because majority’s opinion can be incorrect, according to Mill. He thought he was forming a principle for the protection of individual opinion but he was only giving more power to the popular opinion. He was only strengthening the power of the majority.

The fact that the interference has to be in general interest means that the ‘rule of majority’ still applies. It is still going to be the majority that decides what is harm and what isn’t harm.

When I started reading On Liberty, I was impressed. I thought Mill was brilliant in putting down the problems of democracy in such an elaborate manner. But then his solution to the problems of democracy is again democracy, it’s always going to be the rule of majority for him.


One comment on “Problems with Mill’s Harm Principle

  1. fwfwf
    April 7, 2018

    ‘Something immoral does not always harm others like homosexuality, premarital sex, etc.’ – are you intending to describe homosexuality as ‘immoral’?

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This entry was posted on December 12, 2012 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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