the harm principle

Source :

John Stuart Mill and The Harm Principle, by William T. Myers.

“In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill puts forth a famous liberty limiting principle that has come to be known as “the Harm Principle” (HP, henceforth). This principle is probably the most permissive of the liberty limiting principles. It says, in extended form:

“…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right…The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

An important distinction: Self-regarding vs. other-regarding actions. Self regarding actions are those which affect only the agent himself. Other-regarding actions affect others.

Limitations: For the HP to apply, the agent in question must be an adult, fully in control of his or her faculties.

A true agent of an action is one who, with respect to that action, is: 1. Free (not coerced) 2. Voluntary (competent to choose) and 3. Informed (has sufficient information to choose)

Example: crossing an unsafe bridge.

But, aren’t others always affected? Perhaps, but in order for an action to be other-regarding, it must: 1. violate a distinct and assignable (specific) obligation; or 2. render the agent incapable of performing a specific duty to others. So, in sum, we may restrict an act by law if it violates someone’s rights. Otherwise, it may be punished at most by opinion.

Given Mill’s definition of an agent, three kinds of paternalistic laws might be justifiable. Namely, those which restrict acts involving:

1. Coercion (e.g., incest, minimum wage laws, usury) 2. Involuntariness (e.g., laws restricting addictive drugs, confinement of the mentally ill) 3. Ignorance (professional licensing, prescription drug laws, vaccinations)”

William T. Myers, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Birmingham-Southern College

~ by quintal on 21 June, 2009.

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