Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

Harm to others

We start with some general comments about Mill’s harm principle, ignoring for the
moment the distinction between consensual and non-consensual harm to others.
The first, and rather obvious, objection to the harm principle is: what, in fact,
constitutes harm? Surely every action has some effect – good or bad – on others?
Mill concedes that no person is an ‘entirely isolated being’ (Mill, 1991: 88) and
almost all actions have remote consequences. If by harm we mean any bad effect
another person’s action may have, then few actions would be purely self-regarding
and it would be difficult to use harm as a criterion for restricting freedom at the
same time as guaranteeing a significant sphere of freedom for the individual. Mill
operates with a ‘physicalist’ rather than a ‘psychological’ definition of harm; if we
were to expand the concept of harm beyond physical harm to the person (and his
property) to include psychological harm then the private sphere in which a person
would be free to act would be severely contracted.
Another kind of harm might be caused when a person sets a bad example: if
Mill is going to appeal to the goodconsequences of ‘experiments in living’, he must
surely accept that some experiments may also have badconsequences for other
people. Part of Mill’s response to this problem is to argue that you cannot have the
benefits of freedom without also suffering the negative consequences. To try to
determine what are good experiments in living and what are bad, and seek to restrict
the latter, is to prejudge what is good and bad, and it is precisely only in the
competition of lifestyles that such a judgement can be made. The consequences of
an action are always in the future, and so we cannot know those consequences now
such that we can predict them.
The appeal to competing lifestyles is an important argument but it is quite
different to a defence of freedom based on the possibility that many important
actions are self-regarding and do not therefore harm others. To save the harm
principle Mill must clarify what can count as harm. One option is to redefine harm
as: having one’s fundamental interests damaged such that one’s life goes
(significantly) less well than it would otherwise have gone. It could be added that
in most circumstances the individual who is harmed should judge what is, or is not,
in her interests – this raises the issue of consent, which is discussed in the next
section. Obviously, this needs to be elaborated, but the point is that the threshold
for deeming an action harmful is high; it cannot simply be an action which has
negative effects on another person. This would rule out temporary discomfort
caused by someone else’s action. We might still want to attach some importance to
temporary discomfort, but rather than call it harmful we call it offensive. If we do
this then we need a different principle for judging something offensive – this principle
is discussed in the section on Offensiveness.


Mill argues that people can consent to be harmed. Activities such as boxing, even
though they carry the risk of considerable harm and even death, must be free so
long as the people concerned consented, and were capable of consent, where being
‘capable’ means being an adult. It might be objected that there is no necessary

Chapter 2 Freedom 43
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