John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is, for some people, an inspiring guide to better government. Its main focus, the principle of harm, is an extremely interesting concept both for its simplicity and for its intuitive acceptability. But in life, good explanations are rarely as elegant and simple as Mill’s, and so it seems necessary to put it through its paces before we accept it as gospel. In doing so, we will examine what problem the principle of harm is meant to solve, how its design is meant to solve that problem, and whether it is successful.
Mill opens his essay with a discussion of majority rule. He points out that popular government arose because “…men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power opposed in interest to themselves” (1859, 2). Accordingly, people created governments that responded to the desires of populous, rather than to the caprice of the ruling class. Because these governments, in theory, were the institutionalizations of the general will, people did not seek to impose limits on them, because “There was no fear of [the nation’s] tyrannizing over itself” (ibid, 3).
But Mill points out that “…such phrases as “self-government” and “the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case” (ibid, 3-4), because those who guide policy are not the whole of the populous, but rather only “…the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority” (ibid, 4). This majority could make laws to subjugate those who opposed them in much the same way that a tyrant could. But Mill explains that the power of majority rule extends further than the legal sphere; social opinion can be equally, if not more powerful and coercive than law when it comes to producing conformity, as “…it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself” (ibid). This is dangerous because, as Mill discusses in the third chapter of his essay, “…it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way” (ibid, 55). In order to live worthwhile lives, people must be free to choose their own fates. In much the same way that law does, social pressures can prevent people from choosing certain paths which would result in the greatest happiness.
Mill’s discussion of the power of social norms is similar of Emile Durkheim’s later description of social facts. As Durkheim puts it, there are “…types of behavior and thinking external to the individual…[which are] endued with a compelling and coercive power by virtue of which, whether he wishes it or not, they impose themselves upon him. Undoubtedly when I conform to them of my own free will, this coercion is not felt or felt hardly at all, since it is unnecessary. None the less it is intrinsically a characteristic of these facts; the proof of that is that it asserts itself as soon as I try to resist” (1982, 1). Some social facts, like laws prohibiting murder, are necessary and just. But Mill is concerned that some sorts of social encumbrances, both those imposed by the coercion of law and those imposed by “…the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling” (1859, 4) can and do go further in regulating society than can be justified.
Mill therefore asserts that “…there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest: comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct and conduct which affects only himself or, if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation” (ibid, 11). According to this view, those actions falling outside the aforementioned sphere of action, which might be called the sphere of liberty, could be justifiably intervened in if such interventions were deemed fit by society. But Mill believes that all action within the sphere of liberty is off limits for coercive intervention, both legal and moral.
Mill’s doctrine gives us a prescription summarized well in William Graham Sumner’s later exhortation to “Mind your own business…Let every man be happy in his own way. If his sphere of action and interest impinges on that of any other man, there will have to be compromise and adjustment. Wait for the occasion” (1911, 120). This idea is intuitive enough, but will it hold up under closer examination?
One obvious question that arises from Mill’s definition is directed at the definition of the boundary between behaviors that directly harm others and that which do so only indirectly. For one thing, can emotional damage to others count as harm? Charles Lawrence once asserted that “Psychic injury is no less an injury than being struck in the face, and it often is far more severe. Racial epithets and harassment often cause deep emotional scarring and feelings of anxiety and fear that pervade every aspect of a victim’s life” (quoted in Altman, 1997, 377). On a related point, Joel Feinberg claimed that offensive behavior has the power to “…create at best a kind of painful turmoil, and at worst that experience of exposure to oneself…which is called shame” (1973, 44). Surely this would suggest that behavior that inspires indignation, anxiety, fear or shame could safely be considered harmful. It is doubtful that Mill would disagree.
But if Mill’s principle of harm protects only those actions that do not so much as offend anyone, does it really accomplish anything of real value? It might seem that Mill is arguing in favor of protecting behaviors that do not upset anyone, and therefore would give people no reason to want to regulate them in the first place. In this case, a very real charge could be leveled against Mill holding that his principle is too weak to be very useful.
Further clarification may be found in analyzing another application of Mill’s principle. In a discussion of the morality of prohibition of drugs such as cocaine, heroin and PCP, James Wilson points out that illegal drugs “…lead you to neglect your duties to family, job, and neighborhood” (1997, 298). Accordingly, he believes that social intervention is justified. But what would Mill say? Does negligence of duties qualify as harm to others? In the fifth chapter of his essay, Mill explains that “When a person, either by express promise or by conduct, has encouraged another to rely upon his continuing to act in a certain way – to build expectations and calculations, and stake any part of his plan of life upon that supposition – a new series of moral obligations arises on his part toward that person…” (1859, 102).
So Mill might agree that a spouse, child, or employer could level an accusation of wrongdoing on a drug addict, as the addict would be violating some implicit contract through his or her actions. But Wilson’s argument in favor of prohibition extends further than condemning those who shirk on their responsibilities. He claims that “…cocaine alters one’s soul. The heavy use of crack…corrodes those natural sentiments of sympathy and duty that constitute our human nature and make possible our social life” (1997, ibid). But while Mill believes that we “…owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter” (1859, 74), he also thinks that we have no right to tell anyone “…that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it” (ibid).
This example shows that Mill’s principle can indeed allow us to distinguish quite easily between the sorts of actions that ought to be protected from coercion and those which might justify coercion, and that there are significant instances where Mill’s principle would direct us not to intervene. Therefore it is not justifiable to say that Mill’s proposal is irrelevant. Some people clearly do want to engage in the sorts of actions that Mill is condemning.
But we may still be hesitant to accept Mill’s distinction. It may offer us solid prescriptions and ease of use with regard to real world problems, but it may not provide us with the sorts of policy conclusions we believe would benefit society most. One way to demonstrate this would be to locate a class of actions that falls within the sphere of liberty as Mill defines it, but which we think ought to be subject to social coercion. A possible illustration is animal cruelty. In his book Social Philosophy, Joel Feinberg provides an example in which John Doe, in order to avoid distressing others, leaves his community, “…buys a five hundred acre ranch, and moves into a house in the remote, unpopulated center of his own property. There, in the perfect privacy of his own home, he spends every evening maiming, torturing, and beating to death his own animals” (1973, 41). With this example, Feinberg argues that the principle of harm is inadequate in describing the boundary society must not cross in using its power to coerce individuals. One way to defend Mill would be to argue in favor of extending the harm principle to animals. But harming animals is, in many cases, perfectly acceptable to us. As Feinberg puts it, “We must control animal movements, exploit animal labor, and, in many cases, deliberately slaughter animals” (ibid). Therefore, extending the principle of harm to animals does not solve the problem, it creates new ones instead. In light of Feinberg’s criticism, we are forced to concede that Mill’s principle is not fully capable of producing acceptable policy prescriptions.
But it does not seem right to discard Mill’s ideas altogether. Mill’s main point seems to be that toleration of the choices made by others is a good thing for society. This is itself a valuable insight. Even if we must not be as unequivocal as Mill in saying that all actions that do not harm other people ought to be protected from legal and moral coercion, the basic idea behind such a claim is still valuable. A society in which everyone is accorded the right to pursue their own happiness in their own way, independent of the biting judgments and legal impositions of others, seems intuitively appealing to us. And while we may want to discuss certain moral impositions, like those prohibiting cruelty to animals, Mill’s principle urges us to consider such measures very carefully, to ensure that we do not impose unjust constraints on others in our society. And that is worthwhile in itself.
Altman, A. (1997). Speech Codes and Expressive Harm. In H. LaFollette (Ed.), Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. (1997, pp. 376-385). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
Durkheim, E. (1982). What is a Social Fact? Retrieved April 18, 2007 from: www2.pfeiffer.edu/~lridener/DSS/Durkheim/SOCFACT.HTML.
Feinberg, J. (1973). Social Philosophy. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.
Mill, J. S. (1859). On Liberty. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Sumner, W. G. (1911 ). What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. New York/London: Harper & Brothers Publishers.
Wilson, J. Q. (1997). Against the Legalization of Drugs. In H. LaFollette (Ed.), Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. (1997, pp. 295-299). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.