Through out history, many philosophers have discussed the rights of mankind such as existence, liberty and especially property. In the work “The Second Treatise of Civil Government” written by John Locke, mankind’s natural rights are critically examined one by one. This essay aims to discuss whether John Stuart Mill’s harm principle that he mentions in “On Liberty” can be exercised while not violating the natural rights of mankind or not. First of all, in order to find out the consistency of Mill’s harm principle with Locke’s natural rights, briefly one should examine Locke’s definitions of state of nature and state of war.
For Locke, when men live together reasonably and have right to judge each other, without a common authority such as a government it is called state of nature. For Locke, state of nature is a reasonable state that mankind live peacefully. And when men use force, or assert a design of force over other men and threat their lives, where also no common authority is present it is called state of war. Apart from the state of nature, in the state of war, Locke says that “every man hath a right to punish the offender, and be executioner of the law of nature” which drags men into continuous and endless wars and quarrels.
Consequently, because of living in state of war, men could not make use of their natural rights such as right of existence, liberty, property, health, and punishment and judgment. One may instantly, without giving you a chance of defend, kill you, take away your freedom, seize you property and can do many other evil and unlawful actions. In order to prevent the brutal outcomes of state of war, Locke highlights the need of common legislative authority over the members of the community which will lead men to state of society where possessing natural rights would have a meaning and use.
From these points, with a general survey, one can establish relations with Mill’s harm principle in consistency with natural rights. Mill’s harm principle lets government or such common legislative authority use power, force or other instruments over persons against their will in order to prevent someone to harm any other. And what Locke is seeking by introducing common legislative power is not much different with Mill’s presentation of harm principle. Let me support my stance by explaining the close relation between the natural rights of mankind and the principle.
Right of existence and right of freedom cannot be secured in the state of war. The stronger members of the community would take hold of the others liberty which naturally have to be free from all superior powers and make them his slaves by at the same time threaten their lives, torturing and killing them. And putting forward that they can do anything they want and live in fully satisfied because of the natural right of liberty. But that is not the liberty of men.
In such cases, rights of existence and liberty are attached to the willpower of the strongest although they are natural and given by god. True liberty is as Locke defines the freedom of men to follow their own wills and make their choices under the supervision of common legislative powers. So that for Locke such wills and actions that threatens others right of existence will not considered as natural right of freedom and not protected by government and vice-versa government will apply sanctions over whom uses right of freedom in bad faith.
Then one shall say that Mill’s harm principle is put into practice over Locke’s natural rights of liberty. They joined together in the state of civilized society holding each other. Another very significant natural right that Locke talks about is property right. Firstly, he says that everything which lies on the earth created by god or nature belongs to the mankind in common. But mankind needs to use those unpossessed crops and fruits of earth in order to satisfy their needs and support and comfort of their being. Inevitably, concept of property is needed.
Locke, at that point, says that whoever puts his or her labor on something that belongs to nature and community becomes the owner of that thing and constitutes title on it. The apples which in nature and owned by everybody, when gathered from trees by someone by mixing labor into, becomes the apples of the laborer or gatherer. By that way, I mean by mixing labor on something as Locke signifies, natural right of property can be established over something which is before common. However the question is, can one use Mill’s harm principle without violating Locke’s natural property right?
The process of mixing effort on something is unclear. One may exert any kind of force and work to get the property of anything and may say “I have put my work on it” although actions may not legal, unjust, unfair and not protected by government. Another aspect is how someone can know and set apart the common and the owned property? Again he may put his effort on something which is already owned by another. The rule, first come, first served is not so determining and in practice many conflicts may occur.
In both cases someone may get hurt by another’s actions. So in a sense, it seems harm principle is needed to be accepted by the government in order to prevent such harmful actions performed by ones who try to own something. In my opinion, in such cases putting into practice the harm principle is not a violation over property right, seems more like a limitation on behalf of mankind. Moreover, as Locke also explains everyone should not labor more than he could make use of, otherwise indirectly others may be affected by scarcity and lack of resources.
At that point again harm principle can step in, and in order to prevent someone to acquire more than what he needs, common authority may exercise power on selfish ones. In conclusion, one may say that harm principle generally can be exercised by community while not violating the natural rights but limiting it on behalf of members of the society. Because as I tried to show that without such instruments, I mean harm principle, people who had bad faith in, can use natural rights in evil things.