Theories of Justice: John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle

Categories: Theory

This "very simple principle," as Mill portrays it in the book itself, is now commonly known as the Damage Principle, and it functions as the basis for his defence of specific flexibility. According to Mill, every individual grownup should be complimentary from restraint or disturbance other than to the degree that his/her actions might damage others. While society may legally restrict the individual because which "issues others," each individual must be otherwise complimentary in that which "issues himself."

- In the intro to J.

S. Mill's On Liberty ( Hayden 2004).

According to J.S. Mill's popular "Harm Concept," the only reason for moral and legal browbeating as well as governmental intervention is to avoid someone from harming another. Mill's declaration of the "Harm Principle" in On Liberty is thought about by many as the best-known passage in the viewpoint of criminal law (Schonsheck 1994). In stating his views on private liberty, Mill was more interested in the minimum negative freedom than the more favorable instructions of freedom.

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He propounded that a person is not liable to society for his actions as long they do not bring any harm to others and issue only the person himself. Mill's Damage Concept is underpinned by Mill's commitment to utilitarianism, according to which the nature of ideal actions can be examined in regards to their effects: whatever is most likely to offer rise the best joy is the ethically right thing to do. Mill argues that if individuals are enabled space to pursue what interests them, the entire society benefits.

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The Damage Principle defines kinds of injuries that will qualify as harms sufficient to validate regulation of speech and actions of individuals. It validates the ethical authenticity of state browbeating through the system of justice. From it are obtained the concepts which will identify what sort of behavior the state might look for to limit by means of the criminal law. Mill's harm principle is the only genuine factor for validating criminal sanctions. It is a concept that looks for to achieve optimum compromise between private liberty and the state browbeating.

John Stuart Mill was one of the most devoted champions of the ideal of individual liberty.  He is also considered the most influential English philosopher of the nineteenth century (Powell 101). According to Mill, individual liberty must always be encouraged in order to achieve social progress and the greater good. To a considerable extent, social progress can only happen when individual freedom is curtailed; at the same time, progress also necessitates the gradual release of individuals from as many undesirable limits and restrictions as possible.

Mill was a keen advocate of the concepts of individuality liberty and personal development as they relate to both individual and social progress. The individual is sacred and takes precedence over the state. This implies that the state exists primarily for the sake of the individual, to provide opportunity for his or her optimal growth and wellbeing, and to preserve the individual freedom. It is true that the society is largely responsible in creating the individual, but the individual does not exist merely for the sake of society.

The stress on the individual, in contradistinction to society, nation and such collectivities, is one of the hallmark features of Western Liberalism and can be regarded as the very foundation of 19th century liberalism especially.  John Mill was in fact the founder of modern liberalism.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, when Mill's On Liberty was published, the individual was seen by many as the sacrificial victim to the newly emerging gargantuan forces of nationalism and industrialism which exalted the power and the glory of great disciplined human masses. The predicament of the individual versus the State or the nation or the industrial organization or the social or political group was becoming an acute personal and public problem.

Mill's On Liberty is a passionate, inspiring and thought-provoking call to realize greater individual liberty in our society. Mill had a profound vision of human living, which is not a version of Bentham's narrow utilitarianism, according to which human beings are merely pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding machines.

Human beings are uniquely individual personalities, endowed with immense potentiality for mental and spiritual growth. According to Mill, the role of society lies in being caring and tolerant about the individual and the differences in the unique individualities of people, and displaying a commitment to respect all its members who are in the process of cultivating their freedom and realizing their potentiality. Toleration is the watchword.

While utilitarianism is good, it is not the be-all and end-all of human existence. Mill himself was an ardent proponent of welfarist, or rather socialist, utilitarianism, in which individual liberty seems to have only an instrumental value. However, he strongly believed that human choice, autonomy, individuality and freedom of action have moral importance in themselves, that is, independently of their contribution to general welfare.

In his work Utilitarianism, which was written prior to his essays on liberty although published later, Mill sets out a simple criterion of right and wrong in human behavior, that actions are right if they bring about happiness and wrong if they bring the reverse. In On Liberty, he takes a more mature stance and sees individual liberty as being vital for economic and governmental efficiency — thus covering the grounds of both industrialism and nationalism, which were on the surge in his day.

Mill considers the harm principle to be the “single truth” on which his entire philosophy of individuality and liberty are based. Mill advances the notion of individual freedom being a higher value in itself. He invokes the Harm Principle as an absolute defense of individual freedom, even against some of the more superficial utility-based considerations. Sometimes utilitarianism has the tendency to justify social encroachments upon individual liberty in the name of maximizing the general happiness.

Utilitarian argument cannot easily show that individual liberty has an intrinsic value in itself and should be given priority over the claims of general welfare, but Mill upholds the Principle of Liberty to be a higher value than the Principle of Utility. Staunch utilitarians such as Bentham and others saw individual liberty merely as neutral means to achieve overall welfare, but Mill valued individuality for its own sake. In On Liberty, Mill undertakes the enterprise of demonstrating that liberty takes priority over other goods and even over claims of general welfare — and in the final analysis as something that will best promote individual welfare in the long run.

Thus, though there seems to be a fundamental dichotomy between the two cardinal principles at the core of Mill’s philosophy, i.e. individualism and utilitarianism, much of this contradiction is not grounded in reality, at least so far as theory is concerned. For example, individual liberty fosters inventiveness which is highly essential for an industrial society.

Further, individual liberty makes way for a happiness that is much greater and profoundly more meaningful than any happiness and comfort derived from material goods. In fact, none of us can be truly happy in life unless we are on the way of realizing our true potential and bring out the best in ourselves, whatever lifestyle we may choose. Human beings are not born as tabula rasa, as Locke argued; they are born as beings with certain genetic proclivities and much more importantly with immense potential to reach great heights in life.

But unfortunately, the majority of us die without realizing even an iota of our potential, and thus deeply discontent, even if it is repressed at an unconscious level. People who realize their potentials, and have the courage to do their own thing — Mill calls them geniuses, such people being few and far between (Mill 2004). No amount of welfare, comfort, pleasure, utilitarianism can remedy this situation; in fact, they can lull us into sleep, giving a false sense of satisfaction.

Therefore, there is no real dichotomy between individualism and utilitarianism, and Mill himself never acknowledged any fundamental contradiction in his views. There certainly needs to be a balance between the two, but individualism is always a higher value than utilitarianism in situations where there exists a conflict between them. According to the influential psychologist Abraham Maslow’s model of hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is the highest need of each individual.

“The inner need or desire to fulfill one's potential is known as self-actualization” (Slater 2003). Conventional utilitarianism can directly address the first two, out of total five, levels of this hierarchy model, these two levels comprising a) biological and physiological needs and b) safety needs. The third level c) love and belonging needs can be addressed in part  on a collectivistic basis and in part largely on a individualistic basis.

The top two levels comprising d) esteem needs and e) self-actualization, especially the latter, can only be adequately dealt with in a milieu of an exceptional degree of individual liberty. True joy and happiness, along with a sense of deep fulfillment, can only be attained by any individual when he or she realizes at least some of the needs listed in this top echelon, to one degree or other. Some of the needs of personal growth that fall into this category are creativity, spontaneity, wisdom, morality, spiritual realization, etc.

Almost one hundred years before Maslow, Mill advocated individual liberty precisely for these reasons. Although Mill held the ideal of individual liberty sacrosanct, it was not altogether an end in itself. Mill’s whole thrust on individual liberty was for the purposes of promoting freedom of thinking, creativity and originality among people. These are also the traits that are most instrumental in taking civilization to the next level, and causing accelerated social progress.

For Mill, variety is the spice of life, and people of extraordinary talents are the salt of the earth. He was highly averse to mediocrity, conformity and herd mentality that are almost ubiquitous in our society even today. The spread of these elements is perhaps the greatest threat to the realization of individualism on a wider scale. Great talents can be cultured in men and women only when they are provided a proper environment, one of freedom to let their minds grow and blossom in all directions. This is not about cultivating ego or self-centered individualism, though, but about traversing the path of self-actualization.

Mill is often accused of propagating a kind of narrow self-centered individualism. However, Mill’s writings make it clear that a crystallized, individualized self can only develop through relations with other people who are equally engaged in freely exploring the possibilities of their life. For example, in the context of the age-old suppression of women, Mill thought that the men of his society were depriving themselves of the opportunity to gain a deeply beneficial and nurturing experience from half of the human race, by denying women a right to grow and freely express their potentiality.

Mill very deeply recognized that we live only in our interactions with one another, and was convinced that everyone would gain from participating in a community of equals. The importance of the free development of each person's abilities in a society of equals cannot be overemphasized. Stability and progress can be achieved even if we do not reach to agreement as regards our beliefs and values in the fields of morality, religion and politics, but it is essential the liberty of every citizen be respected and preserved.

The scope of Mill’s vision of individual liberty is grand, impressive and admirable. Yet it lacks depth. The entire edifice of his thought seems to crumble on a little analysis because it is built on one false and fantastically naïve assumption. Mill somehow is of the opinion that in general human beings are rational beings, that they at least know how to act in their own best interests at least. He recommends curtailing of liberty only in the case of children and ‘savages’. He obviously did not live through the First and Second World Wars and the rest of the twentieth century with its barbaric conflicts and genocides to witness how savage civilized men can behave.

Mill lived before Freud and did not realize how dark and childish human mind is in reality, though it would not have taken him much observation to stumble upon on some basic facts of human nature. In fact, Mill himself invalidates his whole argument. If a great measure of liberty is not recommended for children, then it is not advisable for adults either, since a majority of adults normally do not seem to possess much more discrimination and wisdom than children do, despite their elegant civilized veneer. The biggest threat to the practice of individual liberty is not governmental despotism, a rigid legal system, or cultural stifling, but the puerility inherent in human nature itself.

The Harm principle or the Liberty principle is a central and, at the same time, most complex and problematic tenet of Mill’s philosophy of liberty. For freedom that could be a blessing in lives of some people could be easily misused and become a curse in most other people’s lives. Freedom could be a very dangerous thing, as much as oppression or any form of servitude. For example, if I had all the money in the world to buy and eat anything I wanted, it would be highly unlikely that I would exercise caution and prudence.

In all probability, I would eat my way to obesity and ill-health. Similarly, if young adults had full access to enjoy the company of opposite sex, without any cultural and social restrictions, it would be near impossible to find anyone exercising moderation and restraint. Here, no one need harm any other person, on the contrary everyone is merely trying please some other person, and even from a purely utilitarian point of view, the sum total of pleasure is increased and everyone is better off for it, that is, in the short term.

Liberty will thus, in no time, devolve into licentious libertarianism and in the long term society would descend into chaos. Law is meant to uphold order, but a system of jurisprudence based on Mill’s ideology can easily devolve into chaos. Although, in principle, freedom is of supreme value, it loses its meaning if it only succeeds in leading to decadence. Freedom is a great power, and as we know power has a great tendency to corrupt — and that is simply how the human nature works.

If we were to go by one of the implications of Mill's conception of individual liberty within the context of jurisprudence, narcotic drugs should be made available to everyone, the choice of using them or not using them being left to the discretion of the individuals. As long as a person using drugs does no overt harm to anyone except himself, he should have the freedom to make his own decisions. To mention another instance, marriages should be dissolvable by a simple expression of intent on both parties, without much further ado (Mill 2004).

But if this were indeed so, what would be the difference between marriages and live-in relationships? The whole sanctity of the institution of marriage would be abrogated. Indeed, some important aspects of Mill's views on individual liberty constitute what can be regarded only as pernicious doctrine, besides being wholly unfeasible in practical affairs. Because if such policies were implemented, they could unleash much confusion and chaos in the society. With this caveat in mind, however, when we begin to explore Mill's philosophy we can find therein much that is uplifting and enlightening.

The value of Mill’s original insights has to be understood by placing them in Mill’s contemporary social context. Most people of that era viewed democracy as a great liberating force. However, Mill did not share the euphoria, he was very much concerned about the destructive influences of rule by people. The sovereignty of the people could easily destroy that of the individuals. Mill considered the government by the people to be not a real freedom at all. Because those who govern are not necessarily the same people as those who are governed, and democratic self-government is not the government 'of each by himself' but, at best, 'of each by all the rest'.

Mill spoke of the ‘the tyranny of the majority' and of the tyranny of 'the prevailing opinion and feeling', and saw no essential difference between that and any other kind of tyranny which encroaches upon men's activities beyond the frontiers of individual private life (Mill, 2004). In the end, it does not really make a difference if the individual is crushed by a popular government or by a monarch. In the context of 'negative' individual freedom, the question of who wields the authority is not as important as how much authority should be placed in the hands of social authority. Unlimited authority in anyone's hands is bound to destroy somebody.

Mill maintained that although usually men protested against one or other type of government for being oppressive, the real cause of oppression in inherent in the very fact of accumulation of power itself, wherever it might happen to be. Individual liberty is endangered by the mere existence of absolute authority. Democracy may disarm oligarchy, a given privileged individual or set of individuals, but it can still crush individuals as mercilessly as any pervious ruler. If any individual consents to be oppressed, he or she does not become any less oppressed, in the same way as if one commits suicide one does not become less dead for having taken one's own life voluntarily.

Mill, along with many liberal thinkers of his time, maintained that if liberty involved a limit upon the powers of any man to force other human beings what they did not or might not wish to do, then, whatever the ideal in which people are coerced, they are simply not free.

The doctrine of absolute sovereignty, be it under the label of democracy or monarchy, is a tyrannical doctrine in itself. If an individual wishes to preserve his or her liberty, precautions must be taken that no popular assembly, just as much as an absolute ruler, authorizes its violation. A society must be established wherein there must be some well-defined frontiers of freedom which nobody can be allowed to cross. And it is the responsibility of the prevalent system of justice in a society to take care of that.

For Mill and the liberal tradition he belongs to, no society is free unless it is governed by two interrelated principles: no power, but only rights, can be regarded as absolute, so that all men, whatever power governs them, have an absolute right to refuse to behave inhumanly; secondly, there are frontiers, not artificially and arbitrarily determined, within which men and women should be inviolable. The freedom of a society, or a class or a group, in this sense of freedom, is measured by the strength of these barriers, and the number and importance of the paths which they keep for their members.

Such freedom, though, does not simply arise from one particular form of government being place instead of another, some deliberate set of public policy, or the tenets of the justice system, but it has to be ingrained in the very cultural ethos of the people. Only then can the society move on the path of true progress. General adherence to the Harm Principle by the government and judicial system tends to make way for freedom, progress, the efflorescence of human culture.



Hayden, P. (2004). Mill’s On Liberty (Introduction).  Barnes and Noble Publishing

Mill, J. S. (2004). On Liberty. (Originally published in 1859). Millis, MA : Agora Publications

Powell, J. (2000).  The Triumph of Liberty : A 2,000 Year History Told Through the Lives of Freedom's Greatest Champions. New York : The Free Press

Slater, A. (2003). Developmental Psychology: An Introduction.  Malden, MA : Blackwell Publishing

Schonsheck, J. (1994). On Criminalization: An Essay in the Philosophy of the Criminal Law. Norwell, MA : Kluwer Academic Publishers,

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Theories of Justice: John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle. (2017, Mar 17). Retrieved from

Theories of Justice: John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle essay
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