World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Harm principle

Article Id: WHEBN0000607960
Reproduction Date:

Title: Harm principle  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: John Stuart Mill, Freedom of speech, Classical liberalism, Intrinsic value (animal ethics), Victimless crime
Collection: 1859 Introductions, Classical Liberalism, Ethical Principles, John Stuart Mill
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Harm principle

The harm principle holds that the actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals. John Stuart Mill articulated this principle in On Liberty, where he argued that, "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."[1] An equivalent was earlier stated in France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 as, "Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law."


  • Definition 1
  • The offense principle 2
  • Broader definitions of harm 3
  • Claimed weakness with the harm principle 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • External links 8


The belief "that no one should be forcibly prevented from acting in any way he chooses provided his acts are not invasive of the free acts of others" has become one of the basic principles of libertarian politics.[2]

While the phrase "harm principle" was not itself used until 1969, the harm principle itself was first fully articulated by the English thinker John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) in the first chapter of On Liberty (1859),[1] where he argued that:

Mill sees harm and wrongdoing as synonymous. Even if a self-regarding action results in harm to oneself, it is still beyond the sphere of justifiable state coercion.

Harm itself is not a non-moral concept. The infliction of harm upon another person is what makes an action wrong.[4]

Harm can also result from a failure to meet an obligation. Morality generates obligation. Duty may be exacted from a person in the same way as a debt, and it is part of the notion of duty that a person may be rightfully compelled to fulfill it.[3][4]

The offense principle

Mill's harm principle is distinct from the offense principle. The basis of comparison is that in some cases, psychological or social harm may be comparable to physical harm. The difference is based on the assumption that offense may cause discomfort, but does not necessarily cause harm. An offense meets the harm principle only if it is a wrong and also causes harm.

The ethical question as to what extent there should be constraints on free speech is often grounded in both the harm principle and the offense principle. If the exercise of free speech can be causally linked to violence or similar physical harm, it is constrained under the harm principle. Free speech actions such as burning a flag or holding controversial rallies usually fall under the offense principle instead, based on the corresponding question of what constitutes harm (or, alternately, weighing harm caused by limiting a freedom vs harm caused by the exercise of that freedom).[5]

In the abstract, criminalizing all wrongs that cause harm makes the offense principle almost synonymous with the harm principle. However, the definition of what constitutes a wrong may change over time—such that harm may be caused by actions that were not considered wrongs at the time, and vice versa.[4][6]

Broader definitions of harm

In the same essay, Mill further explains the principle as a function of two maxims:

The second of these maxims has become known as the social authority principle.

However, the second maxim also opens the question of broader definitions of harm, up to and including harm to the society. The concept of harm is not limited to harm to another individual but can be harm to individuals plurally, without specific definition of those individuals.

This is an important principle for the purpose of determining harm that only manifests gradually over time—such that the resulting harm can be anticipated, but does not yet exist at the time that the action causing harm was taken. It also applies to other issues—which range from the right of an entity to discharge broadly polluting waste on private property, to broad questions of licensing, and even to the right of sedition.

Claimed weakness with the harm principle

On 1 August 2015 it was claimed by Robert Waterhouse in an unpublished communication that he had found a flaw in Mills' concept of the individual. Waterhouse claims that a hidden assumption exists in Mill's argument: that the individual is unchanging over time, and that the individual would always act at some future date exactly as they would act today. His claim is that this is unknowable, and that as a consequence Mill's principle is unsound because it would potentially allow the future self to be harmed.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Freedom of Speech". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 April 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  2. ^ Ronald Hamowy, The encyclopaedia of libertarianism, Sage, 2008, p. xxi, ISBN
  3. ^ a b John Stuart Mill (1859). On Liberty. Oxford University. pp. 21–22. Retrieved 2008-02-27. 
  4. ^ a b c Menezes Oliveira, Jorge. "Harm and Offence in Mill’s Conception of Liberty" (PDF). University of Oxford. Retrieved 6 Jun 2012. 
  5. ^ Cohen-Almagor, Raphael (1993). "Harm Principle, Offense Principle, and the Skokie Affair" 41 (3). Political Studies. Retrieved 6 Jun 2012. 
  6. ^ Simester, A.P.; von Hirsch, Andrew (2002). "Rethinking the Offense Principle" 8. Legal Theory. Retrieved 6 Jun 2012. 



External links

  • Baselines, at Legal Theory Blog.
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.