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Harm Principle Essay

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Updated: Apr 30th, 2019

John Stuart Mill an English philosopher promotes the idea of an individual’s liberty. The individual right’s liberty main concept is the harm principle. The harm principle promotes individuals rights. It states that the society can only exercise power rightfully over an individual if his or her actions cause harm to others.

Mill used the utilitarianism source that a right action should bring most good. Thus, according to the principle, an individual has the right to do whatever he or she wills unless the action brings harm to others and that is the only time power should be used to prevent an individual from exercising their will.

If an individual’s action does not harm others, it brings most good, and it is therefore permissible. The harm principle holds the opinion that an individual is sovereign over his mind and body. Mill strongly believed that an individual has a right over the majority rule (Mill, 2010).

The harm principle posits that an individual has liberty and the liberty extends to authority above the society. According to the principle, individuals can think whatever they like because they have the freedom. The society should not interfere with that freedom even if it differs from what the majority thinks. That individual has the right to hold a contrary opinion from the society. Moreover, individuals should have the right to their own tastes, interests, and religion.

The interests and tastes do not have to conform to the society’s moral beliefs as long as the individual does not harm others in the pursuit. An individual can do as he or she wills, and the society should not try to stop them even if the interests are immoral according to the society’s beliefs (Mill, 2010).

On the contrary, the harm principle only concerns about preventing an individual from doing harm to others and leaves an individual vulnerable to self. The vulnerability to self occurs, and Mill says power should not be exercised over an individual because even it if is for the individual’s own good in moral or physical terms it is not a sufficient reason to interfere with his or her choices.

An individual cannot be compelled to act in a particular way because it will bring him happiness or even if it were the wise and right thing in the eyes of other people. Thus, if an individual’s action does not concern others and harms an individual he should be allowed the absolute right to do it because he or she has independence. It means that some actions even though harmful cannot be prohibited, and one can only try to advise an individual from committing harmful actions to self (Mill, 2010).

According to the principle, the society should accommodate individuals by allowing them the freedom to exercise their sovereignty. Mill came up with the harm principle so that the divergent views that individuals hold in the society cannot be accepted or rejected based on other people’s liking or disliking as that would be an oppression to an individual. The society is supposed to be free and not impose rules or restrictions to an individual because it opposes an individual’s acts.

Doing so by the society would mean that the majority rule has power over an individual hence deny the very essence of a human being the basic human right of freedom. Moreover, by allowing individuals to do whatever they will so long as they do others the society would have fewer rules and concentrate on citizens’ well being. Therefore, the society would use fewer resources, time, and energy in enacting laws, policing and punishing people to control them.

The harm principle protects minority rights. The fact that the principle is against making majority rule superior to an individual’s liberty means that the majority do not have to impose their will on the minority. The minority in terms of race, class, gender, sexual or religious orientation have a right to control their lives and make own choices.

The powerful majority should not control the minority by trying to impose their opinions on them. The opinions of the majority may be incorrect for the minority and thus cause them harm. Hence, the harm principle protects the minority against the tyranny of the majority and the minority could mean only one individual even so the majority should not control them (Mill, 2010).

On the other hand, the harm principle restricts people from causing harm to others and thus it acts as a restraint. It therefore means that the society has a right to punish people whose actions bring harm to others. The definition of harm in this case would be difficult to establish because what is harmful to one individual maybe all right with another. The society should deal with the divergent views of the members to ensure that they live together without one oppressing the other.

An attempt to deal with the definition of harm because of its malleability by different interpreters ought to be made. The differences in interpretation of harm could lead to interference with most of an individual’s actions for example, if harm is defined as an offence, mental distress or annoyance.

In another instance, a different definition of harm such a physical damage would make most actions permissible. The difficulty in defining what constitutes harm could bring “a doubt about the capacity of the harm principle to survive its own inflation” (Vernon, 2009, p. 4).

The doubts that may arise in the harm principle can undermine the vision that Mill had about liberty. Critics urge that definition of harm cannot be restricted to a single context because and principle but should encompass a whole.

They say that merely trying to differentiate harm from nonharm would not be sufficient because some harms need not to be prohibited and some non-harmful acts need prohibition. Mill saw the challenge that definition of harm posed, and he urged that the harm principle should operate within the principle of fairness (Vernon, 2009).

Finally, the harm principle is important in promoting liberty in the society. It also promotes individuals rights and gives freedom in terms of choice of religion, action, expression, and organizations to belong to among others. The individual can exercise those rights regardless of what the society may think as long as no harm is done unto others.

Preventing the society from exercising its power over individuals as long as they cause no harm to others allows expression of freedom and a free society from oppression. The rights of the minority in such a society are protected hence their basic freedoms as human beings observed as they are allowed to rule over their own bodies that Mills says they have sovereign.

There are debates and criticisms over the definition of harm because it can be ambiguous to different. Nevertheless, Mill promotes an Individual’s liberty with the harm principle and in a civilized society; hence its importance cannot be overstated.

Reference List

Mill, J.S. (2010). Utilitarianism. Boston: MobileReference.

Vernon, R. (2009). Is there a global harmful principle? Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 12 (1), 1-18.

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