In this essay I shall argue that John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle is about justice and truth. John Stuart Mill’s argues in On Liberty that the use of the harm theory, or harm principle is that a state of government must ensure the quality of liberty just so long as the actions committed in the cause of liberty are not detrimental to the activists. That is to say that the government may interfere in order to prevent harm. The following paper will discuss Mill’s harm principle and its application to government in regards to restrictions and controls.
Mill argues for the doctrine of liberty. Mill means to define the role of a person in society and as such the limited amount of coercion consistent in society that should affect that individual, “No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do exist absolute and unqualified”. Mill is stating that although these qualities are liberty come at a cost in no society would they be considered free because of the forms of government in which the world adheres.
Mill argues that any opinion should be voiced despite its offensive sentiments and unpopularity. Mill did not right from a perspective in the harm theory to state that speech was not harmful, but despite this subsequent commentary, speech was an ideal freedom. Mill believed, and stated in the Harm Principle, that the harmfulness of an act is just cause to place social control on that act through legal means. These means included coercion.
Mill advocates a style of liberalism that governs that individuals have basic rights (as is stated in On Liberty) and the apex of these is free speech. The factors that involve Mill also include a free society in general and specific terms. Even in this free society there are certain actions that a person in a society may be involved with and then there are counter-actions of the government against those acts. This is interpreted to mean that such acts were harmful and the government was justifiable in their prevention or retardation of those acts being committed.
Such acts by the government or society do not necessary lead to an infringement on that person’s liberty. There are however points to consider when examining the harms theory; once such interpretation to the theory includes the ubiquitous nature of permissible interference by society or a governing body since any act committed may be a legitimate harmful act upon another person, and thus action in any definition could be interpreted in this sense. Thus, any action taken by the government with the umbrella statement of harm could be legitimate.
Mill however was very stringent on his interpretation of Harm Theory and its application to law. He did not for one thing want a blanketed reason for any misuse of human liberty; thus, to use the Harm Theory in regards to the prevention of free speech because it can be construed to be harmful is not legitimate according to Mill. He was not an advocate of preventing expression or opinion. This is shown in his absolute rejection to consider the efficacy of tolerating any particular inference against that censoring it, “…however positive any one’s persuasion may be, not only of the falsity but of the pernicious consequences-not only of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of an opinion”. This is stated in regards to any person or legislation’s opinion that speech could potentially be harmful.
Mill helped define in broad termination a tolerant perspective of accepting opinions and/or sentiments, that were made not only in private but also in public places, “…human beings should be free to form opinions, and to express their opinions without reserve”. Despite this statement Mill had a firm belief in the restrictions of certain acts and believed such free speech was conditional.
These exceptions of Mill were specious. Although Mill’s harm theory does constitute legitimate ground by which to swerve the use of free speech much of On Liberty deals with the propagating of free speech. Mill made a distinction between qualified and unqualified liberties. While Mill guards the use of free speech and free trade it is the former of the two that is unqualified as a liberty. This is done by stating that free trade is not in accordance to individual rights and liberty but that speech on the other hand is a self-regarding action.
This statement of free speech is however debatable. Free speech may be considered a self-regarding action but in most interpretations of Mill this has been denied. In this denial can be found the fact that free speech then may very lead to harm. In this harm, the Harm Theory is cemented as a prevention that the legislating body may act upon. In the debate of self-regarding Mill states that self-regarding is an action committed in which the outcome has no bearing of positive or negative effects on anyone else.
The introduction of harm can be taken to mean either physical harm or otherwise. In Mill’s introduction of harm the common consensus is that it means the former. This means that speech must be attributed as becoming harmful or having the potential to become harmful to a larder body. In the Declaration of Liberty Mill highlights his key points of liberties and the subsequent harm that should be delivered with their abuses,
This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it.
It is clearly stated in the above excerpt in the phrase “expressing and publishing opinions…concerns other people” it is devised that speech as well as the written word fall under the category of liberty which in turn, because it concerns other people is subject to the jurisdiction of Harm Theory and must be regulated by the government.
The cost of the obstruction of free speech is to not have anyone commit a harmful act. Although the thought of censorship in regards to the Harm Theory are prevalent and extensive in scope it must be realized that opinion even in its most innocent form of private discussion lead eventually to action; and these actions are not consistently without destruction.
Through speech a person’s opinions are discovered. These opinions have a domino effect that is not a contained event but becomes widespread especially in the media centered world. Opinions of speeches are tools by which a revolution may occur or based upon the wrong assumptions of an event or theory speech and opinions that are accepted by the general public become gateways by which hysteria, chaos and harm do occur. Thus it is behooving to place mandates on certain speeches to ensure that destruction and harm do not occur.
In this essay I have argued that although Mill focuses his attention of liberty in a free society he is also a humanist and the concern over a person’s body is the main principle of his On Liberty essay, “That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. It may thus be construed that Mill advocated the use of minimal censorship if the reason behind the prevention was to retard harm being done to another person or a group of people.
There must however, in Mill’s theory exist a legitimate reason behind the censorship in order for drastic prevention to occur. Although the Harm Theory suggests that prevention is the key to stopping a destructive act there must also be extant governing rules that would prohibit the extreme exercise of government power that could turn into autocratic power which was not in the context of Mill’s theory. The Harm Theory is regulated by the potential for harm and thus, free speech or other liberties may be interpreted and prevented by a government in order specifically to avert harm.
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Kessler, Sanford. “The Review of Politics”. Notre Dame: Spring (64:2). (2002). 207 31.
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