The Harm Principle

James Stacey Taylor,

Release Date
June 28, 2011


Role of Government

According to Prof. James Stacey Taylor, John Stuart Mill’s harm principle has been one of the most influential political principles on classical liberalism.  The harm principle states that the only reason to restrict the action of another individual is to prevent harm to others.  If someone is harming themselves, you are only justified in attempting to persuade them.  In theory, the harm principle has a lot to offer to those who frame laws.  Unfortunately, it has not been thoroughly used in practice.

The Harm Principle
One of the tremendously influential political principles to come out of the 19th century that has really guided and directed classical liberal thought in the 19th century, the 20th century, and now is John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. Mill’s harm principle comes from his book On Liberty, which is a short, concise account of the ways in which persons should be allowed to guide and direct themselves free from the interference of others. For Mill, it’s a very simple principle, which should guide and direct absolutely the individual’s dealings with his fellows. It’s simply that the only reason for which you are justified in restricting the liberty of action of one of your number is to prevent harm to other people. That’s it.
Mill goes on to note that a person’s own good is not sufficient warrant to restrict his liberty of action. If you care about him, you can argue with him, remonstrate with him, show him the error of his ways. But you can’t force him not to do what he likes so long as he’s not actually harming anybody else.
Now, this has been a tremendously influential principle in framing laws, but unfortunately it’s not entirely instantiated in practice as well as it might be. Take for example the case of Kimber Van Rey. Kimber Van Rey is a rational, competent adult. By all accounts he’s a very pleasant, gregarious person. He lives in Brooklyn. And on summer evenings and spring evenings, he likes to sit on his stoop, greet his neighbors, learn their names, learn the names of their dogs. He also likes occasionally to drink a beer. One evening Kimber was sitting out on his stoop drinking his beer—it was actually a 12 ounce of Sierra Nevada—and he was cited by the local police. Kimber thought this was incredibly unjust. As he put it, he’s not interfering with anybody, he’s engaging in the great Brooklyn tradition of hanging out on your stoop drinking beer, talking with your neighbors. Why on earth should he be cited?
Now, you might say, well, he’s drinking, and alcohol taken in large enough quantities certainly does have deleterious effects on you. But I think that Kimber would respond just as I respond. That might be so, but even if he’s drinking vast amounts of alcohol he’s only harming himself, not other people. And as a rational, competent adult, he should be allowed to make that decision. Not to let him make that decision is simply to treat him as though he’s a child, and I think that that’s morally wrong. Rational adults should be allowed to do as they wish provided their actions harm nobody else. That, I think with Mill, is a very good way of arranging society, and I wish that we could actually adhere to it.