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Harm Principle of John Stuart Mill


The questions regarding the proper balance between individual freedom and social power are among the most controversial ones in the political theory. It is evident that these interests may contradict one another under the specific conditions. John Stuart Mill proposes his unique insights regarding the proper solution of this problem. The formulated research question is as follows.

John Stuart Mill claims that the only purpose of the government that may be directed against the community members’ will is preventing harm to others. However, in reality, the taxation of every government in the world is obligatory for the entire civilized community, regardless of the level of individual unwillingness to participate in taxation. Does Mill’s claim of the harm principle contradict the social structure in reality?

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Mill’s book On Liberty discuses the relationships between individual freedom and authority. Mill believes that the harm principle is the key concept that integrates freedom and authority as well as individuals and community. Mill believes that non-harming others should be the standard for the entire mankind, and it should be applied to such spheres as thought, pursuit, and association. However, the role of the government is not only to prevent harm to others but also to regulate the community. Meanwhile, the operations of the government may hurt the interest of the members of the community, and the government will apply its regulations toward the citizens through the legal means of violence. Illustration of the influence of the harm principle on the relationship between individual freedom and authority can explain the legalization and the structure of contemporary political and social systems. In order to answer all the above questions, I will examine Mill’s book On Liberty especially the Chapter 4.


John Stuart Mill recognizes that the source of the problem lies in the fact that “society is not founded on a contract”. It means that not all its members participate in its functioning on a completely voluntary basis. In my opinion, taxation demonstrates this aspect of society in an optimal way. All residents have to pay taxes regardless of their subjective attitude towards taxes. As it seems that the majority of people oppose paying their individual taxes, a substantial fraction of society is forced to follow these “rules of the game”.

Mill suggests that society should be organized in a way that will allow minimizing the amount of harm suffered by its members. However, this social objective is associated with substantial difficulties due to the fact that any social restraints may lead to the violation of individuals’ liberties and rights. Individual rights are the foundation of a free and just society, and they should not be sacrificed for the sake of social interests including the democratic “tyranny of the majority”. As he advocates for utilitarianism, Mill suggests that it is reasonable to concentrate on preventing harm.

Although this claim is mostly correct, it contradicts his earlier claim about the prevalence of individual liberties over the interests of a state. If individual rights cannot be sacrificed for the sake of social interests, then no one can be forced to take any preventive measures either for his/her or social benefits. The rights of individuals to exclusive use of their property should be respected. Mill also addresses some legal aspects in this context. As poison can be used for different purposes, its selling should not be prohibited. It means that people can be punished only for the consequences of their actions and not for the possibility of inflicting harm. This Mill’s position seems to be correct as the opposite viewpoint leads directly to adopting the totalitarian perspective.

Mill suggests that in order to minimize the risks of potential harm to other people, it is reasonable to warn them against some potential risks. As some values (for example, security) are almost universal, it is necessary to inform others about potential risks. This claim may be supported from an ethical perspective as people should demonstrate respect for others.

However, this principle only applies to those situations when the actions of a given person do not affect the rights and liberties of others. If a given individual makes decisions that affect only his/her life and property, than any his/her actions are justified (at least from the perspective of classical liberalism). However, if his/her decisions directly affect other people, their consent is necessary. Otherwise, the acts of aggression are present, and they cannot be tolerated by any just society.

It seems that this Mill’s position has several implications. First, the selection of spheres that are subject to taxation corresponds to the government rather than social needs. Thus, the claims that taxation has any social benefit are self-refuting as they are based on over-generalizations and neglect the essence of individuals’ free choice. If some option is really beneficial for a given individual, he/she will make a corresponding choice without any coercion or aggression. The fact of coercion demonstrates that this choice is not optimal for a given individual. Second, the scope of government operations should be comparatively small.

If the government expands its operations beyond their natural level, it necessarily has to increase both taxation and government spending. As taxation inflicts additional harm on people, and higher government spending disturbs the structure of market prices, the expansion of the government power is highly harmful for the achievement of social harmony. In this context, Mill’s analysis justifies limitation of the scope of government operations to the minimal possible degree. His reasoning seems correct as the difference between voluntary transactions and obligatory responsibilities is crucial for any social system.

The main paradox that is evident in Mill’s reasoning is as follows. On the one hand, the proper functions of any government prevent harm to people. On the other hand, the only way of achieving this goal is taxation (that necessarily presupposes harm to at least some group of the population). Thus, all government solutions lead to the same problem that they are supposed to neutralize. As Mill supported the utilitarian philosophy, he could resolve this paradox through comparing prevented and inflicted harm. If prevented harm is higher than inflicted one, then the government intervention is justified. Otherwise, it is unjustified.

Although this approach is correct, it is associated with numerous practical difficulties. First, it may be problematic to correctly assess prevented and inflicted harm ex ante. Government agencies tend to overestimate the future positive effects of their actions. As a result, they tend to be involved in the operations and functions that exceed their optimal level. Second, the comparison of harm does not always refer to monetary calculations. It is possible to compare monetary benefits and losses, but many social issues include people’s feelings and emotions. Although some utilitarian thinkers try to compare utilities between various individuals, it is evident that the interpersonal comparison of subjective utilities is impossible and methodologically incorrect. It seems that the optimal mode of reforms should not inflict any additional harm on any social member.

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It may be concluded that John Stuart Mill developed a unique social system related to understanding the functions and the role of the government in the modern society. His analysis contains the following strengths. First, Mill correctly demonstrates that individual liberties constitute the highest values. They cannot be sacrificed for any social projects. Second, he correctly states that the level of social harm should be minimized. Mill believes that the main efforts should be directed to preventing harm. Third, he proved that the scope of the government should be comparatively small and should not exceed its optimal level. However, some weaknesses are also present. First, his position on taxation is inconsistent. Although he admits that taxes are involuntary, he suggests that taxation is to some degree justified. Second, his approach to utility calculations is imprecise and unrealistic as it is incorrect to compare subjective utilities between various individuals. In general, Mill’s system serves as a reliable foundation for developing a coherent theory of government and its proper functions. If this theory is elaborated and expanded, it can be successfully applied to modern governments all over the world.

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