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The harm principle

We have already seen in Week 3 the importance of personal freedom to humanists. Here we will explore what this means for organising society, and in particular the role of the state.

Humanists will typically believe that other people, and the state, should let individuals live as they wish. The state should not interfere in people’s lives. Many humanists will support the liberal aim of protecting the individual against the power of the state. They will strongly oppose authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that restrict people’s freedoms. Many people will agree that they do not want the government to control every aspect of our lives. However, there will be disagreement about what is and isn’t acceptable. Some believe a healthy society requires some paternalistic behaviour by the state. How much is too much is the key question.

‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Mill wrote what is known as the ‘harm principle’ as an expression of the idea that the right to self-determination is not unlimited. An action which results in doing harm to another is not only wrong, but wrong enough that the state can intervene to prevent that harm from occurring. Some have described this as ‘The freedom of my fist ends at the tip of your nose’.

However, what is important to recognise is that if this should be the only restriction on our liberty, then this principle entitles us to a significant amount of freedom to decide how we live our lives. It is also worth mentioning that Mill’s ‘harm principle’ says that the government may interfere with one person’s liberty only to prevent harm to another. It does not say that the government must always intervene to prevent a person from harming another.

Many humanists believe the harm principle is helpful when considering how we should treat other people, but also when discussing what powers a society should grant to the state. However, it raises several interesting questions.

Firstly, there may also be disagreement about what counts as harm. Physical forms of harm can be easier to diagnose and quantify than some other forms, like emotional harm, or harm due to neglect. One particularly contested issue relates to questions around freedom of speech and offence. We will explore this in the next step.

Secondly, is the harm principle the only principle that should apply? Many people, including many humanists, will accept that some level of paternalism by the state is acceptable (laws requiring the wearing of seatbelts are a good example). Mill believed that paternalism towards children, who needed protecting, was acceptable, but never towards adults of sound mind. However, the line between child and adult is fuzzy. What is the right moment at which to grant children the same freedoms over their lives as adults? And when might adults need protecting from themselves too?

What of self-harm? People may legally damage themselves with alcohol, drugs, or by playing dangerous sports. Many of us will feel protective tendencies, which may arise from a proper moral concern for another person (it would be callous not to feel any concern at the sight of people harming themselves). These instincts may compel individuals to attempt to stop the self-harm being done, but it does not follow that interference is the morally acceptable course of action. How far should we be free to learn from our mistakes? Some may argue that the harm principle applies only to rational adults (thus, children are exempt). Some forms of self-harm may provide good grounds for doubting a person’s rationality.

Finally do we only have the freedoms we have as a result of belonging to a society, and do we therefore arguably owe something to that society? If so, some would say that the state can make certain demands of us.

Many people will argue that the state has a role to play in limiting our behaviour. Indeed, certain social restraints are necessary in order to maximise individual freedoms. However, for some humanists, the more educated we are, the better we are able to apply these restraints on ourselves, and the less we need the state to play a role.

‘Social control is necessary for individual liberty… [but] if every person developed his or her own innate potential for making informed and rational choices, resulting in equally informed and rationalized restraints and responsibilities in individual lives, then there would be less need for extraneous social control… Having freedom of choice involves moral responsibility in the exercising of that choice and therefore constraints on one’s own liberty.’

Jeaneane Fowler, Humanism: Beliefs and Practices

Question: Does the harm principle establish the state’s only entitlement to interfere in individuals’ lives?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK

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