The Actions That Inflict Harm Principle on the Individuals
John Stuart Mill, the author of On Liberty, explained how much power the society has in preventing or condoning a person’s action. “The harm principle states that the only actions that can be prevented are ones that create harm”. In other words, one can do whatever they desire as long as their actions do not harm others.
Also, the state cannot prevent a person from doing what they wish to do if one’s actions are just for them. The following actions mentioned also include the actions that inflict self-harm on the individuals. But on the contrary, if we adhere to the idea that the harm principle only extends to the actions in which people cause damage to others and does not take into account the acts that people do to hurt themselves. Another such dilemma might be what to do for people who want to end their own life.
According to the harm principle, one may think that Mill might be at odds with a person committing suicide, as it would seem that taking one’s own life would not affect anybody other than the person himself. But surprisingly, even Mill would disagree with the person committing suicide because the act of committing suicide would prevent the person from contributing to society in a meaningful way and would thus cause harm because of the potential risk to humanity is in a position to deter people from taking their own lives.
According to Mill, human beings think and care more for their lives than anyone else. They are wise enough to make the right decisions about their lives. Therefore, there is no need for paternalism from the side of government (state), i.e., the state governing the matters of an individual’s life decisions on a personal level. For example, if human beings decide on consuming alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, etc., despite knowing the side effects of the aforementioned substances then the state has no right to interfere in the matter of their personal life choices.
Therefore, the state cannot stop human beings from doing self-harm. However, on the other hand, if individuals deliberately harm other people by conducting the following actions as mentioned above or seek to cause a mess within society, then there is a strict need for the state to take action against those people otherwise not. Therefore, the harm principle depicts that there is no need for the state to intervene and guide humans or stop them from doing self-harm. Humans have supremacy over their own lives and can make the right choices for themselves.
The three key theories that helped shape the harm principle were as follows. Firstly, the harm principle derives from another principle called the principle of utility which states that individuals should only do certain actions that offer the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people, (in other terms) meaning that if a person decides to determine between two options, he should choose the option that makes the most people happy.
Secondly, Mill states that there is a significant difference between harm and offence as harm is something that would injure the rights of someone else or setback important interest that benefits others. An example of harm would be not paying taxes because cities rely on the money to take care of its citizens whereas an offence according to Mill is something which would say hurt someone’s feelings, i.e., they are less serious and should not be prevented as what may hurt one person’s feelings may not hurt others, therefore, offences are not universal.
Thirdly, Mill claims that it is very unusual for an action to only affect the individual himself because no person is truly isolated from society and that most actions do affect other people in important ways. For instance, Mill used the ability to have free speech as one of the biggest examples to defend the harm principle. According to Mill, free speech was important for intellectual and social progress. If free speech was prevented, there would be no progress and does harm would happen. Thus, to prevent harm, we should not limit free speech.
Yes, I believe that the harm principle allows for sufficient government interference in the lives of its citizens because of the following reasons. Mill’s harm theory is generally considered to be based on a distinction between self-regarding conduct, i.e. that the State is not liable to interfere with personal matters of the individual and other-regarding conduct which makes the State liable to intervene with personal matters of the individual. The State should take into account the actions that are likely to affect society directly or indirectly.
For example, the use of illicit drugs, such as opium, cocaine, etc., has a major effect on the human body and gets people addicted very easily. Therefore, the State should intervene in such matters and prevent people from being affected by such drugs because it will potentially impact other people in society and for instance, would decrease productivity within the workplace and happiness between relations with children or family, etc. The government is justified in interference if someone’s conduct is harmful to others. Otherwise, people should have the right to do whatever they wish to do. In the context of government intervention, Mill provides an example of arresting a murderer.
According to Mill, the state should arrest the murderer as he/she has harmed others by killing them. Moreover, it is important that according to the harm principle, the state should not arrest the murderer because the State disagrees with the killer’s beliefs that murdering people is acceptable. In conclusion, we can only prevent action based on harm and not feelings or offence. The government has the appropriate amount of power to deal with people’s lives when it comes to affecting society as a whole.
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