Study Notes

Harm Principle (Liberalism)

Level:
A-Level, IB
Board:
AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 3 Jun 2020

Perhaps the most thought-provoking contribution to consider within liberalism is the harm principle.

John Stuart Mill (1859) made a clear distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. He argued that the individual is free to engage in self-regarding actions even when society considers those actions to be improper. However, a sanction may be imposed when such actions impinge upon the freedom of others.

Societal attitudes towards pornography are a good illustration of Mill’s distinction between self-regarding actions and other-regarding actions. Whereas graphic images of pornographic acts undoubtedly have the capacity to offend, access to such material in the private realm does not directly impact upon others provided it does not cause actions that threaten other people’s liberty.

John Stuart Mill also put forward the renowned liberal argument that “the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” This is a key point of departure between liberals and anarchists in terms of the libertarian side of the political spectrum.

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