John 1, Mill begins On Liberty by explaining that

John Stuart Mill’s essay, On Liberty, provides an argument against a society pressuring, coercing, and using their power over individuals. One of the essential components of this argument is Mill’s concept of harm and its function in the “harm principle.” In this paper, I will explain Mill’s concept of harm and how it plays an important role in his thought throughout this essay. In Chapter 1, Mill begins On Liberty by explaining that this piece is focused on “Civil, or Social Liberty” and examining when society can legitimately exercise power over the individual, a question that he believes will be one of the vital questions of the future. Mill notes that struggles between liberty and authority can be seen throughout history, dating back to the early periods in Rome, Greece, and England.  In these times, liberty meant protection from tyrannical rule, as the ruler did not abide by the will of their citizens. The power of the rulers over their subjects was seen as dangerous and easily abused, though still necessary to the function of society. Mill contends, that after humans progressed to a certain point, the idea of a leader being opposed to their citizens’ interests started to disappear, and was replaced by leaders, and nations as a whole, who worked to serve the will and interests of the citizens. However, with this, came a new form of tyranny, that Mill calls the “tyranny of the majority,” where the majority can oppress the minority in a society. Not only does there then need to be protection against this sort of tyranny, but Mill also believes that there must be protection “against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose…its own ideas and practices as the rule of conduct on those who dissent from them” (Mill, 1012). Mill believes that this form of social tyranny through the power of public opinion can be even stronger than political tyranny. Thus, bringing us to Mill’s central question:  how do we create a healthy balance between individual independence and social control? Mill describes the difficulty of this question, saying that no two ages or countries have solved it alike. After having laid out the groundwork of the issues at hand, Mill’s makes the central claim of his essay, saying: “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill, 1014). Mill introduces the concept of harm, in this principle, and asserts that an individual’s physical or moral good is not enough justification for wielding power over others; instead, there must be a threat of harm to others for it to be justified. If something is better for an individual, makes them happier, or in the opinion of others is right, all they can do is to try to persuade and reason with others, rather than exercise their power. Mill believes that in order to justify the use of power on other individuals, one must be deterring conduct which produces evil to someone else. As Mill puts it, “the only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others” (Mill, 1015). When something concerns only an individual, on the other hand, that individual is sovereign and has full independence. However, Mill makes it clear that this harm principle cannot simply be universally applied. Mill clarifies that he is not talking about children or anyone under the age that the law considers as that of manhood or womanhood. Mill explains, saying that individuals who are still in a state that requires them to be taken care of must be protected from both themselves as well as the outside world. Mill uses the same justification with what he calls, “backward states of society,” arguing that this harm principle does not apply here either. Mill claims that “liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion” (Mill, 1015). Thus, in his examples of children or backward societies the idea of liberty itself is not even applicable. In addition, Mill clarifies his justification of liberty, saying it is not an abstract right, but rather it is a matter of utility. Mill says, “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” (Mill, 1015). Thus, using this idea of utility, it becomes clear why exercising power is allowed to prevent the harm of others, as this harm would decrease overall utility and stall the progression of mankind. Mill believes that if someone causes harm to others, the society should punish them, whether by law or by “disapprobation” (condemnation). Mill does not stop there, however, as he also believes that individuals can even be punished for not performing actions that help others, such as saving someone else’s life, since this would cause harm to that person. Thus, we see how one can cause evil or harm through both action and inaction.  Mill divides liberty into three broad categories: the first he calls the “inward domain of consciousness” or the freedom of individual thought and opinion, the second is the liberty of “tastes and pursuits” or the ability for an individual to do as they wish, and the last is the “combinations among individuals” or the liberty to unite for purposes that do not involve the harming of others. Together, these three categories of liberty come together to paint a picture of Mill’s idea of liberty, where individuals have the ability to pursue their own interests, as long as it does not stop others from being able to do the same. In Chapter 4, Mill expands on the harm principle, detailing the limits to the authority that society has over the individual. He begins by asking the questions: “what, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?” (Mill, 1047). Mill’s answer is that the part of life which interests the individual belongs to individuality and the part which interests society belongs to society. Although Mill does not believe that society is founded on a contract, he says that everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for this benefit. Thus, everyone should be forced to observe certain codes of conduct, such as not hurting the interests of others and sharing the burden of defending society from injury. In cases where someone harms another person without infringing on their rights, that person should be punished by opinion, rather than by law.  However, when a person’s conduct affects the interests of only themselves, society should not have any interest in this and there should be perfect freedom to perform the action. This does not mean that humans have no business with each other’s conduct in life, as they can point out each other’s faults or avoid that person, but what Mill believes people cannot do is morally condemn others based on actions that only impact themselves. Mills bring ups a potential counterargument to his harm principle, saying, “How (it may be asked) can any part of the conduct of a member of society be a matter of indifference to the other members?” (Mill, 1049). The counterargument continues, saying that humans are not isolated and actions can make bad examples so why can’t society interfere with people who are incapable of self-government? Mills addresses this, agreeing that some of these actions could potentially influence the interests of others. However, in the case of someone breaking their obligations to another person, such as not paying his debts, Mill is in favor of punishing them because it is not only impacting themselves. Any constructive injury that a person causes to society that does not violate any specific duty to the public or hurt any individual, must be beared by society according to Mill “for the sake of the greater good of human freedom” (Mill, 1051). Mills continues, arguing that society has time to influence and shape the values of individuals throughout their childhoods, so if they choose to not to follow these values, then Mill believes society is the one to blame. This brings us to Mill’s last and strongest argument against interference with solely individual conduct, which is that when the public does interfere, “the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place” (Mill, 1051). Mill argues that there have been many instances of people extending the bounds of the “moral police” and encroaching on the liberty of the individual. Through multiple examples, such as Mussulmans (Muslims) not permitting pork to be eaten in their country, Mill argues against this sort of interference. From Mill’s piece On Liberty, it becomes clear that the concept of harm plays an important role in Mill’s thought and is crucial to our understanding of liberty in Mill’s work. Harm essentially draws the line between when it is allowable for society to interfere and exercise their power over individuals, and when it is not. The concept of harm allows Mill to develop his utilitarian argument and outlines the limits of societal power.