Politics in Minutes (2016)

The harm principle

The fundamental principle of Mill’s concept of liberalism was that every individual should have the liberty to live life as he or she pleases, without interference from others. But this principle raises a number of ethical questions, in particular in relation to the fact that allowing someone to do something may hurt other people, or restrict their freedom to do as they please. Mill suggested therefore that the individual’s liberty should have its limitations when it harms others, and that it is the duty of society to prevent that harm.

He also recognized that some acts of omission – failing to do something that results in someone else’s suffering – have the same effect. According to this ‘harm principle’, there is justification for some government regulation of the freedom to pursue happiness. But, as Mill pointed out, only to prevent harm to others – provided he or she is not being forced or tricked into doing something, the individual should be permitted to make decisions about his or her own well-being.