Harm Principle - Broader Definitions of Harm

Broader Definitions of Harm

In the same essay, Mill further explains the principle as a function of two maxims:

The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people, if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishments, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection. (LV2)

The second of these maxims has become known as the social authority principle.

However, the second maxim also opens the question of broader definitions of harm, up to and including harm to the society. The concept of harm is not limited to harm to another individual but can be harm to individuals plurally, without specific definition of those individuals. Mill's essay presupposes that a society exists and that it can be harmed, and concludes that the society may use coercive means for its own self-protection. As such, it acts as Mill's sole restriction upon positive liberties as well as negative liberties.

This is an important principle for the purpose of determining harm which only manifests gradually over time, such that the resulting harm can be anticipated, but does not yet exist at the time that the action causing harm was taken. It also can be applied to a wide range of issues ranging from the right of an entity to discharge broadly polluting waste on private property to broad questions of licensing, and even to the right of sedition.

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