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The Harm Principle

Philosopher John Stuart Mill developed the harm principle in his classic work On Liberty. According to Mill, the harm principle holds that the actions of individuals should only be limited in order to prevent harm to others. Mill based this idea off of the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which held that liberty consisted of the freedom to do anything provided it did not injure another person. The Harm Principle

There are three areas in which the harm principle comes into conflict with paternalism:

  • Competent self-harm and risk of self-harm
  • Harm to consenting others
  • Harmless acts

The harm principle creates a ‘zone of privacy’ for ‘self-regarding’ acts or acts of consent and the state or government cannot interfere.

The harm principle has become one of the foundations of libertarian thought. Although outlined by Mill in On Liberty (1859), the phrase “harm principle” did not emerge until 1969. Mill argued that there were two maxims within the harm principle. The first was that the individual was not accountable to society for his or her actions. Advice, instruction, persuasion or avoidance were the only measures by which society was allowed to express dislike of a person’s conduct. Second, the individual was accountable to society for actions that are prejudicial to the interests of others, and may be subject to social or legal punishment if society agrees that such punishment is for the protection of society.

One of the implications of the harm principle is that society must allow rational adults to engage in behaviors that may be self-harming. Actions such as cigarette smoking, for example, must be tolerated, as the each individual reserves the right to engage in chosen behaviors, regardless of personal risk.

Although the harm principle seems to provide the definite answer over paternalism it does raise a number of inherent questions.  Some of these include: What acts are considered harmful?; which acts harm only the individual and not another person?; what constitutes consent?; and what acts can truly be considered harmless.  In your harm principle term paper, keepin in mind that in cases where harm is defined to narrowly, the individual faces the probability of garnering a “meaningful zone of privacy or barrier to paternalism.”

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