What is the ‘Harm Principle’ and why is it important?

The importance of J.S. Mill’s arguments in favour of free expression

So, I’ve decided to jump straight into the deep end by writing about John Stuart Mill and his so-called ‘harm principle’. I’ve done this because I think it’s really important to lay out some basic principles straight off; free speech really is absolutely foundational to a free society, and therefore it’s crucial to go back to first principles in order to understand why it is so important.

Mill (1806-1873) was an English philosopher and politician, and his writings form much of the basis of Liberalism as an ideology.  His most famous work was On Liberty, published in 1859, and it is where his argument in favour of free expression can be found.

The full passage that concerns us can be found very early on in the book:

‘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’ (page 13)

As mentioned in the ‘About’ page, controversy over the years has arisen over what Mill intended harm to mean. The problem is that Mill himself wasn’t particularly clear about what he meant by harm, and he re-visited his concept on a number of occasions both within On Liberty and in other works.

Part of the issue is that One’s conception of harm will vary depending on their cultural and moral outlook. Take, for example, the furore provoked by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish publication a few years ago.

These cartoons were deemed by many Muslims to be extremely harmful, and they did in fact lead to a number of protests and violent demonstrations. Western commentators argued that they were nothing more than offensive, and that to not publish them elsewhere – for fear of reprisals – would constitute self-censorship. You can see here the competing notion of harm, and it is a potential problem for policymakers.

It would take a number of blog posts to go further into the issues around Mill’s principle, but the one I’ve highlighted above is perhaps the most pressing. However, we can still continue and look at Mill’s specific reference to free expression.

In Chapter III of On Liberty, in specific reference to opinions, Mill writes that, ‘…On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act’.

To illustrate his point, Mill uses the example of a corn dealer. He says that the opinion that corn dealers are ‘starvers of the poor’ ought to be ‘unmolested’ when simply circulated in the press, but if it were delivered to an ‘excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer’, it may rightfully be curtailed’.

This passage is crucial for us, for it directly concerns the incitement to violence, and in my opinion it is the only justifiable limitation on free expression.

So, Mill gives a privileged position to free expression with regards to actions. Why does he do this? He argues that, even if a potential assertion is known to be true, it is important for said opinion to be allowed to be expressed in open debate.

He explains his reasoning in this absolutely fundamental passage:

‘But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.

‘If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

‘It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.’

This is, indeed, why I wish to adhere so strongly to the single limitation on free expression that I have already mentioned. If we are confident in our opinions and beliefs, then we should be equally confident in defeating opposing points of view, including those which upset or offend us.

By stifling opinion, even the most abhorrent, what are we saying about our own deeply held values? Surely we are undermining truth and reason in the very act of coercive suppression?

Further, as Mill says, we can’t ever be sure that the stifled opinion is a false one, nor can we be sure that our own beliefs don’t contain falsehood. Surely the only way to come to solid, confident conclusions about the most pressing issues is through free discourse, and that is why all of us should hold the right to free expression very close to our hearts.

Jonathan Wolff, author of An Introduction to Political Philosophy, refers in his chapter on Mill to a very telling story. A group of politics students, in the repressive atmosphere of Franco-era Spain, were given only a ‘few minutes’ on Mill and his arguments, whilst the theories of Karl Marx were explained in far greater detail.

Wolff writes that the regime had chosen to censor Mill rather than Marx because whilst Marx’s arguments were unlikely to ‘turn the heads’ of ‘affluent’ students, Mill’s writing on free speech and liberty was ‘quite another thing’. The regime were well aware that the right to free expression would have been normatively compelling, and hence they were fearful of the students learning too much about it.

Everyone – even those who seek to undermine it via subterfuge –  now pays homage to free speech, even as we argue over its implications, and that is surely an indication of its enduring value to our society. That is why it should be defended at all costs.