Was John Stuart Mill Wrong?

Ever heard of John Stuart Mill’s famous Harm Principle? Maybe you don’t recognize Mill’s name, but my guess is that you hear this principle really often. In his treatise On Liberty Mill says, “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.”


This principle has been absorbed into the modern psyche as, “You can do whatever you want to do in life as long as it does not hurt other people.” Today this philosophy ends up being the defining moral assumption of college students. I often hear from students here in New York that they are free to do as they please as long as they do not injure others. What I do in the privacy of my own home or with people that are consenting adults doesn’t matter to people who aren’t being directly affected by my behavior. So what if I eat what I want to eat, or act the way I want to act? If it doesn’t harm others, why do people care?

College students like the harm principle because it professes to be self-evident. This principle suggests that we can all see what is good and bad equally, and therefore, we need no particular history, heritage, or religious assumption to navigate moral choices. This was John Stuart Mill’s whole premise: we can be free from religious or social norms that bind us to a particular moral structure, because truth and morality are self-evident and common in all humans.

The principle actually works quite well until we realize that we all mean different things when it comes to “harming others.” What one person defines as harm may be rejected by another. One college student thinks looking at pornography in his dorm room does no harm to others, while another individual will insist that, in fact, it does do harm because it changes the viewer’s attitude towards the opposite sex by objectifying and commercializing the human body. The way you eat does no harm to others, until your weight cause healthcare problems that the state and those who pay taxes to it have to support. Our simple individualistic actions end up being a lot more complex then with thought. Whose definition of harm do we go by? Who gets to say what it means to hurt others? In other words, what is supposed to be self-evident ends up not being so clear after all. Not only are our actions more complex then we tend to believe, but our ability to agree on what harms society is also suspect.

What is one to do? Clearly morality and truth are not as self-evident and obvious as we once thought. While it seems simple enough—do the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, and do the least amount of harm as possible to others—this is not so simple. Multiculturalism—the idea that cultures can co-exist next to each other and be promoted equally is an offshoot of this principle. World leaders today agree (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9s5zmOuVmc) it hasn’t worked as well.  Let’s acknowledge this experiment has failed—self-evident truths are actually not self-evident but rooted in particular competing and different historical locations. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can decide, which particular cultural set of assumptions is best suited to love and care for others.

Michael Keller


5 responses to “Was John Stuart Mill Wrong?

  1. i am reminded of this poem by steve turner -creed


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    We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin.
    We believe everything is OK
    as long as you don’t hurt anyone,
    to the best of your definition of hurt,
    and to the best of your knowledge.

    We believe in sex before during
    and after marriage.
    We believe in the therapy of sin.
    We believe that adultery is fun.
    We believe that sodomy’s OK
    We believe that taboos are taboo.

    We believe that everything’s getting better
    despite evidence to the contrary.
    The evidence must be investigated.
    You can prove anything with evidence.

    We believe there’s something in horoscopes,
    UFO’s and bent spoons;
    Jesus was a good man just like Buddha
    Mohammed and ourselves.
    He was a good moral teacher although we think
    his good morals were bad.

    We believe that all religions are basically the same,
    at least the one that we read was.
    They all believe in love and goodness.
    They only differ on matters of
    creation sin heaven hell God and salvation.

    We believe that after death comes The Nothing
    because when you ask the dead what happens
    they say Nothing.
    If death is not the end, if the dead have lied,
    then it’s compulsory heaven for all
    excepting perhaps Hitler, Stalin and Genghis Khan.

    We believe in Masters and Johnson.
    What’s selected is average.
    What’s average is normal.
    What’s normal is good.

    We believe in total disarmament.
    We believe there are direct links between
    warfare and bloodshed.
    Americans should beat their guns into tractors
    and the Russians would be sure to follow.

    We believe that man is essentially good.
    It’s only his behaviour that lets him down.
    This is the fault of society.
    Society is the fault of conditions.
    Conditions are the fault of society.

    We believe that each man must find the truth
    that is right for him.
    Reality will adapt accordingly.
    The universe will readjust. History will alter.
    We believe that there is no absolute truth
    excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.

    We believe in the rejection of creeds.

  2. Very insightful, thank you. Your thoughts also remind me of the Proverb I read the other day “He who is righteous is a guide to his neighbor.” Our good works effect those around us, as do our evil ones. I think that the idea that our actions happen in some sort of moral vacuum is a western construction that you did a good job of questioning. Morality that is man-centered will always break down. Morality that is God centered, now that seems to hold up. Thanks – Philip http://www.philip-bloggled.blogspot.com

  3. Hey, you used to write magnificent, but the last few posts have been kinda boring… I miss your great writings. Past few posts are just a bit out of track! come on!

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