Allowing People to Harm Themselves

John Stuart Mill would say, in most cases, we should allow people to harm themselves – assuming they are rational adults.


In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill writes: “the object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle."

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are [sic] warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

This is known as the Harm Principle.

Consider the dangerous and harmful things we find people doing: smoking cigarettes, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, performing dangerous stunts, or participating in perilous sports. We should remind ourselves, though, that all of these come with their own constraints. Excess also is discouraged because of the dangers to participants and others. Yet, we do not arrest people for merely performing these dangerous acts. Indeed, some of these legal acts are more dangerous than criminal ones. Smoking and alcohol is, by almost any measure, more dangerous than consumption of marijuana, yet both remain legal

What this tells us is that we are tolerant of people making their lives worse by their own choosing. Things get complicated when it comes to families, but, even here, we don’t arrest mountain climbers and deep-sea divers with wives and children. Tolerance does not mean encouragement, though: we are not actively wanting people to smoke and drink – in fact we do quite the opposite, with numerous ad campaigns and celebrity discouragement, or with what Mill called “the moral coercion of public opinion”.

The reason we “allow” these activities rests in the presumed respect for individual autonomy. People must be allowed to make mistakes, think for themselves, grow, learn, engage with the world. We want that for ourselves, so we must allow it for others. We may want to be guided, but we don’t want to be controlled or unnecessarily limited. It works both ways, so this means we include the freedom for others to engage in activities we might, personally, find reprehensible or harmful.

But that is not enough. We can’t presume to say one person’s rock-climbing is less fulfilling to him than another person’s consumption of Joyce (though Mill does claim this to a certain extent). We can, scientifically, say a smoker is worse off than a non-smoker in most instances, but that is not a sufficient moral reason to halt his activities. If we have good reasons for not smoking, drinking excessively and so on – to take activities that are scientifically verified as obviously unhealthy – we should convey these reasons to the self-harmer. Assuming we have “good reasons for remonstrating him”, Mill concluded that this only provides us with justifications for “reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him.” This is in keeping with the defence of individual autonomy. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” says Mill in the same paragraph. Of course, things, as I say, do get complicated when it comes to the harming of others, but we saw that Mill agrees these are instances where paternalism is allowed. The difficulty is determining to what extent others are harmed and whether this harm is sufficient to overrule the decision of the initial harmer.

An encouraging thought

That Western countries seem to allow for this tolerance and freedom, with our smoking and drinking and rock-climbing, is a conception we often take for granted. True: the application of law is difficult and irritating, but we should not forget how much freedom we have won for ourselves as individuals, through the centuries. So the Harm Principle is actually in practice, in many ways. The problem is when we become inconsistent, as with drug laws, prostitution and, our next focus, euthanasia.

This doesn’t make the Harm Principle the sole criteria for assessing moral views and ethics. However, it seems implicit in Western societies, with our tolerance for dangerous or, what some might consider, reprehensible activities. It shows some aspect of the Principle just does exist in our conduct and thoughts in social engagements. The problems arise when we become inconsistent in our thoughts: for example, when we fail to consistently reaffirm the Harm Principle when it comes to the choices of rational adults that some simply find repugnant, like consensual incest.   

Next time…

In keeping with this, I will be looking at how hypocritical we are, despite having the Harm Principle, when it comes to euthanasia.

Image Credit: Vlue/Shutterstock

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