Exposing the “Harm Principle” of J. S. Mill

Trying something new.

For the next ten days or so I will be posting a a series of connected installments taken from Chapter Eight, “The Road to Hyperdemocracy,” as published in my book The Trouble With Democracy (Stoddart, 2001, and then by BPS Books, 2008).

This is basically an expose of Mill’s so-called “Harm Principle”, showing the steps that led him to it, the faulty logic of it, the philosophical and moral confusions in which he became mired over it, and how it has unfortunately become a canonical statement of modern liberty.

p.s. other than the footnotes, the in-text numerals in parentheses refer to the the relevant section of the 5 in Mill’s famous essay.


“The history of the West has been a history of reason

operating within tradition.”

~ Frank Meyer, In Defense of Freedom, 1962

The common idea, above, that Western civilization is an outcome of reasoned political and moral argument now seems more like a comforting myth, as we shall see, for what surprises most of all is not the strength of reason, but the strength of symbols and emotion; above all, the mystical element. In retrospect, it is no surprise that collectivist freedom – a theory of absolute democracy – found its first major prophet in Rousseau, and its first practical experiment in France. Much of French history has been consumed with battles over the authority of ideas – and it still is. One after the other, “new” or “revolutionary” political, moral, and socially fashionable doctrines come hippity-hopping out of the intellectual witches’ brew of Paris. Almost every dogma of modern times has attracted a French messiah proclaiming absolute originality and offering the solution of all mysteries. Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Positivism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Existentialism, Structuralism, Neo-marxism, Deconstructionism, Post-modernism, and so on; each was a child of the absolutist temperament. One wonders at this tired parade of arguments, each desperate to persuade us to see all of life from a narrow perspective that inevitably disappoints.

In contrast, individualist freedom of the original liberal variety – the struggle for real liberty as a concrete practical barrier for self, home and hearth against excessive government power – has ever since Magna Carta been chiefly an export to contintental Europe and the Americas from England, a country with an eight centuries-long tradition of legal and political individualism, as well as a certain scorn for abstract theories.[i] However, we must be wary, because the word “individualism” has a lot of historical baggage. The sort upheld by the Founders of America and Canada, for example, differed in the extreme from modern individualism. For one thing, it began as a by-product of the Protestant Reformation. Those first religious-democratic reformers just wanted freedom of belief, expression, and association for their self-governing assemblies; to be free to submit to the authority of their God, the Bible, and the universal morality of the Christian religion, without interference or dictates from government or an “established” (government-controlled) church – which they freely characterized as the Anti-Christ. But even atheistic liberals of the time fully expected to subordinate their individual selves to a transcendent moral order of Reason and Natural Law. They understood that the purpose of individual rights and freedoms was not to escape the control of traditional society and moral authority, but rather to seek out the best natural order and live under it. Love of others and obligation and duties to society should obviously come before self, and this, they fully expected their democracy to reflect.

Concern For The Self – The Enemy Within

In this respect, it is yet another modern conceit to think that such community-minded people were not concerned about their individual selves. Quite to the contrary. It was axiomatic to them that a life well spent meant undertaking the difficult soul-work of developing one’s character to its highest level by checking and controlling the self’s instincts and appetites in the service of truth, family, community, and God. Not self-expression, but high character and salvation of soul was the goal, something impossible without a discipline and wary care of the self. Hence the slavery metaphor was the commonly accepted image for all humans who since the Fall suffer by nature from internal division, or dualism. We were imagined as divided beings torn by the opposing claims of the spirit and the senses in a lifelong struggle for mastery of the soul. The physical yearnings, more immediate, powerful, and base, work necessarily by deception, striving to turn the soul away from its natural progress toward truth and union with God. This powerful metaphor, inherent in the Sinful Man Model, ruled western civilization for more than two thousand years, first under a Classical, and then a Christian understanding of the virtues, especially as fashioned by St.Augustine, until roughly the end of the Eighteenth century. The message of the metaphor was that an autonomous self, without the support of transcendent truth is likely to be, well, self-serving, and will constantly lead the soul astray. This working image was of the self-as-deceiver, a kind of enemy within, and the institutions of representative democracy in the West were established to address this same reality in the form of human nature as deceiver.

And this was not so suddenly abandoned as a guiding ideal. The pressing need for a discipline of the self was reflected even in the early tradition of Western liberalism, which was from the start “appreciative of the ideas of liberty and individuality, but in a context that made liberty consonant with the common good and individuality with the commonality of interests in the commonwealth. This was what was meant by [phrases such as] ‘republican virtue’ and ‘civic virtue’ … liberty was to be reconciled with morality and the individual with society and the polity.”[ii] The most insightful observers of ancient as well as modern democracy took it for granted that democracy simply cannot function without a self-disciplined and moral populace. Even the quintessential freedom-lover John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), except during what I call his “liberty outburst,” insisted most of his life that the self must be subordinate to the common good and subject to a “restraining influence.” There are “fundamental principles,” he believed, that men hold sacred that are “above discussion,” and without which there is a natural tendency to anarchy. The higher morality he sought could be actively promoted through education, laws, and economic and social arrangements.[iii]

A Democratic Snob

Yet, as if suddenly to speak against his own beliefs, in 1859 Mill published his windy manifesto On Liberty, which may fairly be described – at least the first part of it – as the world’s first tract on absolute individual freedom. (The numbers in brackets used here refer to the brief chapters of this book in the edition cited.[iv]) Because of how it has been used – and abused – by ensuing generations, however, he is now considered the man who “largely set the course of modern democratic thought.”[v]

The truth, however, is that Mill led a life of some considerable intellectual and moral contradiction – some might say confusion – in the unlikely guise of a democratic snob. On the one hand he considered a representative democratic regime to be the best tool for the development of the full powers of the individual. On the other he had very little faith, indeed scorned the uneducated common man to the extent that he in no way favoured direct democracy, and his every proposal being underscored by a frantic desire for the “progress” and “improvement” of mankind.[vi] So much is this true that while reading him we get the distinct impression that in his perfect world he wanted everyone to be just like himself and his class of educated liberal intellectuals. He “dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass,” of what he called “the uncultivated herd,” and its effect on “the highest natures,” and “the great minds,” and so his “ideal of ultimate improvement went far beyond democracy.”[vii] To offset this he proposed many qualifications on the right to vote, including a complex plural voting scheme giving the educated more votes than the ignorant to prevent that very outcome. One of his most unpopular speeches as a Member of Parliament was a proposal to counteract the effects of democracy.

Mill was also much less of a libertarian than we are led to believe by a casual reading of On Liberty, which as I say seems like a departure from his normal posture, (though it is interpreted here as the manifesto of his program for “progress”). There are also plenty of arguments that he laid the groundwork for so-called social democracy and the welfare state, favouring intervention in the economy for the resolution of “coordination problems,” for public goods such as education, for occupational security, for protection from poverty, and for an ongoing redistribution of incomes. Mill actually seemed to conceive of the whole nation as a metaphor for the intelligent person. He argued that power should be disseminated as much as possible, like limbs on a body, but wanted “the greatest possible centralization of information, and diffusion of it from the center.” The “central organ” of “information and instruction” by government that he called for, the brain of government, so to speak, should “have a right to know all that is done,” and also the right of “compelling the local officers to obey the laws laid down for their guidance”(5). He advocated a tutelary top-down state. At the end of his life he openly favoured socialism over liberal democracy and even argued a pseudo-communist case that workers should enjoy control of the means of production,[viii] if not the ownership. They could tell the boss what to do, but needn’t own the factory. In the end, like those Adepts of the Free Spirit of centuries past, he flirted with the possibility that human nature might be changed enough to run society with “a common ownership in the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.”[ix]

We tend to forget that the individual freedoms he proposed were intended only for the “civilized” nations, and for the rest – most – he favoured benevolent dictatorship. In the beginning, Mill believed that through science, rationalism, representative democracy, education, and his pet solution, Utilitarianism (more on this below), all societies could progress to ever higher levels and a “new morality,” led there by an elite of social planners like himself who would take charge of the “general culture.” In conclusion, although he is known today primarily as an individualist freedom-fighter, Mill was in reality a kind of educational elitist promoting a leading political role in the shaping of society from the top by a class of philosopher kings and queens (he was an adamant and eloquent feminist) educated up to special political powers and insight. England actually took him at his word: the last vestige of plural voting by means of which some educated and distinguished people enjoyed as many as six votes each was not abolished in England until 1948.

As it happens, all Mill’s writings have a background and a foreground, so to speak. The background is a broad moral vision of the best of humankind freeing themselves from the stultifying ignorance of public opinion to form the best and most progressive society imaginable. This is what Mill wanted. Many of his ideas about this he took uncritically from the German Wilhelm von Humboldt (1776-1835), a conservative thinker with a theory about “the true end of Man,” summed up in the German word bildung, which Humboldt defined as “the highest and most harmonious development of his [Man’s] powers to a complete and consistent whole.”[x] Mill sets the tenor of On Liberty with an opening quotation from Humboldt about his (Mill’s, as well as Humboldt’s) every argument converging toward “the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.”[xi] This was obviously a social and moral goal in clear conflict with Mill’s foreground idea that millions of free and private individuals could, and would arrive at an organic whole by themselves. The two ambitions were in conflict in theory, and in Mill’s head, and they remain in conflict in Western society, simply because it is impossible to direct society as a whole toward a certain end while allowing it to direct itself. In the broad picture I have drawn in this book, Rousseau formed one kind of democratic theory to push society toward such a whole, and failed, and so Mill formed another, which is in the process of failing.

[i] See especially Alan MacFarlane, The Origins of English Individualism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978). Here, he shows that English men and women enjoyed all sorts of evolving individual, property, and legal rights traceable as far back as the thirteenth century, many centuries before the same liberties and rights were enjoyed by continental Europeans.

[ii] Gertrude Himmmelfarb, “Liberty: ‘One Very Simple Principle’?, ” in Looking Into the Abyss (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), pp.74-106. The passage cited here is at p.99.

[iii] Op. Cit. p.101.

[iv] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Edited, with an Introduction by Gertrude Himmelfarb (London: Penguin Books, 1974).

[v] David Held, Models of Democracy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p.100.

[vi] In his Autobiography, Edited, with an Introduction by John M. Robson (London: Penguin Books, 1989), Mill said forthrightly that “any general theory or philosophy of politics supposes a previous theory of human progress,” p.130.

[vii] Mill, Autobiography, Op. Cit., p. 175.

[viii] Held, Op. Cit., p.118

[ix] Mill, Autobiography, Op. Cit., p.175.

[x] Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Limits of State Action ( Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993), p.xxx. This essay was first published in 1854, five years before Mill’s On Liberty, as The Sphere and Duties of Government.

[xi] Mill, On Liberty, Op. Cit., p.57. The quote is drawn from Humboldt, Op. Cit.

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