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The standard utilitarian response has been that relationships involving partiality – relationships of love, friendship, and so on – not only produce a lot of good or well-being for those involved, but also, because of the kind of beings we are, motivate us to help others when otherwise we wouldn’t. This seems a reasonable defence, at least to some extent, though the question remains just how partial we should be.

His  (1789) offers a simple statement of the application of this ethical doctrine.

First, recall that Mill distinguishes between harm andmere offense. Not every unwelcome consequence for otherscounts as a harm. Offenses tend to be comparatively minor andephemeral. To constitute a harm, an action must be injurious or setback important interests of particular people, interests in which theyhave rights (I 12; III 1; IV 3, 10, 12; V 5). Whereas Mill appears toreject the regulation of mere offense, the harm principle appears to bethe one justification he recognizes for restricting liberty.


Library of Congress Catalog Data: ISSN 1095-5054

()Mill fully accepted Bentham's devotion to as the basic statement of utilitarian value:

Second, Mill thinks that democracy is also the best form ofgovernment because of the constitutive effects of politicalparticipation on the improvement of the moral capacities of citizens(404). To the extent that the governed can and do participate in publicdebate and elections they exercise those very deliberative capacitiesthat it is the aim of government to develop. They learn to gatherinformation about their options, deliberate about their merits, andchoose a representative that will give expression to their ideals andpreferences. But they deliberate and choose with others about a publicagenda, and in so doing they cultivate abilities to form a conceptionof a common good, to take principled stands, to exchange reasons withothers, and to learn from others.


He makes similar claims in his essay “On Bentham”(CW X: 110–11).

Fourth, though Mill often focuses simply on harm, it appears thathis real focus is on non-consensual harm (I 2). He endorsesthe maxim volenti non fit injuria, which he glosses inUtilitarianism as the doctrine that “that is not unjustwhich is done with the consent of the person who is supposed to be hurtby it” (U V 28). It is not that one cannot be hurt bysomething one has consented to or freely risked. Rather, when one hasknowingly and willing risked something harmful, one cannot legitimatelycomplain when that harm comes home to roost. Having my nose brokensurely counts as a harm, but if you broke my nose in a boxing match, Icannot fairly complain about the harm, because I consented to therisk.

Written by Dr Michael Robillard

Third, Mill wants the harm principle to have wide scope. Heinsists that the harm principle regulates more than relations betweengovernment and individuals. Its application should include the family,in particular, relationships between husbands and wives and parents andchildren (V 12). Here, he prefigures some claims he will develop inThe Subjection of Women (discussed below).

Guy Kahane**, Jim A.C. Everett**,

Second, Mill envisions that the harm principle is something that wecan apply prospectively to prevent someone from acting in certain waysand causing harm. In many cases all we could reasonably know is that agiven action risks harm. Fortunately, this seems to be allthat Mill requires (IV 10). There are interesting and importantquestions about what threshold of risk must be met for purposes of theharm principle, which Mill does not address. Presumably, the thresholdshould vary inversely with the magnitude of the harm risked, so thatthe probability of harm required to justify regulation is lower thegreater the harm risked.