John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle – Dystopian or Not?

The Harm Principle - Dystopian or not

John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle – Dystopian or Not?

This is a minor essay written for University of Pennsylvania’s course ‘Revolutionary Ideas: Utility, Justice, Equality, Freedom’ on the Harm Principle

One answer to the question of why we should have a State, comes from John Stuart Mill, that the state improves human welfare by preventing us from harming each other, also known as the Harm Principle. This means that the state needs to prevent us from harming and fighting with each other, which it can do so through the implementation of laws and processes to enforce these laws. The State then allows for peaceful and productive relations to emerge and therefore creates a basic condition for peaceful coexistence.

What can be troubling about having the Harm Principle as an answer to the question of why we should have a State, is when it becomes misinterpreted, or taken to the extremes. Firstly, who is defining what constitutes as harm to one another. Does it take into account psychological harm or only physical? What about harm to your social standing or the way others perceive you? If you included these, then the answer is not just about physical violence, as there are many other ways people can be harmed.

Therefore, when interpreting the answer in its strictest form, you can have a State giving justifiable reasons to breach its wards liberties. For example, imagine two people who are married, have children, but have now decided to get a divorce. Will this divorce cause emotional or psychological harm to the children, if it does, then under a very strict interpretation of the principle, shouldn’t it then be prevented by the state? It doesn’t take many steps to then imagine a dystopian world the state through an overzealous sense of protection heavily limits the ways in which its citizens can interact with not only other citizens and the world around them, but also themselves.

It’s a theme which can be seen in some cinematic storytelling, such as 2004’s I, Robot directed by Alex Proyas, while the over interpretation is not conducted by the state exactly, it still illustrates the danger of the principle.

Quality entertainment aside, the threat for misinterpretation or overzealous enforcement of the principle is still possible, while maybe not wholly probable.

The answer to the question of why we should have a State that I find most compelling, is concerned with solving Collective Action Problems. Groups of people working together to solve otherwise unsolvable problems, is a huge benefit and surely a verifiable reason for why we should have a State.

Take for example freedom of movement. Constructing, maintaining, and improving a transportation network would surely be unmanageable and unobtainable by oneself.

Let’s say you live high in the mountains, and want to visit your family a great distance away. Without a proper transportation network this journey would take an incredible amount of both time and effort. To clear the land and build your own road network would also require considerable investment, and would be surely out of the means of most common citizens. But where the state can levy taxes from a larger population and then use those funds to build the required infrastructure, you are then able to find yourself traveling much more quickly, safely, and without having to invest as much time.

The same can be said for many of today’s current public works. Electricity and water distribution, food and freight transportation, just to name a few. By having a State, we can solve problems that might otherwise be beyond our reach, and surely that is a compelling enough answer to why we should have a State.