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The Definition And Limitations Of Harm

1536 words - 6 pages

John Stuart Mill’s treatise On Liberty defines liberty as the ability to behave however one desires, with the condition one does not harm another individual (Mill 11). However, the definition of harm is vast, and could range from murder or rape to insulting an individual’s feelings. To account for this, Mill specifies what constitutes harm. In this essay, I will consider Mill’s interpretation and definition of harm. Mill argues harm is unwelcome and discernible damage against an individual, through injury, imprisonment, monetary loss, or slander (Mill 81). This definition goes beyond simple physical injury however, and includes injuries caused by failure to act and lack of responsibility in order to fulfill one’s duties. Mill also defines harm by what it is not: offended morals. Offended morals are instances in which an individual protests actions that do not affect her under the assumption these actions are harmful to this individual’s morals. For example, an individual could argue gay marriage should not be allowed because it violates the sanctity of marriage, which offends Christian morals. Following this, I will elaborate on why his limitations are viable, however his inclusion of responsibility is not. Mill’s definition is not viable because it is unrealistic to hold individuals accountable for failure to act in all situations. Following this I will examine how accounting for human error and varying levels of harm can make Mill’s definition more practical.
Mill defines harm as “acts injurious to others” such as false actions or physical injury (Mill 81). His definition initially appears straightforward; any action that may cause an individual pain or inconvenience harms them (Mill 11). This includes mental and physical pain, as well as evidently detrimental circumstances as a result of an individual’s actions. However, Mill continues beyond this simple definition, including the failure to stop an individual’s pain or problems when possible to do so (Mill 81). He argues one must protect other members of the society and every individual has a responsibility to help his peers (Mill 81). By not fulfilling this duty, either through choice or temporary incapacity, an individual’s lack of action harms the rest of the community. If one renders oneself incapable of fulfilling this duty, such as through the consumption of alcohol, one harms those who rely on him. By defining inaction as harm, Mill claims individuals cannot possess the liberty to choose to neglect their duties (Mill 82-3). He also uses this definition to prohibit actions such as gambling or idleness, as these actions can cause an individual’s inability to help others. (Mill 82) Ultimately, Mill allows harm to span further than the typical definition of mere physical or emotional turmoil, and includes responsibility and lack of action in his definition.
However, Mill also considers the possibility of individuals misusing his broad definition through the assumption that offended morals...

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