The “do no harm” principle underlies many political and social arguments made over the last few decades.
Essentially, its proponents believe that as long as one person doesn’t harm another, then he or she should be free to do whatever. Naturally, the thinking then extends to relationships between people as long as everyone involved consents.
The roots of such thinking are deep. A very influential thinker on the subject of doing no harm is John Stuart Mill, who wrote extensively on it in On Liberty (1859). He summarized the premise of On Liberty as follows:
“The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are 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 civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others … Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Thus, Mill holds that an individual’s actions should be tolerated by society as long as they do no ostensible harm to its other members. Do no harm, and thou shalt be free. Sounds great for libertarians, right?
But later on, Mill clarifies that same premise:
“How (it may be asked) can any part of the conduct of a member of society be a matter of indifference to the other members? No person is an entirely isolated being; it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them … if by his vices or follies a person does no direct harm to others, he is nevertheless (it may be said) injurious by his example, and ought to be compelled to control himself for the sake of those whom the sight or knowledge of his conduct might corrupt or mislead.
I fully admit that the mischief which a person does to himself may seriously affect, both through their sympathies and their interests, those nearly connected with him and, in a minor degree, society at large … If, for example, a man, through intemperance or extravagance, becomes unable to pay his debts, or, having undertaken the moral responsibility of a family, becomes from the same cause incapable of supporting or educating them, he is deservedly reprobated and might be justly punished; but it is for the breach of duty to his family or creditors, not for the extravagance.”
What becomes clear is that a society must be bound together by a common worldview or moral structure; otherwise, it’s unclear what actually causes harm and what does not. The “do no harm” principle, as it’s too frequently understood today, in many ways shatters the bonds of such a common moral structure by emphasizing radical individualism. It ends up being used to justify behavior that does in fact do harm or cause “mischief,” and eventually leads to societal chaos.
Perhaps, then, the idea that people should be free to do whatever they want so long as it doesn’t harm another person is an insufficient foundation for a society and government. Is it time to rethink the argument?