Chapter Four: Harm to Others -- Harm as the Non-Fullfilment of Desire

Chin Liew Ten, Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore

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Chapter 4, part 1, of the author's Mill on Liberty, which Clarendon Press published in 1980. It has been included in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author and of the Clarendon Press, which retains copyright.

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decorative initial 'M' ill's liberty principle allows intervention in the freedom of the individual in order to prevent harm to others. Although the infliction of bodily injury is one type of harm, Mill obviously did not regard it as synonymous with the whole range of harmful conduct. For example, he regarded theft and unwarranted invasions of liberty as also harmful. But once the notion of harm is extended beyond that of bodily injury, the problem is to find somewhere to stop without arbitrariness or without invoking highly disputable values. It is sometimes said that the notion of harm is so deeply value impregnated that there can be no general agreement among people with different values about what is harmful1.

Within the utilitarian tradition, the wide notion of harm as the frustration or non-fulfilment of any desire whatever recommends itself. Perhaps the dearest account of this idea of harm is that developed by R. M. Hare who maintains that "To harm somebody is to act against his interests" ("Wrongness," p. 97). The notion of interests is conceptually linked to that of desires, or that of wanting. So to say that an act would harm somebody is to say that "it would, or might in possible circumstances prevent some desire of his from being realize" (p. 98). Hare uses the notions of desiring or wanting in a wide sense such that a person desires something if and only if, other things being equal, he will seek to do, or to get, or to retain it. Thus for Hare, to harm someone is to frustrate the fulfilment of his desires ("Wrongness, p. 102). Hare in fact adopts preference utilitarianism rather than classical utilitarianism. The preference utilitarian seeks to maximize the net satisfaction of desires. The classical utilitarian, on the other hand, is concerned with maximizing pleasant experiences or states of mind. He will therefore confine the notion of harm to the frustration of a desire, where the frustration in question is a felt experience. The fulfilment [52/53] or non-fulfilment of desires which merely involves the coming into existence of a state of affairs, but which does not produce pleasant or unpleasant experiences, will not be relevant. So, unlike Hare, the classical utilitarian will not think that a person has been harmed if the person is unaware, and will never be aware, that a desire of his is unfulfilled. And the dead too cannot therefore be harmed since they are incapable of having any experiences [Hare refers to the harming of the dying man's interests in "Theory," pp. 130-1; see also Feinberg, "Harm," p. 302].

However, there will be agreement between the classical utilitarian and the preference utilitarian over a very wide range of harmful conduct. For example, if a religious person is offended by the conduct of others even in private, or if his desire that they should change their behaviour is not complied with, then he is, on both views, harmed. Again, if a fanatical Nazi desires that all Jews be put to the gas chamber, and his desire is not realized, then he has been harmed. Of course sending Jews to the gas chamber will also harm them, and to a greater degree than the harm inflicted on the Nazi if his desire is not fulfilled. But Hare himself points out that

If, per impossible, there were any such real fanatic, i.e. a fanatic whose desire to be rid of Jews really did outweigh in strength the desires of all the Jews not to be rid of, then, both on the utilitarian view and on mine, the desire ought to be complied with. ["Reply," p. 52]

It is an implication of Hare's position that an innocent Jew, going about his daily concerns without bothering anybody, would none the less be harming fanatical Nazis simply because their desires that he be put in a gas chamber are not complied with. Indeed the more fanatical the Nazis, the greater are their desires to eliminate the Jew, and hence the stronger is the utilitarian case for sending the Jew to the gas chamber. Hare himself believes that in real life, situations of this kind, where the number of fanatical Nazis far exceeds the number of Jews such that satisfactions will be maximized if Jews are exterminated, will not occur. This optimism may be well placed. But it is difficult to have the same confidence with regard to less extreme cases of racial and religious intolerance and prejudice towards minority groups, in which what is demanded by the majority is inferior treatment of minorities, or the withholding of some rights, or perhaps their deportation. In some real-life situations, the results of a truly neutral [53/54] utilitarian calculation may be very indecisive as between liberal and illiberal solutions, with everything depending on the intensity of feelings and the way the numbers swing. No one, who is concerned with the freedom of minorities in the face of a hostile and prejudiced majority, can be happy with this situation. The fact that many utilitarians are convinced that the calculation will easily support a policy of toleration is a tribute to their latent liberalism rather than to their professed utilitarianism, or their understanding of the depth and intractability of racial and religious prejudices.

It is evident that Mill does not accept this wide, utilitarianly based notion of harm. He says explicitly that we should be free to do what we like without interference from others "so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong" (On Liberty, p. 75). Here he is contrasting two different types of adverse effects on others. If our conduct affects others simply because they regard it as "foolish, perverse, or wrong", then we do not harm them, whatever else we may be said to have inflicted on them. So Mill cannot believe that the non-fulfilment of their desires that we stop our "foolish, perverse, or wrong" conduct is a form of harm to them. Here it is important to distinguish between two different positions. The first is that conduct which adversely affects others in these ways harms them, but the harm is slight and is always outweighed by the good of non-intervention. This is not Mill's position. If it were, then he would have to regard such conduct as other-regarding, which he plainly does not. His position is that the conduct does not harm others at all, and therefore no question of balancing harm against harm, or harm against good, arises. The former position is compatible with utilitarianism, but Mill's position is not.

However, it may be argued that a consistent utilitarian is not forced to accept the wide notion of harm that Mill so dearly rejects. He can, for example, regard as harmful conduct which causes a net balance of pain over pleasure. In that case it is not necessary for him to consider all actions which cause pain or distress as harmful. For example, homosexual conduct between consenting adults in private may distress others, but if it invariably produces more pleasure than pain, then it is not, on this view, harmful. This is a notion of harm that the [54/55] utilitarian can accept because it takes into account all forms of pain or distress in determining whether an act is harmful. But it is evident that Mill does not accept this notion of harm either. Mill believes that the relevant calculation comes into play only after it has been shown that an action is harmful, whereas on this account the utilitarian calculation determines whether that action is harmful. Thus Mill writes:

As soon as any part of a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interest of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and the ordinary amount of understanding.) [On Liberty, p. 132]


Feinberg, Joel. "Harm and Self-Interest" Law, Morality, and Society: Essays in Honour of H. L. A. Hart, ed. P. M. S. Hacker and J. Raz. Oxford, 1977.

Hare, R. M. "Reply to 'Liberals, Fanatics and Not-so-innocent-Bystanders'" Jowett Papers (1968-9), ed. B. Y. Khanbhai / R. S. Katz / R. A. Pineau.

_____ "Wrongness and Harm" Essays on the Moral Concepts. London, 1972.

_____ "Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism" Contemporary British Philosophy: Personal Statements, ed. H. D. Lewis. London, 1976.

Mill, John Stuart. "On Liberty". Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government (Everyman edn).

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Last modified 20 April 2001