John Stuart Mill’s Explanation of the Harm Principle

Topics: Hate speech, Freedom of speech, Censorship Pages: 7 (2498 words) Published: December 16, 2011
John Stuart Mill’s explanation of the harm principle is not as useful as once believed. Although the harm principle does in fact have some logic, it fails to set clear and concise borders regarding what denotes allowable hate speech. The harm principle essentially states that all speech, including hate speech, should be allowed. However, speech that causes a definable harm must be censored. For example, merely offensive speech is allowed; however, the context of the offensive speech in question is important in understanding when to apply Mill’s harm principle. The principle has some major flaws, as Mill does not take into consideration the numerous factors that must be examined before deciding whether or not to apply the principle, such as the individuals and groups involved, and their present circumstances within society. These factors are not always shown to be clearly conducive to harm; individuals can be affected by certain actions that are not clearly defined as noticeably causing harm to someone, such as suicide. Many people view suicide as solely causing harm to the individual that takes their own life. However, it is often forgotten that the individual’s family and friends are significantly affected, and potentially even traumatised. The harm principle cannot offer an absolute answer because harm is a very subjective concept. Some actions do overt harm to others but other actions result in implicit forms of harm. Therefore, this paper will begin by examining Mill’s reasons for protecting free speech. By analyzing a case involving David Ahenakew’s comments, it will attempt to scrutinize the harm principle in more detail to determine whether or not the principle can act as a guiding path for how to deal with problematic hate speech. Ultimately, this paper will argue that although Mill sets forth a strong, plausible argument for the protection of free speech, the harm principle is not specific enough to be applied to contemporary discussions regarding restrictions to hate speech.

According to Mill, the harm principle is when “power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, to prevent harm to others” (Cahn 441). Mill put forth the harm principle for a number of reasons. Due to his profound regard for free speech, he argues that only harmful speech acts that have potential to cause a definite harm should be banned. Mill believed that greater knowledge through open discussion leads to greater happiness, because it allows us to question our beliefs to discern what is right or wrong. He asserted that vigorous thinking leads to a more fulfilled life; if one examines his or her life and questions certain aspects of it, one directly contributes to the betterment of social well being by enabling individuals to pursue self development. This is done by promoting the mental development of the average person, and protecting their right to do so. Good, factual information is one of the fundamental ways in which society can progress, because society is constantly dependant on information. Progress is made in humanity when extraordinary people bring knowledge to the table. Hence, according to Mill, silencing an opinion is robbing the human race because there are possible benefits even if the opinion is wrong or implausible; “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he would be justified in silencing mankind” (Cahn 443). Mill argues that if the opinion was right, we have lost a piece of information that can benefit mankind and allow humanity to progress. If the opinion was wrong, we have lost something that makes the truth clearer to ourselves. Additionally, Mill argues that even if the opinion was wrong, it is not meaningless, for society can still benefit from invalid or rude speech even if it seems erroneous. The price of getting to the truth means we must...

Cited: Newman, Stephen. "Ahenakew’s views are wrong, but so is silencing him « Canadian Jewish Congress." Canadian Jewish Congress. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. .
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