1.3 Can Liberty Cause Harm in Society

Harm Principle

The concept of harm is essential to understanding freedom. What is harm then? This is hard. John Stuart Mill thought there was a material difference between harm and mere offense. Obviously physical injury is harm, but what about non-physical injury? Where does abuse or harassment fit into the Harm/Mere Offense spectrum? Is it possible to come up with an objective measurement of harm based on empirical evidence so that the same action can be uniformly applied as harm or mere offence across a whole population? What if freemen choose a definition of harm that is quite limited but others choose for themselves a long list of things that can be harmful? Will freemen grow up stronger and more able to endure the world? Will we become more brutal and blood thirsty? By extension, in the context we are discussing, having freemen in the room with you will make a less sensitive room where the people present can battle for longer and more truth can be discovered through dialogue. The room could get away with a more willing or passionate discussion without risking doing ‘harm’ to someone. Variations in thresholds of ‘harm’ means that different groups will be seen as weaker or stronger, depending on the thresholds they choose.

The broader the scope of harm is, the more opinions will be silenced and the more opinions are silenced, the more error and doubt we have in the world and this makes men weaker and more full of doubt.

So you can see the notion of harm is extremely important. Whilst I accept that we may never develop an empirical measurement of harm, we can easily compare differing thresholds of harm across individuals or even subsets of the population. Two different people may have differing opinions on whether opinion A is harm causing. That one person thinks it is and thus that it shouldn’t be spoken whilst another thinks it is not harm and is eager to hear it is a situation that will mean one person will experience more doubt that another in their life. This may well mean that the second person grows stronger and more full of knowledge whilst the first person grows weaker and more full of doubt and therefore fear.

So perhaps this is the answer we are looking for in our running question on feminist happiness (or lack of). Does the same action, ceteris paribus, cause mere offense to freemen, but harm to women? It does seem plausible. If a freeman were to strongly disagree with 2 people, each from each sex, is it not likely that she will feel more scared of harm than he will? Are freemen the world over gauging women by their own measure of what harm is and therefore causing harm to women who have a lower threshold of what constitutes harm? I think we have to consider that this is likely. If we take different thresholds of harm seriously, we should accept that we are in effect cultivating class and inequality within our society. Whilst inequality is unavoidable, being an active participant in cultivating it by design has highly questionable morals associated with it and is destined to make a subsection of the population more disadvantaged.

But what about the absence of action leading to harm? What if I see a crime occurring, which I could stop, but do nothing? Is there harm in me not putting myself at risk to reduce the harm to another? Should I save a drowning man? Surely not if I can’t myself swim. But then is it not harmful that I didn’t learn to swim earlier in anticipation that maybe one day it would be useful, even lifesaving, to someone else?

Minimize the harm you do

So, is the statement “a good man should never do harm with his actions or opinions” accurate? I think I could possibly live my life without doing harm to anyone else, but only by shutting myself away in a cave and never interacting with anyone else ever. But is the act of denying society my person not harm in itself? Surely if I participate in society, and bring to bare all the good that I can do and the richness of my unique person, society is better off. If we assume that to participate in society necessarily means that sooner or later I’ll harm someone even by mistake, then it would seem that the statement “never do harm” is a paradox for if we withdraw in an attempt not to harm, we harm anyway.

Perhaps then we should make the statement “Always minimise the harm you do”. Most people would agree that the world is better with doctors who attempt to treat all men and women, even if they do unintentionally do harm one time in a thousand. We are happy so long as the doctor is doing his or her best to do as little harm as possible. Imprisoning a criminal harms him or her, but leaving them free risks harming everyone. Therefore the act of imprisoning criminals minimises harm and is good.

I think it is important for freemen to decide on whether they intend to do no harm, or act with good intention and try and minimise the harm they do along the way. It is important because if you choose the first option, you will either have to accept unobtainable standards of perfection or just withdraw from society altogether. If you choose the second option, you will have to accept that from time to time you might hurt someone.

Could it be that because women are more easily physically harmed or that harm hurts them more that they prefer the statement “Never do harm” over “Minimise the harm you do”? As discussed, this former statement would come with either an impossibly high standard of perfection or a retreat from society. Either way if women choose the first statement and men choose the second, it would lead to women feeling that freemen were accepting a lesser threshold of acceptability and a higher tolerance of harm but also that men seem to participate more actively in society. The high standard of perfection and the lower standard of acceptable behavior would certainly make women less happy.

Must harm be predictable

An important quality of harm vs mere offense is that we must be able to anticipate whether harm will be done. The difference between the two is irrelevant if prior knowledge about whether you will do harm or mere offense by acting cannot be predicted. The obvious example here is sometimes when men approach women to ask them out for a date (or in a more extreme scenario, for sex) we receive a consenting answer, sometimes a polite but flattered refusal, sometimes we cause mere offence and sometimes we do harm. Should the act of asking a women out be classified as harm just because the possibility of it exists? I’m sure all men accept that from time to time we do, unintentionally, scare and intimidate a woman. But also from time to time we meet our wives this way.


The difference between harm and mere offense is hard. But freemen should establish a dialogue to determine where the line lies. Remember, you can always inquire of a person first if they want to hear your opinion. And the use of good manners can only help to tip the balance in mere offenses favour.

To be clear, he who most rejects free speech to save themselves offense will act with the least conviction. However, what shall we do about those who are easily offended for good reason? People can be offended by a joke about a traumatic event they have experienced. Are they weaker for trying to silence the joke maker? Let us explore this in at a later date.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *