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Responsibility and Freedom: Analysis through On Liberty
Mar 1, 2015

Discussions over personal liberty and government intervention are as old as modern governments, as J.S. Mill’s writings show.

John Stuart Mill was among the many philosophers, both before and after, who attempted to determine when government intervention in the private lives of individuals was legitimate.  The authoritarian regimes of 19th century Europe triggered thinkers to study citizen’s rights and state powers.  Mill attempted to regulate the actions of these authoritarian regimes by distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate government intervention in his book On Liberty.  Mill’s ideas were one influence among many on the structure and laws of the modern nation state.  Using his ideas on freedom and government as a starting point, we can discuss psychological harm, human fallibility, and social responsibilities.

Mill, in On Liberty, identifies two mechanisms for determining legitimate government intervention: the harm principle and utilitarianism.  The harm principle states that government can only legitimately interfere with the actions of individuals if the actions of the individuals harm others against their will.  Thus, if an action does not harm another against their will, the government cannot interfere.  Notice that an individual can harm themselves or even other people with the appropriate consent.  Effectively, the harm principle constitutes an absolute bar to government intervention on unharmful private action.

The second mechanism, utilitarianism, comes into play after government intervention is considered to be legitimate due to harmful consequences of private actions.  At this point, the government must do a utility calculation, or a cost-benefit analysis, in which it must determine whether government intervention will result in more harm than the private action it will attempt to stop.  If the analysis indicates that government intervention will result in more harm, government intervention would be considered illegitimate, and vice versa.  Thus, while the harm principle constituted an absolute categorical bar, the utilitarianism mechanic requires a case-by-case determination of the legitimacy of government intervention.

In order to apply the harm principle it is important not only to know what the principle is, but also what constitutes harm.  The broader the definition of harm becomes, the larger the pool of actions that the government can interfere with becomes.  In general, the classification of physical damage to body and property as harm is generally accepted by society as well as by Mill.  However, the definition of harm can include things other than just physical damage.  In order to properly apply the harm principle, it must be determined whether psychological harm and failure to act can be classified as harm, warranting government intervention.

Psychological Harm

Can feeling distress, being upset, or experiencing psychological harm due to another individual’s actions be categorized as harm?  If one were to accept distress as harm, then the definition of harm has effectively been broadened to include every instance in which one feels discomfort or is upset by another’s action, expanding the sphere of legitimate government intervention.

Mill does not determine distress or psychological harm to be harm.  The distress or psychological harm Mill refers to is one originating from a disagreement of values between two individuals.  For example, one individual may like the color blue while another dislikes it.  The distress, anger, resentment, or any other negative feelings the other may feel when the first wears a blue shirt is the psychological harm that Mill refers to.  A more consequential example would be the distress that a Democrat may feel about the ideas expressed at a Republican rally.  The views expressed at the rally are clearly contrary to the individual’s beliefs, yet the distress originating from this ideological difference cannot be categorized as harm.  If it was categorized as harm, then the government could intervene whenever actions or speech was contrary to the ideology and beliefs of the most powerful or the most vocal.

Mill, in On Liberty, states that “unless we are willing to adopt the logic of persecutors, and to say that we may persecute others because we are right and they must not persecute us because they are wrong, we must beware of admitting a principle of which we should resent as a gross injustice the application to ourselves” (1).  Here he attempts to stop the use of the harm principle in attempts to impose beliefs or one’s own moral values on others.  He argues that imposing views on another is wrong, because one would not want others to impose their views on them.  Additionally, Mill emphasizes the fallibility of human reasoning and preferences, stating that despite one’s conviction in one’s own position in an argument, there is always the possibility of error.

Admittance of the fallibility is not only a sign of humility and recognition of possibilities, but also a very real demonstration of understanding one’s own limitations inherent in being human.  This principle has been recognized and applied by many scholars and thinkers in addition to Mill, like Socrates and Said Nursi.  For example, in The Republic, Plato quotes Socrates as exclaiming “[a]s for me, all I know is that I know nothing” (2).

Similarly, Said Nursi demonstrates the same recognition of the fallibility of human beings in his Risale-i Nur and attributes true knowledge only to God.  This is clearly displayed in his use of text from the Quran at the beginning and ending of all the chapters in The Words. Thus, Nursi begins his work by drawing from what he considers the true source of knowledge and ends with that same infallible source.

Lastly, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes seems to support Mill’s position against persecution by arguing in Leviathan that “do not that to another, which thou wouldst not have done to thyself” (3).  Hobbes’ view is in effect a version of the golden rule, limiting social interaction to only actions one would deem acceptable if done to him/her.  In congruence with Hobbes’s golden rule, Mill argues that imposing one’s views on others is wrong, and that feeling upset due to the failure of others to conform to those views is not harm.  Thus, even if the actions of an individual upset or cause psychological harm to others, the government cannot legitimately interfere.

Failure to Act

Though Mill prevents distress or psychological harm from being used to legitimize government intervention over an individual’s actions, he permits failure to act to be classified as harm.  In situations where a failure to act causes a negative or harmful outcome, government intervention would be legitimate.  For example, the government may prosecute a firefighter if his negligence allowed a building to burn down.  However, classifying failure to act or inaction as harm is dangerous, because people are not capable of infinite actions in a moment.  The jurisdiction of government intervention is expanded tremendously by this classification.  Why would Mill, who constructed a mechanism for limiting government intervention, expand government power in this way? And what restraints can be applied to the failure-to-act classification?

Socrates’ ideas, as expressed in The Republic by Plato, provide some insight into answering the previous questions.  After examining Plato’s views in The Republic, it is possible to claim that Socrates would agree with Mill in including the failure-to-act as harm.  His definition of a just society is a society in which everyone is doing their job or role in society (4).  From this, one can assume that a just action within a society would be whatever action is in accordance with the job of the individual as determined by his soul and position in society.  Thus, failure to perform one’s job would then be classified as an unjust action by Plato, open to government intervention for the restoration of social justice.

Socrates’ view seems to emphasize the nature of the action that the individual is failing to do.  If the failure to act involved the failure to do one’s job in society, then the failure to act would be considered unjust.  On the other hand, if the failure to act involved inaction about an issue that was not the individual’s responsibility, then it is possible to conclude that the failure to act in this instance is not an unjust action.  Thus, this approach distinguishes between a firefighter who chooses not to stop a fire from a regular citizen who chooses not to stop a fire.  The firefighter neglects his responsibility, opening him to criminal prosecution, while the regular citizen’s inaction is not open to prosecution.  By allowing the failure to act to be considered as harm, Mill avoided conflicting with the conditional nature of determining whether the failure to act is just or unjust as extrapolated from Plato’s views.

Socrates’ and Mill’s analysis regarding the failure to act is based solely on the legal and formal responsibilities of the individual.  The police have a responsibility to stop crime, and parents have a responsibility to take care of their children, etc.  Each nation’s unique constitution and laws make legal responsibilities country-specific and unique.  For example, many European states, like Germany and France, require citizens to provide assistance to persons in danger (5).  However, the duty to rescue those in peril does not exist in other countries, like the United States (6).  Of course, most people call the authorities for help and attempt to provide first-aid, but the fact remains that in most of the United States, there is no legal obligation to rescue.  Each country determines the legal responsibilities of its citizens, some choosing to expand and some choosing to restrict the extent of responsibilities.

For many people, informal responsibilities extend beyond formal responsibilities; these are often based on the individual’s religion, culture, and ethics.  While government intervention may not be legitimate for failures of informal responsibilities according to Mill, informal responsibilities constitute an important piece of the society.  For example, children have an informal responsibility to care for their parents, especially during their old age.  If children ignore this responsibility, the government cannot and should not intervene.  After all, the government is not the ultimate solution for every social problem, and each member of the country may not believe in the same informal responsibilities due to different culture, religion, and ethics.  Instead, the true solutions to failures in informal responsibilities are education in social values and decency, social structures, communities, and institutions.

Mill’s principles on government intervention in the lives of free people provided a platform to discuss psychological harm and social responsibilities.  Government can provide solutions for certain social issues, but not for all.  In recognition of this, Mill wrote of an alternative limited government to the authoritarian regimes of his time.  In this alternative, conflicting and controversial ideologies could co-exist, and government would only regulate formal responsibilities.  The burden rests on the society to care for the informal responsibilities.


  1. Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty, 155
  2. Plato, The Republic, (Plato 354c, book 1)
  3. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Pt. 1, Ch. 15, para. 35
  4. Kara, Mahmut. “Rethinking Plato: Philosophical Idealism and Political Totalitarianism.” Fountain Magazine, April-June 2001.
  5. Weinrib, Ernest J. “The Case for a Duty to Rescue.” The Yale Law Journal , Vol. 90, No. 2 (Dec., 1980), pp. 247-293 Published by: The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc. URL:<>.
  6. Yania v. Bigan, 397 Pa. 316, 155 A.2d 343 (1959)