Understanding the Harm Principle

The Modern Survival Guide #21

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. No statement I make should be construed as an attack on your personal freedoms or rights, which is good, because in this edition I’ll be discussing the Harm Principle. Keep reading to see how that all ties together.

Your survival as a member of a large, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-viewpoint society is dependent on a very simple principle. It forms a foundation of our legal system’s philosophy and of modern interpretations of the Constitution. It is, in large part, what we mean when we say the word “freedom.” This is the Harm Principle, and it has been the basis of many arguments toward both individual freedom and restrictions on individual freedom for many years. You can read its history if you click the link. The important thing to pick up here is how it will affect you.

The core idea is as follows: No one should be forcibly prevented from acting in any way they choose, provided that their acts are not invasive of the free acts of others.

The corollary argument is as follows: No one should interfere with the freedoms of another individual except to prevent harm to themselves and others.

There are two quick takeaways you should know from any discussion of the Harm Principle:

  1. It will impact you personally, because it is an excellent metric for intervention, and
  2. It will impact you in a general sense, because this is how a lot of politicians and pundits figure out which laws to endorse.

For your reading pleasure, and because I think it will make the rest of this article slightly more interesting, the remainder of this explanation will be conducted in a question and answer format! Enjoy.

So what is this crazy thing and what do I do with it?

It’s a philosophy of freedom and the limits of freedom. You use it to make choices about your freedom and the freedom of others.

Go on…

Freedom isn’t limitless.

The hell you say. Why can’t I do what I want?

Because if everyone did everything they wanted all the time, with no limits, we’d all end up stealing from and/or killing one another inside of a week.

How can you say that? People are good, right?

Not inherently, no. And also not really the point. People have needs that must be met. If you deny them these needs then freedom is pointless; they’ll simply be slaves to survival, and they’ll do what they have to do to survive, even if that means compromising the freedom of others. And the first step in that denial is to prioritize one person’s freedom higher than another’s.

So… you’re saying that we have to have limits in order to be free?

Weird paradox, but yeah. Your freedom ends at my nose and my stuff. Freedom is defined by the ability to do things, and you can’t do things if you’re injured, dead, or broke.

So how does this affect me?

All kinds of ways. Laws, morals, social standards, Aunt Tammy’s heroin intervention, and that’s just for starters.

And why are you making a big deal out of it here?

Because it’s a grey area. What does it mean to harm someone?

Uh, obviously that you’ve hurt them. Duh.

Yeah, but the more hurt we avoid the more we cut into freedom. Do you want the cops to arrest you every time you offend someone?

Ah, no. Good point. Although I am the perfect gentleman.

Never doubted it for a moment.

So you’re saying that our laws, our morals, our social standing… this all balances on how people interpret definitions of harm?


And you’re saying that’s a big moral, legal, and ethical grey area?

Uh huh.

Jesus Christ, that’s terrifying.

You said it. And that’s why need better educational services.

I feel like you’re getting off subject. So what am I supposed to do with this Harm Principle thingy?

Be aware of it. Recognize that your freedoms in society are walking a balancing act with the needs of security. And understand that these concepts aren’t stable or static, they change all the time.

Wait, what about the Constitution…?

Now we’re off subject. Let’s switch back to a single narrator.¹

The Harm Principle is in this Guide because it’s the arbiter of your freedom and your security in most modern societies. You are going to draw different limits than your neighbor. Your neighbor will have different limits from their neighbor. And so on. This is both a good thing and a trap.

It’s a good thing because this is such a grey area. We need to constantly discuss and reaffirm or reassess the limits of the Harm Principle in society, at least once every generation or so. It keeps us adaptive to changes in the world. It’s good for the soul of the body politic, and you are a member of that body.

But it’s also a trap. People use the Harm Principle to justify all sorts of things, both in terms of freedom and in terms of safety. Every time you hear someone say that their freedom is worth more than the public safety, that’s the old HP in action. Every time you hear someone say that the public safety is worth more than individual freedoms… well, same thing, just the other angle.

There’s always someone out there who wants a little more of your freedom for a little more of their security, or a little less security for little more personal freedom. Nothing about this is set in stone. It’s an ongoing discussion. And if you don’t express your point of view, you will be left out of the conversation. So my advice to you is to decide where you want to draw your lines, and how much harm you’re willing to risk for your own freedom. And then conduct your life, and your letters to your representatives, accordingly.

¹You might think it’s easy to define the limits of government power, and thus the limits of the government’s ability to act according to the Harm Principle, based on the Constitution. You would be wrong. That’s why we have a whole body of the legal profession that deals with Constitutional Law. And while you may hold the opinion that the field of Constitutional Law in the US is a pile of moo poo, and that we should just go with a strict originalist interpretation, you should know that the majority of legal experts disagree with you, and it’s their opinion that counts. This is a whole other big discussion that I’m not going to cover here.



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