Should the government only restrict an individual’s freedom in order to prevent harm to others?

Should the government only restrict an individual’s freedom in order to prevent harm to others?

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In a democratic society, it is generally considered the Government's role to promote morality and justice within its citizens and seek to restrict supposedly immoral and unjust acts. Thus if an act is to be considered immoral, it seems obvious to suggest that the government is justified in restricting it regardless of whether it is harmful to others. However, since everybody has a different understanding of morality and freedom, no Government could legitimately restrict an act on the basis of it being 'immoral'. Thus it seems more plausible to suggest that the Government should only restrict actions which everybody can agree should be restricted. However it's not clear where the line should be drawn or how a consensus on the issue could be reached.

John Stuart Mill put forth an idea, commonly known as the 'harm principle', in which he argued that the government may only legitimately interfere in our actions to prevent harm, or the threat of harm, to others. For Mill it wasn't enough to simply do something that people didn't like rather, one has to actually cause another harm. Mill's argument seems designed to protect our individual freedoms against government paternalism, through which our ability to express ourselves may be restricted under the pretence that we are being protected from ourselves. For Mill the only time we must justify our actions to society, or the government, are when they concern others and most importantly, bring them harm.

Mill makes it clear that harm is much more than mere offence, he also gives some examples including physical harm and harm to our financial interests such as taking away property or money without our consent. Mill also accepts harm in certain instances such as judicial punishment, so ...


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...onally accept harm as legitimate reason for the government to restrict individual freedoms, everyone's understanding of what constitutes 'harm' is different. Utilitarian's may propose that harm is anything that is detrimental to an individual's happiness. If freedom is as important as Mill suggests then we can consider any restriction on freedom harmful, in which case the Government must constantly consider the degree of harm necessary to justify and outweigh the harm they will undoubtedly be causing by imposing restrictions on individual freedom. On this account of harm, we can conclude both that not only should the government only restrict an individual’s freedom in order to prevent harm to others, but also that the level of harm must be enough to outweigh the harm caused by a restriction of individual freedoms. For Mill, this would have been a very high threshold.

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