John Stuart Mill, the Harm Principle and the Crime of Thought

A sketch from Harry Shearer on John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle, made by Cognitive for BBC. Source

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s dystopian novel, there is a society ruled by a totalitarian party regime headed by “The Big Brother”, and every individual is screened by the government. With this massive monitoring, the government detects who thinks against and opposite, and sentences them by the law of “Thoughtcrime”. Hopingly, we have not faced with this kind of drastic circumstance, but it does not mean that we will not experience that kind of psychopathic totalitarian regime on our thoughts. In his book, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, one of the important thinkers on freedom, explains that circumstance as:

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, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. “

(J.S.Mıll, 2003, p. 87)

In this essay, we will respectively try to look Mill’s ideas on freedom of opinion and his harm principle, then explain the crime of thought with the help of these.

Freedom of Opinion Because of his utilitarian epistemology, John Stuart Mill equals truth with happiness and utility. For him, according to Driver (2014), people desire happiness, which has a utilitarian nature, and the general happiness is good to the aggregate of all individuals. For that happiness, mental well-being of people should be constituted, and only way of which is the freedom of opinion (2003, p. 118). What remains truth, what provides utility and what is useful. Fallibility is only way to arrive reality, and hence, it is only way to arrive conclusion. Every thought is open to rectification. To success happiness, we should find truth, and freedom of opinion, in which fallibility of opinions can be detected, is crucial for that seeking of truth.

The Harm Principle According to Mill, some actions of individuals may harm others, thus the liberty of individuals should be limited on the grounds of the possibility of harm given by them to others. (2003, p. 121) This limitation can be exercised by either state or society. State follows law, but sometimes, individual do not violate the law. In those incidents, society punish them with opinion. Mill explains it like that:

The acts of an individual may be hurtful to others, or wanting in due consideration for their welfare, without going the length of violating any of their constituted rights. The offender may then be justly punished by opinion, though not by law. As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. “

(J. S. MILL, 2003, p. 139)

The Crime of Thought The crime of thought is opposite to Mill’s ideas. Someone can say that some ideas can harm other individuals, therefore they should be limited, or punished. But this argument is incorrect, because idea could not cause a harm, only actions can result a harm. So, Mill focused on the difference of action and opinion. Actions, according to him, should not be free like opinions and to elaborate that, he gives corn-dealer example:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard. “

(J. S. MILL, 2003, p. 121)

Naming some thought as crime also blocks to attain truth, with causing assumption of infallibility. Ideas should be rectified, and the ultimate truth should be sought with the process of fallibility. We should seek truth with discussing, commenting and rectifying various ideas, only that way we can reach the ultimate happiness. Punishment of the people because of their ideas solely helps to blow whole system, and totalitarian regimes stem from tyranny of certain or dogmatic ideas will be dominant, which is the least option for individual who seeks his happiness.


Driver, J. (2014). The History of Utilitarianism. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Mill, J. S., Bromwich, D., Kateb, G., & Elshtain, J. B. (2003). On Liberty. Yale University Press.