John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle and Free Speech: Expanding the Notion of Harm

Utilitas (2020), 1-18, doi:10.1017/S0953820820000229

18 Pages Posted: 21 Nov 2020

Date Written: September 23, 2020


This article advocates employing John Stuart Mill's harm principle to set the boundary for unregulated free speech, and his Greatest Happiness Principle to regulate speech outside that boundary because it threatens unconsented-to harm. Supplementing the harm principle with an offense principle is unnecessary and undesirable if our conception of harm integrates recent empirical evidence unavailable to Mill. For example, current research uncovers the tangible harms individuals suffer directly from bigoted speech, as well as the indirect harms generated by the systemic oppression and epistemic injustice that bigoted speech constructs and reinforces. Using Mill's ethical framework with an updated notion of harm, we can conclude that social coercion is not justified to restrict any harmless speech, no matter how offensive. Yet certain forms of speech, such as bigoted insults, are both harmful and fail to express a genuine opinion, and so do not deserve free speech protection.

Keywords: John Stuart Mill, Free Speech, Hate Speech, Discrimination, Harm Principle

JEL Classification: Z18, K30, I00, I14, I18, I20, I23, I24, H10

Suggested Citation

Bell, Melina, John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle and Free Speech: Expanding the Notion of Harm (September 23, 2020). Utilitas (2020), 1-18, doi:10.1017/S0953820820000229, Available at SSRN:

Melina Bell (Contact Author)

W&L University ( email )

204 W. Washington St.
Lexington, VA 24450
United States

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