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#tolerancemeans you and I can annoy one another without getting the police involved

Updated: Apr 8

Hugh Jones, Undergraduate Student, Cambridge Union

John Stuart Mill is a giant of liberal philosophy, and perhaps his greatest contribution to the field was the ‘harm principle’, explained in his book, On Liberty. It refers to the idea that governments should only be able to coerce their citizens when their citizens’ actions are harming others. It is often summarised with the quotation “your right to swing your fist ends at my face”. 

Hugh Jones, Undergraduate Student, Cambridge Union Hugh Jones, Undergraduate Student, Cambridge Union

This summary is telling; Mill never put it that way – and almost certainly wouldn’t have done. Mill was concerned with restraining government interference with individual liberty. For him, it would not have been “if your fist hits my face, then I can get the government involved”, but “unless I hit you, I can swing my fist wherever the hell I want.” 

This distinction matters. Mill made sure to point out in On Liberty that the harm principle was a necessary – but not sufficient – criterion for governments flexing their police powers. He outlined several harms which do not warrant government intervention – one person outcompeting another in a business setting, for example. If you and I are both going for the same promotion at work, and you get it instead of me, I might consider myself harmed – but I don’t get to have you locked up. 

So – what does any of this have to do with tolerance. The answer is that tolerance is the other side of the harm principle. Democratic governments are, in certain circumstances at least, all too willing to over-police harms that ought to be overlooked. We shouldn’t be surprised that they are – that governments tend to prioritise popularity and policy over liberty is exactly why Mill felt the need to articulate the harm principle in the first place. 

We see this dynamic playing out in the most contentious political issues in the West – especially in the Anglosphere, where Mill’s ideas about liberty are politically foundational. Britain’s chronic inability to build new housing stems from homeowners unwillingness to tolerate small harms – loss of green spaces, lowered house prices – to facilitate construction that would boost the economy and help young people get on the fabled housing ladder. Similarly, British conservatives’ unwillingness to tolerate inconvenient but peaceful protests by groups like Extinction Rebellion has led to a crackdown on the freedom to demonstrate. On the other side of the political spectrum, leftists’ unwillingness to tolerate speech which they regard as violating taboos about race, sexuality, and gender (amongst other concerns) has led to prison sentences for teenagers sending ill-advised tweets. 

So what does tolerance mean? Well, to put it bluntly, it means recognising that if you’re only free as long as you don’t piss anyone else off in the process, you aren’t really free. So, next time your housemate is blasting music at 1am the night before your exam, don’t call the college porters on them. Grab a pair of earplugs and go back to sleep – it’s what Mill would have wanted.


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