Friday, December 22, 2006

A Desire Utilitarian Concept of Harm

In a comment affixed to my post “The Episcopalian Schism”, Atheist Oberver challenged me to provide an objective account of harm.

In short, I wrote that everybody must use some shortcuts in their acquisitions of beliefs, that we only have time to subject a few of them to close scrutiny, and the criteria that a moral person uses to determine which beliefs to scrutinize is that of “harm to others”.

Atheist Observer responded by writing:

Religion claims the right to decalare what brings harm. You believe suppressing homosexuality causes harm. Those you condemn believe that going against the will of God as they see it causes harm to themselves and others in this world and the next. If you use nothing but the "harm" argument, you have nothing but conflicting opinions, with no reason to chose one or the other.

This is false. There is an objective standard of harm, and religions can be as wrong about what does and does not count as harm as they often are about matters of science. It is as much of a mistake to use the Bible as a basis of moral fact as it is to use the Bible as a basis of scientific fact.

I promised that I would make good on that statement this weekend.

The weekend is now here.

Because of the blizzard, and a trip to work today that was standing-room only on the bus, I did not get the writing time I usually have. So, I’m going to divide this answer into two parts. Today, I’ll give a basic account of ‘harm’ in desire utilitarian terms. Tomorrow, I will defend that definition and use it to answer Atheist Observer’s questions.

[Aside: I am a terrible salesperson. If I had to rely on my salesmanship to survive, I would have been dead long ago. However, I feel that this post provides a legitimate opportunity to point out that I have put the details of desire utilitarianism in a book, “A Better Place: Selected Essays on Desire Utilitarianism.” I have described the contents of the book in an earlier post of the same name.]

Okay, first, a desire-utilitarian analysis of ‘harm’.

Let’s start with the basics of desire utilitarianism.

(1) Desires are propositional attitudes such that a person who has a desire that ‘P’ (for some proposition ‘P’) has a motivational mental state that is a reason-for-action for creating or preserving states of affairs in which P is true.

(2) Desires are the only reasons-for-action that exist.

(3) All true propositions that contain an evaluative component are claims about reasons-for-action for bringing about or avoiding states of affairs. Even if no reason-for-action is possible, an evaluation refers to what one would have reason-for-action to do or avoid if action were possible.

(4) A proposition that contains an evaluation that makes a reference to reasons-for-action that are not desires is making a reference to reasons-for-action that do not exist. As such, they cannot be true.

(5) Any proposition that contains an evaluation that makes no reference to reasons-for-action at all is incoherent.

Of these, item (2) is key. Evaluations have to do with reasons-for-action that exist. It is the case that different religions make all sorts of claims about reasons-for-action that exist. However, many of those claims are false. The reasons-for-action they refer to (including desire-independent reasons as well as the desires of entities such as God) do not exist. When they speak of these reasons-for-action, the theist is mistaken.

Now, let’s look at harm in specific.

A value-laden concept in a true proposition must answer four questions. (If you want to see a detailed defense of this, it is in Chapter 2 of the book.

(1) What are the relevant objects of evaluation?

(2) Are the relevant desires they are being related to?

(3) Are the relevant desires thwarted or fulfilled?

(4) Are the relevant desires thwarted or fulfilled directly, or are they thwarted or fulfilled indirectly, or both?

The answers:

(1) The concept of ‘harm’ is used to evaluate states of affairs (as opposed, for example, to objects).

(2) The relevant desires are those of the person to whom ‘harm’ is being attributed. If you are the one who has been harmed, then the desires relevant to the evaluation are yours. However, not just any thwarting counts as ‘harm’. A thwarting of a weak desire is not a ‘harm’, but a ‘hurt’. To be counted as a harm, the relevant desires must be particularly strong.

(3) ‘Harm’, being a negative-evaluation, always speaks to the thwarting of the relevant desires.

(4) The concept of ‘harm’ places no significance on whether the relevant desires are thwarted directly or indirectly.

In short, ‘harm’ is ‘the thwarting of strong and stable desires’.

Or, in other words, ‘harm’ is, by definition, a state that a person has strong and stable reasons to avoid.

Not all harming is wrong, mind you. When a person is arrested, fined, imprisoned, or executed for a crime he is certainly being harm. In fact, one of the functions of punishment is to modify behavior, and to do so by threatening those who engage in the prohibited behavior with harm. The idea that all harm is wrong would render all punishment immoral.

However, the idea that not all harm is wrong is compatible with the idea that all harm is ‘the thwarting of strong and stable desires.’ A lethal injection does harm to an individual, regardless of whether that harm is wrongfully or rightfully inflicted.

Okay, this is a basic account of harm. Tomorrow, I’ll add more details.

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