Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Further Analysis of 'Harm'

One of the greatest problems with theology are the mistakes they make about ‘harm’.

It is one thing to dis-educate (teach fiction) about the age of the Earth and the origin of man, about the existence of angels and ancient history. However, for the most part, these mistakes are as serious as failure to get a perfect score on a high-school history test. The facts are wrong, but the errors do little harm.

To be wrong on the nature of harm itself invites disaster.

There are two types of mistakes.

(1) Failure to recognize harms that exist in fact. This would include failure to recognize that death is an ultimate end, and to believe instead that those killed (at least those who are virtuous and killed) will continue their life in a better place. This failure to recognize how utterly harmful killing is helps to make it easier to kill. I have little (some, but little) doubt that Bush finds it easier to sleep at night because of the fiction that the innocent people killed through his actions are “in a better place” – allowing him to live in denial at the unspeakable cost that some people are paying for his mistakes.

(2) Asserting that harms exist where there are none. In fact, what some religions call a ‘harm’ might actually be a benefit. A woman’s education is thought to ‘harm’ her in some cultures. As a result of these mistaken beliefs, women are being denied a benefit. Indeed, the enforcement of these religious doctrines is the source of harm in these circumstances.

Every time people make mistakes about harm, other people suffer.

So, it is important not to make mistakes.

Unfortunately, theists are not the only ones who make mistakes about harm. Many atheists also have a poor grasp of the subject. As a result, atheists also often fail to recognize harms that exist in fact, and assert that harms exist where there are none.

Among the greatest mistakes that one can make about harm – common among atheists – is the idea that harm is merely a matter of opinion. This view is no less dangerous than the view that some religious text accurately depicts what harm is and what harm is not – because this view says that there is nothing to be gained from educating ourselves about harm and how to avoid it.

Indeed, it makes a mockery of criminal justice and many of the greater efforts people put in to preventing harm. If Person A harms Person B, we typically hold Person A responsible and seek to make him suffer. Yet, if harm is a matter of opinion, then Person B has chosen to make himself a victim of Person A’s actions by choosing to be harmed by it. The situation is no different than if Person B jumped in front of a car that Person A was driving.

This view – the ‘mere opinion’ view of harm – is no better than any theistic view of harm. It is just as mistaken and, as such, just as dangerous – far worse, in fact, than the theist’s belief in a young earth or denial of human creation.

Yesterday, I wrote a brief account of “harm”. Even more briefly, a harm is what thwarts strong and stable desires. In other words, since desires are the only ‘reasons for action’ that exit, a harm is that which a person has particularly strong ‘reasons for action’ to avoid.

It is not by accident that harms are bad – that harm is something to be avoided. It is true in the same way that circles are round and bachelors are unmarried – an a priori or necessary truth. Desire utilitarianism captures this fact.

As it turns out, when I was first beginning to wonder if the problems of moral philosophy could be answered by appealing primarily to an evaluation of desires, I took a graduate-level (800-level) college seminar in the Philosophy of Law focusing on the writings of Joel Feinberg. Feinberg had recently completed a series of books that were destined to become a classic in the field – the type of book that all people studying philosophy of law must read – on The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law

The first of these books was Harm to Others, and it began with a detailed analysis of harm. I recommend it. I could scarcely be able to provide as detailed an account in the confines of a couple of blog postings.

In that book, Feinberg presents an analysis of ‘harm’ that defines it as a ‘setback to interests’, where ‘interests’ themselves are grounded on ‘strong and stable desires.’ Feinberg lacked the strict definition of a desire as a propositional attitude, and fulfillment as the making or keeping true of a proposition that is the object of a desire. In fact, Feinberg spends more time discussing wants and throws the term desire in sparingly. Yet, virtually everything he says about wants can be captured in the more precise and useful concept of desire as I have used it. Similarly, much of his analysis of ‘harm’ as ‘setbacks to strong and stable interests’ can be translated into ‘harm’ in terms of ‘the thwarting of strong and stable desires’. (Feinberg, Harm to Others, pp 38-45)

Harms and Hurts

One of the points that Feinberg made was to distinguish ‘harms’ from ‘hurts’. According to Feinberg, the distinction rests on the strength of the desires being thwarted. To count as a harm, the desire has to be particularly strong and stable. The thwarting of a minor desire, some weak disappointment, counts as a ‘hurt’ (or, in some cases, an ‘offense’), not as a harm.

Harmed Without Knowing It

Feinberg, when he talked about ‘interests’, remarked that our interests are in states, and not in any particular affection such as pleasure or a physical sensation of satisfaction. He agreed with the view that a person can have an interest even in something that happens after his death. Once again, ‘interests’ in Feinberg’s sense are ultimately grounded on ‘wants’.

As a result, a person can be harmed without knowing it – without actually suffering any dissatisfaction at all. A wealthy property owner who remembers you fondly from the time you met in Las Vegas leaves you a substantial amount of money – without you knowing about it. I, his butler, am aware of the will and replace your name with my own. I have done you harm – even though you do not know about it. We may assume that you have a lot of strong and stable desires that the money could help you to fulfill. I have thwarted those desires by diverting that money. You are harmed.

This is one thing that the “preference utilitarians” get right. Preference utilitarian (of the type advanced by Peter Singer) recognized that people can find value in things that do not make them happy or give them pleasure. A person can value a good reputation that follows upon his death. Such a person can be harmed if others maliciously destroy that reputation through a campaign of lies. Preference satisfaction, which the preference utilitarians are concerned about, includes such things as a preference for a good reputation after death.

Note: What the preference utilitarians get wrong is the idea that preference satisfaction has intrinsic value and the idea that morality is focused on actions themselves according to whether or not they satisfy preferences. In fact, nothing has intrinsic value, preferences (desires) themselves can be evaluated as good or bad according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other preferences (desires), and this evaluation of preferences (desires) is the proper focus of morality.

Welfare Interests

Feinberg, being concerned with the moral limits of the criminal law, had good reason to focus on welfare interests. Welfare interests are not things that are desired for their own sake. They can be desired for their own sake, but it is not in virtue of this that they are ‘welfare interests’. Instead, welfare interest are goods that are nearly universal means for the fulfillment of other ends. They include liberty, health, education, money, a good reputation, and life itself.

This is an example of an ‘interest’ that a person might have without recognizing it. The person who believes it is in his interest to sacrifice liberty, health, or an education is almost always mistaken. These goods often have value for a person (it is in a person’s interest to protect these things) even if the person does not recognize its value (its usefulness).

In a desire-utilitarian framework, Feinberg’s points about welfare interest argue for promoting particularly strong desires for institutions that protect liberty, health, education, property (wealth), reputation, and life. Failure to protect these welfare goods is substantially identical to an invitation to do harm.

Wrongless Harmdoing

Not all harms are wrong. There are several types of harm that one may inflict on others without doing anything wrong. Yet, we can account for these permissible harms on the part of their necessity in avoiding even greater harms.

Criminal Punishment: There is no way to deny that fines and imprisonment thwart the desires of those who are punished. Yet, without the harms of criminal penalties, we will suffer the greater harms of living in a lawless society.

Economic Harms: A business leader who takes customers away from a competitor by offering lower prices, greater convenience, or greater quality can drive that competitor out of business, thwarting the competitor’s desires. Yet, the benefit of this system comes from the desire fulfillment generated by the economic efficiencies that such a system generates.

Harms of Non Consent: If Jacob has a very strong desire for sex with Jenny, then it thwarts that desire for Jenny to refuse to have sex with him. This would count as doing harm to Jacob. However, it is a harm that comes without a trace of wrong, because Jenny must consent to these activities. Abandon the principle of consent, and the harms that people inflict through non-consent will be replaced by the harms of people being forced to participate in things against their will.

Thwarting Bad Desires: The thwarting of any desire counts as a harm. However, there are desires that tend to thwart other desires. The desires of the arsonist, for example, are destructive and life-threatening. It is quite rational to hold to a system that thwart’s the arsonists desires to prevent the greater harm of allowing arsonists to freely fulfill their harmful desires.


The greatest difference between the theory that yields these fine distinctions and the theistic or common subjectivist theories rests in the fact that we can even offer a clear analysis of ‘harm’ that yields these types of distinctions. ‘Harm’ does not refer to a mere matter of opinion. ‘Harm’ refers to something real – something that we can study and make objective claims about. By relating ‘harm’ to ‘setbacks to interests’ or ‘the thwarting of strong and stable desires’ (which amount to the same thing) we not only have a framework to place these distinctions, but we can make sense of them. We can explain what they are and how they function in real-world terms.

Ultimately, the difference here is a question of what reasons-for-action actually exist. Religions do in fact come up with different conceptions of harm. Yet, ultimately, what they are doing is making claims about what ‘reasons for action’ actually exist. They do this in the same way that they make claims about the existence of Gods, angels, miracles, heaven, hell, winged chariots, and the like. Their claims about ‘reasons for action’ that exist are just as error prone as their claims about the existence of these other entities.

As I said at the start, a mistake about the age of the earth or the existence of angels does not have much significance.

However, when religion causes people to make mistakes about the ‘reasons for action’ that exist – when a religion’s ‘reasons for action that exist’ differ from the set of ‘reasons for action that exist in the real world,’ they cause their followers to inflict harms that could otherwise be avoided. These are the types of mistakes that will determine the dangerousness of a particular set of religious beliefs.

Yet, I repeat, a person does not have to believe in God to make mistakes about the nature of harm.

Once again, I would like to remind readers that I give an account of the basics of desire utilitarianism, which provides the foundation of what I have written about 'harm', in the book, "A Better Place... "

1 comment:

bpabbott said...

Alonzo, I agree with you post. However, I think it important to point out that your introduction appears to be misleading and inconsistent with much of the remainder. Specifically ...

"It is one thing to dis-educate (teach fiction) about the age of the Earth and the origin of man, about the existence of angels and ancient history. However, for the most part, these mistakes are as serious as failure to get a perfect score on a high-school history test. The facts are wrong, but the errors do little harm."

If education is benificial, how can "dis-education" not be harmful?

With all the wonderful improvements in life that result from education, how can a struggle to suppress it not be harmful?

I take no issue with those who desire to be willfully ignorant. However, to coerce or force this darkness upon others is certainly harmful.

Are we on the same page here, or do you have a perspective I've not considered?