Thursday, April 04, 2013

Steven Pinker and the Concept of "Harm"

Steven Pinker and the Concept of Harm

Steven Pinker proposed replacing "morality" with a project of directing our sentiments towards that which maximized human flourishing and minimized harm - a project that people for 200 years have been (ironically) calling the "moral" theory of "utilitarianism".

In my last post, I claimed that "flourishing" is a rhetorically useful concept because it is substantially empty. I provided a more substantive concept of "flourishing" that failed to support the thesis that "flourishing" Is the only thing that matters.

Today, I wish to look look at the concept of "harm."

In the book, Harm to Others: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law (further evidence that Pinker is overlooking much of moral philosophy), Joel Feinberg presented a careful analysis of harm.

Feinberg concluded that "harm" can best be understood as a setback to a person's strong and stable interests. Interests, in turn, can be understood in terms of wants and desires. A setback to a weak or fleeting desire would be classified as a "hurt" and, according to Feinberg, not a legitimate area of concern for the criminal law. After all, the criminal law is a large and clumsy tool, ill suited for working in fine detail.

Feinberg further divided "interests" into two types.

One set of interests are an agent's ultimate objectives or goals - the things that the agent values as ends in themselves. Translating Feinberg's analysis in terms of desires, an ultimate interest exists where an agent has a strong and stable desire that P. That agent has an interest in states of affairs in which P is true. Preventing P from being true - or actively making P false - would count as causing harm to that agent.

Another set of interests that Feinberg defines are "welfare interests". Welfare interests are things that agents find useful, almost regardless of what their ends are. Examples of welfare interests include money or economic power, health, liberty, knowledge (or education), and life itself.

Setting back a "welfare intrest" will almost aways have the effect of setting back an agent's ends or goals. Consequently, we can reliably (though not infallibly) conclude that a setback here will cause harm to an agent even without knowing what those ends are.

We can, on the whole, prevent a great deal of harm in terms of setback to ultimate interests - no matter what they are - by preventing the setback to welfare interests. By protecting liberty, people are free to pursue their own interests. By protecting their health we protect their ability to realize their projects or goals no matter what those projects or goals may be. By providing people with an education we prevent them from being harmed by their own ignorance.

This also explains many of our choices in terms of punishment. We can punish almost anybody by taking away a welfare good. We can use fines to reduce their economic power, imprisonment to reduce their freedom, or execute them. In each of these cases, we do not need to determine what the agent's goals are to determine what will give them a reason not to perform certain actions.

However, this tells us that to punish somebody is to intentionally harm that person. A principle that declares that we must never do harm is a principle that states that we must never punish. Unfortunately, adopting a principle of "do no harm" means giving access to massive benefits (and a very strong incentive) to the first person or group that rejects that principle.

A society without punishment is a utopian ideal. In the real world, we must be ready to harm - to set back the interests - of certain people under certain circumstances.

Furthermore, different interests conflict such that the same state of affairs can be harmful to one person while it benefits another. The rapist fulfills his own desire in ways that set back the interests of his victim and those who care about her. The business leader who drives a competitor out of business is setting back that competitor's interests. Freeing slaves does harm to the slave owner. Both allowing and prohibiting these types of activities cause harm. This is in addition to the harms threatened as a means of allowing or prohibiting these types of activities.

All of this tells us that we need a way to evaluate interests - to determine which interests will win these contests. Who will be prevented from realizing their strong and stable desires? Which projects "do not count" in the moral landscape? Under what conditions is it not only permissible, but obligatory, to set back the strong and stable interests of another? Clearly, when you prevent somebody from abducting a child and send him to prison instead, you have caused harm.

"But he deserves it," one would say in response.

However, "He deserves it" leads exactly to the type of "morality" that Pinker claims we must abandon. Pinker protested that "morality" must be abandoned because people use "he deserves it" or "they deserve it" as a reason to do great harms. Hitler thought that the Jews "deserved" what happened to them. If we quit moralizing, we quit doing harm. But we would also quit defending children from those who would abduct them. A problem with abandoning morality is not only do we stop condemning the Jew and the homosexual, but we stop condemning the murderer, rapist, thief, liar, bigot, con artist, drunk driver, and the like. What we need is a way to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate use of moral terms.

Some people assert that certain desires are intrinsically better than others. However, those people have a problem providing us with an account of what "betterness" is, where it can be found, and how we can know of its presence. The problem arises because there is no such thing as intrinsic goodness. This option must be rejected because the claims it makes about the nature of value simply are not true.

David Hume gave us a system for evaluating desires (or character traits) 300 years ago that makes no reference to intrinsic values. He argued that interests - or character traits - can be evaluated according to the standard of (1) pleasing to self, (2) useful to self, (3) pleasing to others, and (4) useful to others.

That is to say, a desire is good to the degree that it tends to objectively satisfy, directly (pleasing) or indirectly (useful) the desires of self and others.

This gives us a substantive account of "harm" that helps us to evaluate interests and to determine which interests may be set back and which to promote. The desires of the rapist, liar, thief, and bigot tend to thwart other desires. The desires of those who produce welfare goods - rescue people, provide them with health care and education, promote economic growth - tend to fulfill other desires.

Pinker's proposal that we attach our sentiments to that which promotes human flourishing and minimizes harm becomes a thesis that we should promote desires that tend to objectively satisfy other desires - particularly desires that increase the stock and distribution of welfare goods, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

The next question is: How do we do that?

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