Monday, October 31, 2016

I Was Wrong: On the Aversion to Harming the Innocent

301 days until the start of class. That’s 43 weeks.

4 days until I introduce myself to the Philosophy department.

I have been busy rewriting my paper defending a moral aversion theory of punishment – turning it into something that reads more as an academic paper than a letter to the author. I still like the idea of distributing it among the attorneys I know and see if any of them have any interest in the philosophy of punishment. That is the audience that I am keeping in my head as I go through the current rewrite.

Another potential use is that graduate students in the PhD program must turn in a qualifying paper – up to 8000 words. The current paper is just shy of 7000 with one section left to write – so I think it will work.

Now, I have to confess something.

I was wrong.

In posting my initial thoughts on this paper, I wrote that the aversion to punishing the innocent was a special application of the aversion to harming the innocent. However, on further thought, this is not the case. It cannot be the case because there is no “aversion to harming the innocent”.

We routinely perform actions in our lives that are harmful to others – in the sense that it sets back their interests. In some cases, we inflict significant harms on others without giving the fact another thought.

A primary example is that of competing with others for a job. We apply for a job, we get it, and another person who is applying for the same job has his interests set back significantly. The harm to his financial well-being, as well as to his relationships and potential for growth, could be significant. In fact, the person who we beat out for a job may well be willing to endure a physical assault that he recovers from in a week or two if it meant that he also had the job. Beating him up is illegal, but winning the job from him is not. More to the point, beating him out for the job isn’t even wrong – though it does cause him some harm.

Other examples of wrongless harmdoing include defeating another person in a game – particularly a game that has a large cash award. It includes opening up a business that will compete against a local business. The new competitor can be as destructive to the existing business as an arson’s fire. Yet, not only is this legal, it faces no moral objections at all.

Otto – a company that makes driverless cars – recently tested a driverless 18-wheeler that delivered a load of beer in Colorado. As this technology develops, one of its effects will be to put a number of truck drivers out of work. This is a harm inflicted on innocent people – but it is carried out without moral objection. Whereas taking $100 out of their wallet would result in a charge of theft that could result in significant jail time.

We do have good reasons to allow people to harm the innocent in some ways but not others. Lying, vandalism, rape, and murder seldom produce overall good consequences. Innovation as well as competition in sports and business tend to produce significant benefits. Consequently, we have reasons to cause people to form aversions to the first type of activity, but not the second.

It is also relevant to note that we do not, in fact, promote an aversion to harming the innocent. We promote aversions to certain types of actions that tend to be harmful. We promote aversions to lying, breaking promises, vandalism, theft, assault, rape, and murder, to name a few. The considerations above suggest that an aversion to punishing the innocent belongs with this set.

For these reasons, I must take back the claim that the aversion to punishing the innocent is a special case of the aversion to harming the innocent. That wasn't accurate. Instead, the aversion to punishing the innocent sits on its own, alongside the aversions to lying, vandalism, and the others.

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