Thursday, July 9, 2015

Wrongness due to self-harm

It is tempting to use harm to self as an explanation for the wrongness of various things. Kant infamously did this in trying to explain why it's wrong to be cruel to animals, namely because it dehumanizes us. And two commenters did so when I argued from the wrongness of attempted murder, in a case where the intended victim doesn't exist, to the existence of a necessary being.

Now, I agree with Socrates that every wrong action harms the agent. And I even think that sometimes the harm to self is the primary reason why an action is wrong--for instance, harm to self is the primary reason why it's wrong to use heroin. But in both the attempted murder case and Kant's case, the invocation of self-harm fails. Let's see why.

Normally when I do wrong, two main harms result to me:

  1. The action constitutes me as a wrongdoer, makes me be guilty.
  2. I develop morally bad habits.
(There are also further harms in many cases: other people's opinion of me is liable to go down, I may become liable to punishment in this life or thereafter, etc.)

Let's now think about the two main harms. To say that an action is wrong because it constitutes me as a wrongdoer, makes me be guilty, at best simply shifts the burden of explanation into the equally difficult question of why this action constitutes me as a wrongdoer (why does kicking a dog make one a wrongdoer while feeding it does not?). But actually it's even worse than that: it simply gets things the wrong way around, since an action constitutes me as a wrongdoer because it is wrong. So (1) won't be the explanation of the wrongness of the action. Though of course it is true that wrong actions constitute me as a wrongdoer, and I guess that multiplies the amount of wrong in any wrong action.

On the other hand, the second harm, that of developing morally bad habits, is a merely contingent matter. It would be wrong to be cruel to an animal or attempt murder even in the last moment of one's existence, when no bad habit were developed. Further, cruelty and attempted murder are wrong even if one's character is already so calloused that the action does not make it any worse. We can even imagine outlandish cases where cruelty and attempted murder end up improving one's character, say because a renowned neurosurgeon credibly promises to eradicate all one's tendencies to cruelty as soon as one kicks her neighbor's cat.


Alex Marsh said...

I can't quite see a flaw in your argument (at least, not without embracing natural law theory, which could point to the frustration of one's natural ends as a more fundamental wrong to self). One question: assuming your argument works, in what sense could a necessary being be wronged by the attempted murder of a non-existent being?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Some people talk of "dignitary harms". For instance, I speak badly about you behind your back, then you suffer a dignitary harm, even if nothing gets back to you.

Suppose I think that you've made a wonderful painting, and I try to destroy it as an insult to you. But I fail because you made no such painting. Nonetheless, through my attempt, you suffer a dignitary harm.

If it is a necessary truth that all creatures are lovingly made by a necessary being, and all that is of value in these creatures is a participation in the necessary being, then it might be argued that any attempt against a creature--real or not!--is a dignitary harm to the necessary being.