Friday, March 5, 2021

Harm Principle

Consider this Harm Principle:

  1. Without a relevant connection to actual, intended or risked harm, there is no wrongdoing.

Now suppose Carl tortures Bob because he has justified practical certainty that this torture will lead Bob to abandon beliefs that Carl takes to be heretical and thereby cause him to avoid the pains of hell. (How could Carl be justified in such practical certainty? Easy: we can imagine a ton of hallucinatons that evidentially support the claim.) Suppose, further, that Bob’s being tortured in fact transforms Bob’s life in ways quite different from those Carl envisioned. Bob’s own wholesome beliefs are deepened. He abandons his meaningless corporate job and becomes an advocate for the vulnerable, leading a deeply meaningful life. Moreover, were all known about Bob’s character at the time of the torture, this transformation would have been predictable with a very high probability.

It seems Bob is not actually harmed: his life becomes better. And Carl does not intend Bob to be actually harmed. Given Carl’s justified practical certainty that the torture will benefit Carl, Carl does not subjectively risk harm. And given that Bob’s transformation was quite predictable given full knowledge of his character, Carl does not objectively risk harm. So, it seems (1) is false.

There is, however, a natural response to (1): Carl does actually and intentionally harm Bob, just not on balance. The torture is a real harm, even if it results in an overall benefit.

This natural response seems right. Thus, in (1) we should not understand harm as on-balance or all-things-considered harm. The problem with this interpretation of (1), is that (1) becomes trivial in light of this plausible observation:

  1. Every significant human action has a relevant connection to some actual or risked harm (perhaps a very minor one).


Ibrahim Dagher said...

Hi Dr. Pruss,

So it seems this principle is a sort of principle for the necessary conditions of wrongdoing, ie "without harm, there is no wrongdoing" (so harm is a necessary condition for wrongdoing.)

But I'm not sure if this is correct. Suppose someone were to secretly worship idols or internally rage at God and hate Him; such acts are certainly not harmful, but nonetheless wrong (on theism). So wrong that many think such acts deserve ETC.

Also, it seems these examples would undermine (2). Thoughts?

Raf SB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Raf SB said...

I am inclined to think the same way when two actions can easily be separated. The torture, the harm of which is linked to the abuses caused to Bob's body and mind, can be isolated from the virtues that he subsequently derived from it, because one or more abuses in particular, inflicted on Bob, do not correspond to a acquired virtue in particular. We can therefore continue to qualify as good, subsequently, the virtues acquired by Bob and as bad the physical and psychological after-effects that he has retained from them.

Now suppose Bob is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The doctor is 100% sure that after chemotherapy Bob will be cured of his cancer. During his chemotherapy, what hurts Bob and what cures him is similar: the doctor, by medication, provoking the destruction of cells, including cancer cells. How could we in this case qualify the destruction of cancer cells, bearing in mind that it is this destruction that simultaneously produces pain and remission? we can only judge the pain that the doctor inflicts on Bob and the healing that will follow "on balance". If I have to characterize the pain inflicted to Bob in isolation from his recovery, I could neither say that it is good nor that it is bad. We will first have to relate the pain to healing to say that it is bad for good.
That's why, i think, we will still not be able to consider as bad the chemotherapy inflicted by the doctor if the chemotherapy does not manage to cure Bob and that we will continue to judge the torture as bad even if it "reframes". Bob

Alexander R Pruss said...


Good points. Principles like the Harm Principle are probably sometimes applied to argue that things like idolatry are not wrong, so it would be nice to argue against them without relying on such cases.