The Standard Account of Posthumous Harm

I’ve always been puzzled by the standard account of posthumous harm that we find in the literature. The standard account of posthumous harm—the one expounded by Brandt (1979, 330), Feinberg (1984, 87), Griffin (1986, 23), Kavka (1986, 41), Parfit (1984, 495), and others—goes as follows. Acts such as those that betray, destroy one’s reputation, or undermine one’s achievements can harm a person while she is alive even if they never affect her experiences. For instance, it seems that the slandering of my reputation can be harmful to me even if I never become aware of it, even if I never experience any change in how others act around me, even if I never feel any less respected as result of the defamation—the reason being that I care not only about feeling respected, but also about being respected. In other words, it’s important to me that my desire for esteem is actually fulfilled, and not just that I think that it is. Since I desire to be respected not only while alive but also after my death, the slandering of my reputation, even after my death, harms me. For if it isn’t necessary that I learn of the slander or experience any ill effects as a result of it in order for it to be harmful to me, then why do I need to be alive at the time of the slander in order for it to constitute a harm? My death makes it only all the more certain that I will never learn of, or be experientially affected by, the slander. But “if we think it irrelevant that I never know about the non-fulfillment of my desires, we cannot defensibly claim that death makes any difference” (Parfit 1984, 495).

There are, as I see it, two problems with the standard account. First, it is only the non-fulfillment of certain desires, those that are about one’s own life, that negatively affect a person’s welfare; the non-fulfillment of other desires has no effect on a person’s welfare. For instance, the non-fulfillment of a person’s desire that a distant star should have a certain chemical composition would not, normally, count as a detriment to his or her welfare (Scanlon 1998, 120). Unfortunately, I know of no suitable account of what desires do and don’t count as being about one’s own life, and this is something we need to know before we can accept the standard account, for it may turn out that those desires that concern what will take place after one’s death don’t count as desires that are about one’s own life.

Second, it seems that even if we restrict ourselves to desires that pertain to one’s own life, the non-fulfillment of a desire is harmful only if the desire-thwarting state of affairs obtains at a time when the person still has that desire, and, of course, this means that the non-fulfillment of a past desire (a desire that one once had but has no longer) is of no harm at all. Take, for instance, one of Parfit famous examples: it seems that despite his having had the desire to become a poet when he was young, Parfit does not harm himself now by thwarting his past desire to become a poet in pursing his current desire to be a philosopher. This spells trouble for the standard account of posthumous harm, for it would seem that it must hold that posthumous events harm people by thwarting their past desires—after all, the deceased have no present desires, but only past desires.

I would be interested in hearing whether others share my worries about the standard account or whether others think that these potential problems can be adequately addressed.

4 Replies to “The Standard Account of Posthumous Harm

  1. I’m with you. Assume that I am the unknowing subject of defamation that has no impact on my experience. Such defamation “harms” me only in the sense that it reflects a current defect in my knowledge that if cured would leave me epistemically “better off.”
    But we can’t really ever have the relevant sort of knowledge about the future (though we can have present knowledge about the intents of others to behave in certain ways in the future), nor can one cure an epistemic defect when we’re dead.
    In short, the standard account trades on the idea that welfare is enhanced at the margin when we gain more complete knowledge about our social situation. Since that margin extinguishes when we die, so too does the possibility of harm.

  2. When we speak of harming someone posthumously, it seems more like a turn of phrase than anything else. It’s not that we literally think, save the majority that believe in an after-life (defying the use of ‘we’ I guess), actually think the person I being harmed, but that the ,memory of them is… That is, the person died with a certain care structure, that, we assume, would have stayed with them had they continued to live. They had a disposition to experience emotion as it related to the promotion or frustration of certain thing: their family, their life’s work, their property etc. So, in memory of them, we respect (or expect that other’s respect) this care structure as if this person still existed.
    It is no secret, and indicative of my point, that it is the family of the deceased (those who cared about him/her most) that are usually charged with the responsibility to look out for the deceased’s cares. When one is generally harmed in cases of “posthumous harm” it is usually the loved ones of the defamed or slandered person who actually experience the harm.
    Taken in this way I think we can make sense of the notion of posthumous harm, while still acknowledging the practice as a morally upstanding one.

  3. Doug,
    I’m with you on this one–I have never understood why that particular argument for posthumous harms holds any water. Your position is much better since it is able to account for why our past desires that we no longer hold do not affect our welfare. I suppose that Parfit et. al. could say that these desires do affect our welfare, but that our current desires count for more, but even that modified position seems wrong to me.
    However, I have a puzzle for your position. It seems that what you are saying is that in order for something to be either good or bad for me then I must have a relevant desire at the time of this things occurence. More precisely, we might want to accept the following:
    (D1) State of affairs S obtaining at t1 is good for A iff A desires that S at t1
    (D2) State of affairs S not obtaining at t1 is bad for A iff A desires that S at t1
    The puzzle arises for harms on this account. Suppose that I desire to hike in the Alps before I die. It is not a harm to me right now that I am not hiking in the Alps, for I still have pleanty of time to hike in the future (I hope). The same can be said for any time in the future in which I am not hiking in the Alps. But then suppose I die and have never hiked in the Alps. When does my not hiking in the Alps constitute a harm to me on this account? Or does it never constitute a harm to me? I really do not know what to say about this puzzle. Perhaps my formulations of D1 and D2 need to be improved?

  4. Scott,
    Interesting comments. I’m not sure what to say about your case. My guess is that there is no harm in this case. Regardless, I certainly don’t want to defend a desire-fulfillment theory of well-being. Indeed, I reject the desire-fulfillment theory. It seems, however, that the standard account of posthumous harm must appeal to the desire-fulfillment theory. So my point was that if we’re going to appeal to the desire-fulfillment theory, we should restrict the desires that count both to those that pertain to one’s own life and to those that are cotemporaneous with the desire-thwarting state of affairs. But so restricted, it now seems that there are no posthumous harms. Of course, your puzzle is what would count as the desire-thwarting state of affairs in your case, where the person desires to do X before he dies. Perhaps, it’s the state of affairs where he is now dead and hasn’t done X. The problem, though, is once dead the person no longer exists, so there is no point where the desire and the desire-thwarting state of affairs are cotemporaneous.

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