In Mike Almeida’s recent post, this topic came up: what is it for a
person to harm someone? I’m interested in a more general question:
what is it for an event or state of affairs to harm someone? Here’s
the view I like best:
(H) X harms S iff X makes S worse off than S would have been had X not occurred or obtained.
Below the fold I defend the following disjunction: either (H) is the
correct account of harm, or harm is irrelevant (or maybe both).
There are a few ways people object to (H). Here’s one. Take Lance Armstrong. His getting cancer was evidently harmful to him. Yet, arguably, his life went better on the whole as a result of his getting cancer. (Certainly it seems to have helped his bike racing at least.) In general, it seems possible to overcome a harmful event and live a better life because of it.
We might say (as I think Mike Huemer said in the comments on Mike A’s post) that Armstrong’s getting cancer is harmful to Armstrong, but merely a pro tanto harm – it’s harmful to the extent that it causes intrinsic bads for Armstrong, but it’s not an all-things-considered harm. This seems plausible to me, but the objector is unlikely to be satisfied. After all, if I cause someone to get cancer, I should presumably be held responsible for doing so even if the person overcomes the cancer and is better off overall; but it would be odd to hold people responsible for mere pro tanto harms (which are routinely inflicted by doctors and such). What this shows, I think, is that facts about responsibility or blameworthiness facts do not track facts about harm. Perhaps they track facts about intentions, or about expected utility, who knows – that’s another topic.
Here is my main argument for (H). Suppose (H) is not true, and there are harms that do not make us worse off on the whole. Suppose I am in a situation where I have two options, O1 and O2. Suppose O1 and O2 would have an equal impact on my net well-being, and would affect nobody else. And suppose O1 harms me, but O2 does not (this is possible only if (H) is false). This would give me no reason to choose O2 over O1. The fact that O1 harms me should not affect my decision-making at all. The only thing that should matter to my evaluation of an option in this sort of case is its impact on my well-being. Harm is irrelevant.
This doesn’t show that harm is relevant if (H) is true. I suspect it might not be, for reasons something like those given by Alastair Norcross (in a recent Phil Studies paper called "Harming in Context"). I think talk of harm should be jettisoned altogether in favor of talk about well-being and intrinsic value. But maybe we’d be losing something important by not talking about harm anymore, and I’m just overlooking it. So here’s a question: why should we continue to talk about harm?