Harm at a Distance?

Suppose Unrestricted
Desire Satisfactionism is true.  (UDS, is roughly, the view that how
well one’s life is going for oneself is determined by the extent to
which one’s desires are satisfied or frustrated.)  I have some naive
questions about harm given UDS, and some parallel questions about the
badness of death. More below the fold.

UDS is a very popular
answer to the question of what makes a life go well for the one who
lives it.  Here are some naive questions for the friend of UDS.

Suppose
I want that you do not perform action A.  You perform action A.  A
desire of mine has been frustrated; my welfare level has now dropped
accordingly.  I have been harmed.  Where have I been harmed? Is the
location of my harm the location of action A?  If the answer is "yes",
then I can be harmed at a distance: something bad can befall me at a
location that I do not occupy.  Is this really possible?

Suppose I want that you brush
your teeth tomorrow morning.  Tomorrow morning comes, and you don’t
brush your teeth.  My desire has been frustrated. I have
been harmed.  Where have I been harmed? (Have I been harmed at the
region where you would have brushed your teeth had you brushed your
teeth?)

Suppose I want that some mathematical result obtain.  It
does not obtain.  I didn’t get what I wanted. My life goes less well
for me.  Where have I been harmed?  (Have I been harmed at the region
wherein the brain state that realizes my desire resides?
Since mathematical results lack locations, is the harm without a
location as well?)

It seems to me that the friend of
UDS should not be concerned that these questions arise, and should not
feel pressure to answer them one way or another.   We shouldn’t change
our views about how plausible UDS is when we learn that UDS generates
these questions. And it seems to me that there is something misguided or
wrongheaded about these questions.   But I am having a hard time
putting my finger on what exactly is wrongheaded about these questions.

The Deprivationsist says that one’s death is bad for oneself —
that death harms the one who dies — in virtue of what it deprives one
of.  My death is bad for me (roughly speaking) in virtue of the fact
that, had I not died, my life would have contained more of whatever it
is that makes a life worth living.  This is why death is a harm for the
one who dies.

The deprivasionist says that death is a harm.  But
when is death a harm?  At the moment that one dies?  At those moments
in which things would have gone well for that person had that person
not died?  (If the latter answer is true, then one can be harmed at a time that one is not located at.  Is this really possible?)

It seems to me that these questions are parallel to
the questions facing the friend of UDS.  We shouldn’t change our views
about how plausible the Deprivation account is when we learn that it
generates these questions.  And the questions themselves seem to me misguided
or wrongheaded. 
(This is Harry Silverstein’s line as well.) 

Is there a really a parellel here between UDS and the Deprivation Account?  Are the questions rightheaded and pressing?

30 Replies to “Harm at a Distance?

  1. Kris, you say,
    Suppose I want that you do not perform action A. You perform action A. A desire of mine has been frustrated; my welfare level has now dropped accordingly. I have been harmed.
    But I don’t see how that counts as a harm. It can’t be true that every time I fail to benefit you (in the desire-satisfaction sense) I do a harm to you. Smith offers a $10 donation to Oxfam, but the people at Oxfam would really like $100 from each person. Does Smith harm them? I think, hardly.
    You could just change examples and ask the same questions. Smith desires not to be stabbed. Jones stabs him and harms him. Concerning when the harm occurs, I’m guessing it would be when he is stabbed. Even if he is comatose and does not know he has been stabbed his desire not to be stabbed, on some views, is still frustrated. And presumably frustrated at the moment he is stabbed. The same would be true, again on some views, for post mortem frustrations. You might have the desire not to have Joan dancing on your grave after you die. If she does so, then presumably, at that point, you are worse off. I’m guessing you know there’s a ton of literature on this. One well-known paper discussing such cases is G. Pitcher’s, ‘The Misfortunes of the Dead’ APQ.

  2. Mike, if you don’t think Smith harms the Oxfam people, is that because you don’t think he frustrated their desires, or because you don’t think desire frustrations are intrinsically bad, or because you don’t think causing something intrinsically bad to happen to someone harms them?

  3. Hi Kris,
    Suppose your questions about location are good and that UDS has no satisfactory answers. But UDS* has a satisfactory answer since it is a view according to which one is harmed by having a desire frustrated only when one is aware that that desire has been frustrated. Since awareness is located wherever the brain state that realizes it is located, we have an answer to your good question and a reason to prefer an alternative to UDS. How does that sound to you?
    You said “It seems to me that the friend of UDS should not be concerned that these questions arise, and should not feel pressure to answer them one way or another.” Why? I think they should answer those questions, they should get their metaphysics in line with their ethics.

  4. I find the whole notion of locating a harm to be puzzling. When the harm is physical, then it is easy. The doctor asks, “Where does it hurt” and I answer “In my big toe”. But for any other cases of harm, it seems odd to ever talk of the location of the harm.
    For example, suppose you say mean things to me that hurt my feelings. I have been harmed, but is the location of my harm in your mouth where the words were said? Is it in my ears where they were heard? Is it in my mind where the words were interpreted?
    Another example: You steal money from my bank account because you know my PIN number and stole my card. I have been financially harmed, but where? At the location of the ATM you used? At my local bank branch where I do my banking? Are these then harms at a distance?
    A third one: Suppose you hit my mother and hurt her. You have harmed her, but you also have harmed me. But it seems odd to say that you harmed me on my mothers cheek.
    If the question is “where were you when you harmed me” it has an easy answer. If the question is “where is the location of my harm” then it only seems to make sense if the harm is physical and to my body. Any other talk of the location of any harms seems to go against how we commonly talk.
    Notice, by the way, that none of my examples make any reference at all to desires. These are all examples of harms that one would call harms even if one did not hold a UDS view. The idea of locating harm is not a special worry for the UDS view. I don’t think it’s actually a worry for any view because the idea that all harms must be located is mistaken.

  5. David,
    I was thinking exactly the same thing, but then got a little confused when it came to times instead of locations. Would you extend the no-location-needed approach to a no-time-needed approach? Is it true that harms needn’t occur at any particular time?

  6. I agree with David W. that harm doesn’t need to be located, whether we accept UDS or not. But I think Kris M’s original question still needs to be answered. *Why* doesn’t harm need to be located? Why are Kris M’s questions “wrongheaded”?
    I suggest that the answer to that question is that to harm someone, you don’t need to diminish her current level of well-being. You can harm someone (now) even if your action merely causes her future level of well-being to diminish, but does not affect her present level of well-being. If this were not the case — if, in order to harm someone, you needed to diminish her current level of well-being — then (I think) there would be plausible views on which harm-at-a-distance is impossible, and on which it would be reasonable to talk about the location of a harm. Hedonistic theories of well-being, for instance, would (I think) allow this. But David W’s examples illustrate that this is not so. In his financial harm case, for instance, I think it’s probable that the victim’s overall level of well-being has not yet diminished (it might not diminish, for example, until the transaction goes through the next day, or until the victim is standing at the counter at the grocery store next week, unable to buy dinner, or whatever). But I think most people will say the victim has already been harmed. If so, then we might be able to talk about where the damage to the victim is done — but we are probably not able to make sense of talk about where the harm to her occurs.
    If this is all correct, then David W might be mistaken to suggest that physical harm to one’s body can always be located. Suppose that, today, I set in motion an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine which will, sometime next week, cause a bowling ball to land on David W’s head. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to ask where I harmed David W in a case like that — even though it makes perfect sense to ask where the damage is done (it is done to David W’s head a week from now).

  7. Hi Kris,
    I think that it might be important to distinguish between a harmed condition (a state that it is, welfare-wise, bad to be in) and a harmful event (an event that causes you to be worse off welfare-wise than you otherwise would have been, that is, an event that causes you to have a lesser aggregate of benefited conditions minus harmed conditions). Note that I’m using the notion of ‘harmful’ in a sense that’s deliberately broader than its ordinary sense.
    Now suppose that on UDS a harmed condition consists in desiring that P where P is false. It seems that the location of this harmed condition is wherever the location of that mental state of desiring is. In this case, I don’t see that there is any special problem for UDS as opposed to, say, hedonism, where the harmed condition consists in feeling pain. The temporal location isn’t tricky, although perhaps that spatial location is, but it’s not particularly tricky for UDS.
    You may ask, but what about the location of the harmful event? Take your case where you have done A but I desire that you haven’t done A. The harmful event (your doing A) occurs wherever and whenever the event of your doing A occurs. The harmed condition (my desiring that you haven’t done A when in fact you have done A) occurs wherever and whenever that mental state of my desiring this false proposition occurs.
    It seems to me, then, that you get the puzzle only if you don’t distinguish between the harmed condition and the harmful event and give examples where these two distinct events have different spatial and temporal locations. This is what you do when you describe the sorts of cases that you do above and then ask, “Where have I been harmed?” This is ambiguous. There are are two questions: “Where and when did the harmed condition occur?” and “Where and when did the harmful event occur?”

  8. Kris,
    I wonder if this is a special case of a more general problem: that of giving the spatial or temporal locations of ‘relation instances’.
    Suppose I’m taller than you (very likely). You and I, in that order, instantiate the relation ‘is taller than’. But where is this instance of the relation located? What are the spatial and temporal locations of my being taller than you? No answer seems very natural.
    Thus with harms. Particular harms, we might say, are instances of the relation ‘is harmed by’. You are harmed by my stabbing you, for example. Where is this relation instance located? Again, hard to say.
    I suppose one solution is to deny the existence of relation instances.

  9. Another solution: a relation instance is located at the fusion of the locations at which its relata are located. So, to take your example, if your performing A harms me, then this harm is located at the fusion of the locations of your performing A and me.

  10. Ben,
    I don’t think it can be true that X harms S each time X frustrates a desire of S’s. Too many interesting distinctions collapse under that view of harms. Maybe all X does is offend S in frustrating S’s desire that X not play his guitar so loudly. Maybe X just slightly irritates S in frustrating S’s desire that X have perfect pitch. Certainly a harm is something mores serious, in Feinberg’s terms, “a more or less long-lasting injury.” No doubt those conditions are vague, but of course vague conditions can (and do) determinately exclude some instances of desire-frustration from the extension of ‘harm’.
    Kris,
    Suppose I want that you brush your teeth tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning comes, and you don’t brush your teeth. My desire has been frustrated. I have been harmed. Where have I been harmed?
    Suppose you mean,”Where did the frustration take place”?
    Since you have the property of being frustrated, it took place in you. But I think it “took place” in the same way that the death of Smith’s uncle made Smith a non-nephew. It is Smith that has the property of becoming a non-nephew. I don’t think the relation is causal in either case, so you don’t have problems of causation at a distance.

  11. Alex Gregory asked: “Would you extend the no-location-needed approach to a no-time-needed approach? Is it true that harms needn’t occur at any particular time?
    David Killoren said: “I suggest that the answer to that question is that to harm someone, you don’t need to diminish her current level of well-being. You can harm someone (now) even if your action merely causes her future level of well-being to diminish, but does not affect her present level of well-being.”
    Alex asked about temporal locations and David K wrote about that as well, but first let me go back to the issue of spatial locations for a moment. David K noted, “Kris M’s original question still needs to be answered. *Why* doesn’t harm need to be located?” To that I would say that the idea of locating harm goes hand-in-hand with the idea of locating well-being. It seems extremely strange to ask “where is my well-being right now?” My well-being is not something that seems to be the sort of thing that has a location. Even to answer, “Your well-being is wherever you are” seems to miss that point. So if it makes no sense to talk of the location of my well-being, it makes no sense to talk of the location of a harm to that well-being. Physical harm, however, is different. I can harm a specific location of objects or people. If I broke your window, the location of the harm is where the window is (or was). If I break your ankle, then the location of the harm is there. But this is a very specific sub-category of harm where it makes sense to talk of location and not cases where the issue is harm to well-being, but harm to a physical entity.
    As for time, I see no problem with saying that the question “when did he harm you” is ambiguous. One could be asking for a time of the cause of a harm or a time for an effect. If they are simultaneous, then the ambiguity goes away. When the harm lasts over a period of time but began at the same moment as the cause (like with a broken ankle) we typically are asking for the time of the cause. When the time of the cause and the time of the effect are disjoint, then the best answer is to say both when the cause was initiated and when the harm began. If, for example, John wrote something nasty about Mary that hurt Mary’s feelings when she read it, it might both be worth knowing that he wrote the nasty words in 1981 and she only read them in 2006. To insist that there is only one answer to “When did John harm Mary?” is to be confused about the issue of the time of the cause and the time of the effect and thus to miss the ambiguity of the question.

  12. I think using harm-talk is not helpful here, for the reason Doug notes. But contrary to what Doug says, I think the questions Kris is really asking don’t go away when we reformulate the questions as being about intrinsic badness (or “being in a harmed state”). According to UDS, what’s intrinsically bad for me is having my desires frustrated. We can ask: *when* is it bad for me to have a desire frustrated? And we can ask: *where* is it bad? In answer to the when-question, Doug says the UDSist should say “at the time of the desire.” But why should that be? I take it the fundamental intrinsic bads for UDSists are conjunctions: S desires that P, and not-P. Why is this bad for S at the time of only one of the conjuncts?
    Kris seems to want to say: it doesn’t matter what we say in answer to the when-question, because it’s relevantly like the where-question, and the where-question is strange, so we should think the when-question is strange too. Maybe he is right, but if so, this would be surprising. It would seem to entail that UDSists have no obligation to respect pretheoretical intuitions about well-being and time. These intuitions are very robust. People have good days, bad childhoods, etc. Why shouldn’t it matter what a theory of well-being says about such things? I think it does, and I think it’s a non-trivial objection to UDS and similar theories that they can’t tell a good story about when things are going well or badly for someone. It is odd, though, that we don’t have such robust intuitions about the spatial locations of intrinsic bads. At least, it is odd if there are fundamentally only spacetime locations, rather than spatial ones and temporal ones.

  13. Ben asks,

    And we can ask: *where* is it bad? In answer to the when-question, Doug says the UDSist should say “at the time of the desire.” But why should that be? I take it the fundamental intrinsic bads for UDSists are conjunctions: S desires that P, and not-P. Why is this bad for S at the time of only one of the conjuncts?

    Ben: Your last question seems to be based on a false presupposition. My view is that, on UDS, desiring that a false proposition is true is bad for S at the time when BOTH conjuncts are true: S desires that P and not-P is the case.
    Ben: What’s the alternative to this view? I think that you have to specify some plausible alternative before rejecting mine. We certainly don’t want to say that S is in a harmed condition whenever not-P is the case. In that case, S could be a harmed condition even when S does not exist. And how would we then deal with cases of changing desire, where S once desired that P but now desires not-P. Futhermore, surely, the advocate of UDS wants to say that longer S desires that P and P is not the case, the worse off S is. The best way to deal with these issues, it seems to me, is to say that, on UDS, a harmed condition consists in desiring that some false proposition is the case. The more intense this desire and the longer it lasts, the greater the harm.

  14. Mike,
    OK, but now there seem to be two different ideas going. One is the idea that you can’t harm someone merely by failing to benefit him. (This is tricky to say if UDS is true, since on the standard view of desire, every desire is satisfied or frustrated. You can’t just cause someone’s desire not to be satisfied without frustrating it.) The other is that you can’t harm someone by causing only a minor intrinsic bad. I guess I think both these claims are false, but in any case, they come apart.

  15. Doug,
    My point is that there is no plausible alternative. I think there’s a problem for UDS that has no plausible solution. UDS is unacceptable, as is any view with conjunctive basic intrinsic goods and bads. I admit that I haven’t gone very far towards making this case here.
    Just so I understand your view: you say that if S desires that P, and not-P, this is bad for S when both conjuncts are true. Why should we think there is any such time? Is it because not-P obtains eternally? Do you say something analogous about satisfactions: if S desires that P, and P, this is good for S when both conjuncts obtain?

  16. To that I would say that the idea of locating harm goes hand-in-hand with the idea of locating well-being. It seems extremely strange to ask “where is my well-being right now?” My well-being is not something that seems to be the sort of thing that has a location. Even to answer, “Your well-being is wherever you are” seems to miss that point. So if it makes no sense to talk of the location of my well-being, it makes no sense to talk of the location of a harm to that well-being

    It’s hard to make sense of the location of one’s well-being. But it is not in general hard to make sense of the location of a harm. Certainly I can ask, “which of you was harmed?” And you can intelligibly point to Smith. That is, you can answer the question, which of these two physical objects, Smith or Jones, has the property of being harmed. It would be absurd for the insurance company to reply, “sorry, harms have no location, so neither Smith nor Jones have the property of being harmed”.

  17. Ben writes,

    Just so I understand your view: you say that if S desires that P, and not-P, this is bad for S when both conjuncts are true. Why should we think there is any such time? Is it because not-P obtains eternally? Do you say something analogous about satisfactions: if S desires that P, and P, this is good for S when both conjuncts obtain?

    Regarding the first two questions: surely you think that there could be a time (e.g., now) where, say, S desires that Bush is not presently Commander and Chief and Bush is presently Commander and Chief. I don’t understand why you would ask, why should we think that there is a time at which both of these conjuncts are true. Isn’t the answer obvious?
    I don’t think that the advocate of UDS needs to take a stand on whether propositions are true or false eternally. She need only to claim that when a proposition is false and S desires that that proposition is true, then S is a harmed state.
    Yes, I would suggest that the proponent of UDS give a like account of a benfited condition.
    And just to clarify something: I am not a proponent of UDS or any other form of desire satisfactionism. But I am interested in how it might be most plausibly formulated.

  18. A glaring mistake in my earlier comment has been brought to my attention.
    When I wrote ‘You and I, in that order, instantiate the relation “is taller than”‘, I obviously should have written ‘Me and you, in that order, …’

  19. Doug,
    Right, it can happen that S desires that P obtain presently, and P fails to obtain presently. In those cases, there is no problem. But we have other desires, right? I might want to see Borat sometime without caring when. Suppose I never see the movie. My desire is frustrated. When is it frustrated? Or, when is the frustration bad for me? Maybe it’s the time of the desire (t). But my desire was not to see Borat at t. My desire was to see Borat sometime. Do you see my worry?

  20. I wonder why you introduce your issue by asking us to consider UDS. My take on the literature is that the better subjective accounts of well-being accept a restriction. I think this is a good idea as it makes sense of moral concern that is not closely tied to one’s own interests. And your issues do not seem to rest on these matters. Thus I would have said you should be happy to be non-committal about the Unresticted aspect of desire accounts.

  21. Ben,
    I’m not sure that I see what the worry is. At t (sometime in the past), you desired that you would see the movie Borat sometime. If, at t, it was false that you would see the movie Borat sometime, then you were in a harmed condition at t. What’s the worry exactly? You say, “But my desire was not to see Borat at t.” True. Your desire, at t, was to see Borat sometime. So if, at t, it was false that you would see Borat, then, at t, you desired a false proposition, which constitutes a harmed condition.

  22. Doug, right, bad example. I wanted an example where the proposition desired is not yet true at the time of the desire. I guess you’re going to resist any such example by saying that if the proposition turns out to be true, then it was true all along. Hence my question about eternal propositions.
    Try this example. Say I desire that my manuscript be published. Unfortunately I die, but then it gets published. It seems like my desire and its object do not obtain at the same time. I desire the publication before I die, and the publication happens afterwards. Even if there’s an eternal proposition that was true all along, it is *made* true only by events occurring after my death.

  23. Ben,
    I’m still not seeing what the worry is. On UDS, the benefited condition is that of desiring a true proposition. If I desire now that my manuscript will be published and that proposition is now true because it will be published after my death, then I am now in a benefited condition. As you point out, the beneficial event (the event responsible for my now being in a benefited condition) occurs at a different time than the benefited condition does, but I don’t see that this is either unusual or problematic. Harmed/benefited conditions and the harmful/beneficial events that are responsible (causally or otherwise) for them needn’t be coincident in time and space. That’s why I argued that it’s important to distinguish the two.

  24. Doug, you write,
    I’m still not seeing what the worry is. On UDS, the benefited condition is that of desiring a true proposition. If I desire now that my manuscript will be published and that proposition is now true because it will be published after my death, then I am now in a benefited condition
    You desire that some proposition p is true and it is true. I’m guessing that you actually desire that some state of affairs obtains: viz., the state of affairs that p describes. But that aside, maybe Doug’s worry is something like this. Suppose p is a true future contingent (assuming future contingents have truth-values). It is true now that p, but presumably it is also true now that possibly not p (since p is contingent). Since it is true now that p might not come to pass, there is at least this worry for your current benefitted condition. Do you see that as a problem?

  25. Mike A.,
    I don’t understand this: “It is true now that p, but presumably it is also true now that possibly not p (since p is contingent).” And I don’t know whether propositions are true eternally or not, or whether they become true only when the event that makes them true occurs. I just don’t know enough about philosophy of language to have an opinion on this. I don’t know what the relevant philosophical issues are. But all this seems besides the point, for what I do know is that, for any proposition p, it is either the case that p is now true or it is not the case that p is now true. On UDS, S is in a benefited condition at t if and only if, at t, both S desires that p and p is true. So I don’t see what the worry is. If p is now true, then S is now in a benefited condition. If, by contrast, it is not the case that p is now true, then S is not now in a benefited condition. What’s the problem for UDS? UDS can adapt to whatever the correct account of propositions and when they become true (if they’re not true eternally) is.

  26. Doug,
    I’ve been assuming that there can be propositions whose truth-values can change over time. These are propositions without a time component, e.g. that Ben’s manuscript is published. (Rather than, say, that Ben’s manuscript will be published at time t.) That proposition is now false, but might later become true. Suppose there is such a proposition, I now desire it, it is now false, but it will later be true. What does your view say about this case? Can my desire be satisfied, and if so, when do I benefit? Or do you want to deny that there are such propositions?

  27. Ben,
    Okay, let’s take your view and suppose that p is false from t1-t5 and true from t6 onwards. Now there are two cases. Case 1: from t4-t6, S desires that p, and then S dies. In that case, S was in a harmed condition at t4 and t5 and in a benefited condition at t6. Now for Case 2: from t3-t4, S desires that p, and then S dies. In this case, S was in a harmed conditon at t3 and t4. At t6, S was not in a benefited condition even though his manuscript is published at t6, because although p is true at t6, it was not the case that, at t6, S desired that p. The dead have no desires, let’s assume.
    If S’s desire is that S’s manuscript is (present tense) published and he has this desire at t4, when it’s not published, then he has a frustrated desire and that constitutes his being in a harmed condition. Now you may want to say but his manuscript will be published. Yes, but as you described things what he desires is not that it will be published, but that it is published. Given that this is what S desires, I see no problem in saying that this desire is frustrated. So this account seems like a sensible one for the proponent of UDS to endorse. Do you see some problem with it?

  28. Yeah, that makes sense. I now think I was wrong to focus on the question about eternal propositions. I guess my real worry is this. If I now desire that my book be published next week, even if it is now true that my book will be published next week, it doesn’t seem like I’ve got what I want yet. If that’s right, then what is relevant is not the time the proposition is true, but the time the truth-making event occurs. Anyway, this has been helpful to me. (I don’t know whether it has been helpful to Kris at all, but who really cares about that?)

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