Welcome to what will surely be an incredibly interesting and productive discussion of Molly Gardner‘s excellent paper “On the Strength of the Reason Against Harming.” This paper was published in the first issue of this year’s Journal of Moral Philosophy. They have kindly provided free access to the paper, which can be viewed or downloaded here. Fiona Woollard has written a critical précis, which is included below. Please join today’s discussion!
Fiona Woollard’s critical précis:
Molly Gardner’s paper is an interesting and insightful contribution to the debate on when we count as harming someone in a morally relevant sense.
Molly is interested in what the strength of reasons against harming can tell us about which account of harming is correct. A lot of arguments claim that a given account is better than its rivals because it is better at correctly distinguishing cases involving harm from cases where no harm is done. As Molly points out, our explanations of moral judgments often appeal not just to whether harm was done but also to the strength of the reason against harming. Sometimes it will be permissible to perform an action, even though it is harmful, because we only have a relatively weak reason to avoid the harm in question. This is an important and underexplored aspect of the debate.
Molly argues that, somewhat surprisingly, our judgments about the relative strength of reason against harming lend support to effective-relative accounts of harming.
Effect Relative Accounts versus Action Relative Accounts
Action Relative Accounts: an action harms a person if and only if it makes her worse off in some respect than she would have been had the action not been performed.
Effect-relative Accounts: an action may harm an individual in virtue of its effects on that individual, regardless of whether the individual would have been better off in the absence of the action.
The idea that I harm a person if and only if I make him worse off is appealing. Nonetheless we might be tempted to endorse an Effect-Relative Account of Harming because Action-Relative Accounts clash with our intuitions about three types of cases:
Selecting for Poor Health. Barbara wishes for her child to have poor health. She uses in vitro fertilization and screens the embryos for genes that cause poor health. Finding such an embryo, she implants it, and the fertility clinic discards the other embryos. The implanted embryo grows into a child named Billy. Billy develops poor health, and as a consequence of having poor health, Billy experiences hardship, pain, and suffering. Nevertheless, Billy’s life is on the whole worth living. (Gardner, p. 76)
Shooting Match: Through no fault of his own, Victor has made two terrible enemies, Adam and Barney, who have both sworn deadly vengeance upon him. Barney is just about to shoot and kill Victor. Barney is protected by a bullet-proof, sound-proof shield so that Adam can neither stop him forcibly nor dissuade him. Adam knows this, but Victor’s death by another’s hand will not satisfy his thirst for vengeance. Adam shoots Victor and Victor dies from the bullet wound (Woollard 2013, p. 8, quoted on Gardner, p. 76)
Bigglesworth’s Revenge: Dr. Evil has locked Jones inside a small, steel box that also contains a Geiger counter, a small amount of a radioactive substance, a small hammer, and a flask of poison gas. Everything is rigged so that there is a 50 percent chance that an atom of the substance will decay at time t. If an atom of the substance decays at t, the discharge of the Geiger counter will cause the hammer to smash into the flask of poison gas, and Jones will be killed. If an atom of the substance does not decay at t, then Jones will be released from the box. Irritated that the setup is too complicated, Dr. Evil’s assistant, Bigglesworth, sneaks over to the box with a baseball bat and swings the bat against the side of the box. The force of the swing causes the hammer to smash into the flask just before time t, and Jones dies (Gardner, p. 77).
Selecting for Poor Health is a non-identity case (without the action, the victim would not exist); Shooting Match is a pre-emption case (if the agent did not perform the harmful action, someone else would have harmed the victim in the same way); Bigglesworth’s Revenge is an indeterminacy case (there is no fact of the matter about how well off the victim would have been without the harmful action). In each case, intuitively, the victim has been harmed, but would not have been worse off without the harmful action.
The Strength of Reasons against Harming
Molly argues that, surprisingly, our judgments about the strength of reasons against harming support an effect-relative account of harming. This is surprising because it might at first glance seem like action-relative accounts do better here. Action-relative accounts have a natural explanation of why harmful actions are wrong: they are wrong because they make others worse off than they would otherwise be. This leads to a natural explanation of how strong our reasons against harming are: the greater the decrease in well-being of the victim, the stronger the reason against harming.
Molly also discusses my own argument about the strength of reasons against harming. I’m interested in the Non-Identity Problem in cases like climate change: intuitively, it is wrong for us to pollute because we will harm future generations, but, because our policies about pollution affect who comes to be born, we don’t make any individual worse off by polluting. I argue that when we harm someone but do not make them worse off, our reasons against harming are weaker than if we harm someone and make them worse off. We can’t fully solve the Non-Identity Problem by arguing that we can harm someone without making them worse off: this still leaves our reasons not to pollute much weaker than we think they are.
Suppose that by shooting Victor, Adam could save the life of a third party, Sarah. It is permissible for Adam to shoot Victor to save Sarah (given that Victor was going to die anyway). It would not be permissible for Adam to save Sarah’s life by shooting another person who was not going to die anyway.
Molly argues that Shooting Match does not show that our reasons not to harm are weaker when we do not make the victim worse off. Shooting Match involves ‘redundant harming’: the action causes a harm that the victim would have suffered anyway. Molly argues that the reason against harming is weaker if the harming is redundant. Consider the following cases:
Inducing Paralysis: It is Leland’s 5th birthday, but unfortunately, a piece of debris, A, is flying through the air towards Leland’s midsection. If Bernard does nothing, A will hit Leland and paralyze him from the waist down. Bernard’s only other option is to push Leland into the path of another piece of debris, B, which would cause Leland a qualitatively identical injury; however, pushing Leland into the path of B would prevent Sarah from having a broken arm. Bernard pushes Leland into the path of B.
Selecting for Paralysis. Enid is choosing which embryo to implant into her uterus. Embryo B will become an individual named Sheldon. B has a mutation that will cause Sheldon to become instantly and permanently paralyzed from the waist down on his 5th birthday. However, implanting embryo B will prevent Sarah from having a broken arm. Enid implants B.
Neither Bernard nor Enid make their victim’s worse off than they would have been without the action. Inducing Paralysis involves redundant harming. Selecting for Paralysis does not. Leyland would have been paralysed whatever Bernard did. Sheldon would not have been paralysed if Enid had acted differently. Molly argues that Enid’s behaviour is morally worse than Bernard’s – and deduces that our reasons against redundant harming are weaker than our reasons against non-redundant harming. Because most non-identity cases involve non-redundant harming, my example does not show that our reasons against harming in non-identity cases are weaker than we previously thought. An effect-relative account of harming can explain our intuitions about the strength of reasons not to harm by endorsing the following principle:
(R) Other things being equal, the reason against redundantly harming an individual is weaker than the reason against non-redundantly harming an individual.
There is a worrying whiff of circularity about the appeal to intuitions about a non-identity case to rescue our intuitions about non-identity cases. I am also not convinced that redundancy that explains the weakness of the reasons against harming Leyland. We can put together versions of Inducing Paralysis which do not involve redundant harming: perhaps debris B would kill Leyland or cause Leyland to lose his sight. When we vary the harms, the key question for working out if Bernard’s behavior is permissible seems to be whether the alternative harm is more or less severe than the one Bernard would inflict i.e. whether Bernard’s action leaves Leyland worse off. This supports my suggestion that our reasons against harming are much weaker if we do not thereby make the victim worse off.
2 More Principles About the Strength of Reasons not to Harm
Molly proposes two more principles that an effect-relative account of harming should endorse: the Degree of Harm Principle and the Inevitability/Avoidability Principle. She argues that an effect-relative account of harming that endorses these three principles offers the best explanation of our judgments about the relative strength of reasons against harming.
Degree of a harm (def.): The degree of a harm is directly proportional to the amount by which an individual’s level of well-being on some dimension would be higher if the individual existed and the state of affairs that is the harm had not obtained.
(D) Other things being equal, the reason against harming is stronger, the greater the degree of a harm.
By appealing to this principle, an effect-relative account can explain why the reasons against selecting an embryo with paralysis are stronger than the reasons against selecting an embryo with mild eczema. Action-relative accounts cannot explain these differences because in neither case do we make the victim worse off than they would have been without the harmful action, so we do not count as harming in either case.
I agree that an effect-relative account of harming which endorses the Degree of Harm Principle is in a better position to account for some of our intuitions about the relative strength of reasons against harming than an action-relative account. Nonetheless, I still hold that our reasons not to harm are stronger when we make the victim worse off. We should not endorse either a pure effect-relative account or a pure action-relative account, but recognise different morally relevant ways in which we can harm someone, adding a fourth principle to the three suggested by Molly:
Action-relative principle: Other things being equal, the reason against harming is stronger, the more the harmful action makes the victim worse off than they would otherwise be.6