Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Temporal Acrobatics of Harm

I'm not sure why some people are so shocked by the idea that we can be harmed by actions that take place before we exist. An event harms us if it causes our life to go worse than it otherwise would have. That is, if the nearest possible world in which the event does not occur, is a world in which our life goes better for us. It is obviously possible for this modal condition to be satisfied by events which precede our existence. (If you're feeling unimaginative, see the "wooden statue" example below.)

But if the issue is so simple, why are others making mistakes about it? Here are a few possible explanations:

(A) We are used to scientific properties, e.g. force and momentum, where action at a distance - let alone a distant time! - is considered "spooky". One might think of harm analogously as a kind of metaphysical "stuff" that gets "transmitted" from the cause to the recipient of the harm. I then seem committed to weird time-travelling stuff. (Hint: ethical relations don't need to move! There's no "stuff" getting "transmitted", except in a very metaphorical sense. And without that metaphysical baggage, there's nothing especially problematic about cross-temporal relations.)

(B) One might have a different concept of "harm" in mind. (But what, exactly? A rival analysis to my counterfactual account is demanded here.)

(C) Some of KTK's comments betray a commitment to presentism: the misguided view that only the present moment exists. Granted, there cannot be cross-temporal relations of harm (or anything else for that matter) if other times -- and their inhabitants -- do not exist. So much the worse for presentism.

(D) Ideological commitments regarding abortion might cloud one's judgment of related issues. This is a less charitable explanation, but one might be suspicious that KTK appears motivated to establish that it's okay for women to do anything they like to their fetuses. Or witness the gleeful accusations from pro-lifers that I needed to resort to "metaphysical gymnastics" in order to "justify [my] pro-abortion stance". Partisanship and wishful thinking blinds them to the more general nature of the problem.

To overcome at least this last problem, let me offer a thought experiment which cuts to the core of the issue. Suppose that babies grow on trees. Actually, they're not really babies (yet), but just baby-shaped pieces of wood: life-sized wooden statues. Real babies are made by a priestess asking God to turn Pinocchio the statue into a real boy. God then breathes life and vitality into the statue, transforming it into a flesh-and-blood baby. But here's the crucial bit: the baby inherits the general form of the wooden statue he was "made" from. In particular, if you saw off the statue's limbs before bringing it to life, the resulting baby will likewise be limbless.

Here are some obvious facts about the situation, which absolutely everyone (no matter their views about real-life fetuses, abortion, or whatnot) ought to agree with:

1) Wooden statues do not have moral interests.
2) You can damage a wooden statue, say by sawing its limbs off.
3) Some wooden statues are "vitalized", or turned into actual persons, who inherit the damage.
4) Actual persons have interests, so the damage does harm them, and is hence morally bad.
5) So, it can be morally bad to damage a wooden statue, if the statue will be turned into an actual person, even though the statue itself lacks moral significance.
6) However, no harm is done by damaging a statue that will never be vitalized. (It's just wood, after all.)

So, there you go. No matter what you think of fetuses, everyone needs to follow my "metaphysical gymnastics" in order to make moral sense of the possibility of vitalizing wooden statues. Clearly, the early acts of damage can cause the future person's life to go worse than it otherwise would have. That is to say, it can harm them. It's no big deal that the person doesn't exist at the time of the damage. Things that happen before we exist can influence how well our lives go, and a negative influence on welfare is precisely the definition of "harm". So there's nothing especially mysterious about these "temporal acrobatics". Their occurrence is quite straightforward, and even to be expected.

I think everyone has to agree with what's been said so far. But there are more contentious issues at the intersection of time and welfare. Some of these are discussed in my old post 'Respecting Past Desires' (there's a really great discussion in the comments too). There I suggest that our welfare level at a time t depends on the desires we have at t being fulfilled. But if some of those t-desires are about past or future events, then those events will influence how well-off we are at t.* Indeed, I even hold that we can be harmed by events which occur after our deaths. As I once commented on another blog:
I think a person can be harmed even after they are no longer (presently) existing. We just need to understand the harms as retroactive: your present actions are making the earlier person worse off. We are better off when our desires are fulfilled, but it doesn't matter when they are fulfilled.

Suppose you dedicate your life to preserving ancient works of art. Then, after your death, someone burns down the gallery where all your preserved work was stored. They have made it so that your life went worse, since you failed in your primary goal. The exact timing of the failure doesn't matter.

I think that those who dismiss the wishes of the dead tend to have a crudely hedonistic conception of wellbeing. But as you rightly note, we often feel that we can be harmed without our knowing (e.g. by people on the other side of the world). Why should a separation in time be any more significant than one in space?

Desire-fulfillment theories of welfare hold, roughly, that what's good for us is to get what we most want. But some of the things we care about are not present. We care about the future, and even what happens after we die. My life goes better if my desires are fulfilled rather than thwarted. The future can influence the latter sorts of facts (about desire-fulfillment), and thereby also the former (about the quality of my life).

Again, I think there's nothing especially outrageous or surprising about any of this. Still, I grant that the view can at least coherently be denied. It isn't totally insane to deny that we can be harmed by events that occur after we cease to exist. On the other hand, I do think it's completely untenable to deny that we can be harmed by events that precede our existence.
* = (But does it really make sense to talk about momentary welfare values? I'm now more inclined to see welfare more holistically as the value of a whole life. Then, although harmful events all occur at some time or other, there is no particular time at which the harm is received by the person. Again, letting go of the misguided "physical transmission" analogy makes the temporal issues much more straightforward.)


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15 comments:

  1. It isn't totally insane to deny that we can be harmed by events that occur after we cease to exist. On the other hand, I do think it's completely untenable to deny that we can be harmed by events that precede our existence.

    I have to agree with you here, and disagree with you that we can be harmed after we cease to exist! For me, harm requires the violation of an interest. Non existent entities cannot have interests, and so cannot be harmed. If an action later damages a new being's interests, it has caused harm.

    Now, unless you identifying the 'worth' of people solely by their value to others (which I do not think you are), then you are saying that since a life can retroactively be made to look worse, the person to whom the life belonged must be harmed. The problem is that a life in the sense of the events of someone's lifetime is again only valuable to existing people. At the end of the life, the life's owner is no longer a person and so cannot value it, and so cannot suffer from its subjective depreciation in value.

    But as you rightly note, we often feel that we can be harmed without our knowing (e.g. by people on the other side of the world). Why should a separation in time be any more significant than one in space?

    Because in the former case there is a person with interests which are violated, where in the latter there is no being and so no intersts.

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  2. I also agree with everything you say except regarding harm after death. It makes no sense to me to say that I am harmed if my gallery is destroyed. Perhaps from an outside view my life's work has come to nought, but I do not experience that personally, whereas I do experience the other harms you mention (either directly or indirectly). I guess I just don't see how my life's work being destroyed is equivalent to my life having gone worse. At the point when my life's work is destroyed, my life is over and can't go anywhere, better or worse.

    If you are committed to post-death harms, then you are also committed to post-death benefits, right? What sort of sense does it make to say I benefit after death - I'm not even there to benefit. If someone preserved my gallery from destruction after my death, perhaps I will be remembered longer or more favorably, but the course of my life (and all its harms or benefits) remain unchanged because they are static at that point in time, and forever afterwards.

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  3. Why would the benefit have to be to you in order to be a benefitting of you? We often pry the two apart: if somebody says something good to my friend about me, I have already been benefitted even if I don't yet know about the benefit, and haven't yet experienced any of it accruing to me. Indeed, it could be that I never know that it makes my life better, even though it does (perhaps removing some impediment to a project). I never experience it as a benefit; but I benefit nonetheless. After all, a benefit is just a something that makes things better; and things can be better without my actually being aware of it. Now, it's clear that something can make my life better even when I don't know it (e.g., it can make it more of the sort of thing I want it to be). So it isn't clear why death would make a difference to the objective benefit. Only if all benefits are just pleasures or experiences of being fulfilled would my experience be necessary; and it's clear that there are benefits that don't fall into this purely subjective category (e.g., benefits we aren't aware of).

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  4. I'm not awake enough to work through the rest of your ideas, but here's what I presume people's other conption of harm is:

    I am harmed by an event if it leaves me in a worse position (perhaps including likely expectations) that I was before it happened.

    Everything that happens before you exist would be a given.

    This is probably a mess if you start piecing it out.

    I would note that under your formulation, in effect, all factors that fail to make us ideal - a lot of the universe - would constitute harm. Not necessarily a criticism.

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  5. I don't think it's useful to think of benefits and harms as symmetrical. X benefits A if it makes A's life better that it would otherwise be; but X doesn't harm A if it makes A's life simply less good than it would otherwise be, if A's life is still good enough. That's because some things that make A's life less good don't make it less good enough to matter (A's life may still be wonderfully good). Harm has to put you, at least temporarily, in a bad state, not merely a less good one. In that sense, to have a harm you have to have not merely less good but a lack of (some significant type of) good. For instance, if anyone receives a morsel of food, that's a benefit, even if it's only a very tiny and insignificant one; but if a rich man loses a morsel of food, that's not a harm, because his resources are adequate to compensate -- what we need food for is to eat, and the rich man will never lack for food to eat. A fabulously rich man is not personally harmed merely by someone stealing one of his thousand diamond rings, which he can easily replace; but he may be personally harmed if that one ring is his wedding ring, due to the irreplaceable sentimental value of the ring.

    In other words, benefit is just an additional good, any good, however slight; but harm is not just any loss of good, it's an injurious loss of good, i.e., a loss of good that is of a serious sort. It's not the loss but the fact that it's a serious loss (even if only a small but serious loss) that makes it a harm. I think this is probably related to the fact that we can reasonably satisfice -- to be unharmed we don't have to be in the best state, just in a state that's good enough.

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  6. Pejar - I'm an eternalist about time: all moments exist equally, just like all places do. (Only one is "here" and "now", but the rest are still "out there".) I agree that non-existent people don't have interests. But here we should understand non-existence timelessly to mean "non-actual", as explained in my previous post. Future people really exist (in the future), and so have actual interests (in the future). Similarly for the past. So I disagree when you say "there is no being"; he exists all right, just not in the here and now.

    Albert - you are assuming an experience requirement on welfare. See my linked post on 'desire fulfillment' for why I reject this. (Brandon's comments are also helpful.) And yes, I also allow for posthumous benefits.

    Brandon - this may be merely terminological. We presumably agree that people can be made slightly worse off, or much worse off, and the latter is more morally significant than the former. So long as you still agree that even the former is pro tanto bad (however slightly), is there any substantive disagreement here?

    Maybe there are issues arising from your assumption of a "baseline" which distinguishes the bad from the less good. I think it could be morally significant (in a bad way) to shift someone from an extremely good state into a merely adequate state. Such large relative changes are "harms" on my view, but perhaps not on yours. If by this you also mean to deny that such large relative changes are important, then that would be a substantive difference. (But one that makes your view implausible, I think.)

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  7. Lyndon - that's an interesting suggestion. It does sound intuitive at first, but leads to some wacky results. Suppose a friend warns me that an angry mob has just arrived to burn down my house. This warning gives me chance to escape, so surely benefits me. But my "position" after the warning is worse than it was in earlier times. (I become homeless!) So the theory misclassifies it as a "harm".

    The lesson here seems to be that we need to compare alleged harms in modal rather than temporal terms. That is, rather than merely comparing "before" and "after" the event, we should compare possible worlds "with" or "without" the event. It may be that my future is going to be worse than my past, no matter what happens. But if an event helps make this future less bad than it otherwise would have been, the event is a benefit rather than a harm. The event makes me better off than I would have been without it, even though I am worse off after the event than I am before it.

    (Note also that the suggestion relies from the start on a localized conception of welfare "at a time", which the footnote in my post expresses some skepticism about.)

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  8. Numerous points to make, although I confess I only skimmed the comments for similar looking ones, so might be repeating odds and ends:

    "We are used to scientific properties, e.g. force and momentum, where action at a distance - let alone a distant time! - is considered "spooky""

    I think this is simply false - gravity works at a distance, and people will happily say that the sun caused me to have sunburn, despite the delay (a few hours IIRC) between the light leaving the sun and hitting my skin.

    "One might have a different concept of "harm" in mind. (But what, exactly? A rival analysis to my counterfactual account is demanded here.)"

    Here's the key bit: You're implictly working within a consequentialist framework. I happen to think that correct, but it's coherent to say considerations of the Right are what's important, and not considerations of the Good. Then there's not even a question about "how well my life is going" /at all/, let alone how well my life is going in comparison to other possible worlds. The question, say, for a deontologist, will simply be "Is it wrong to harm a fetus?", "Is it wrong to cause harm to a being that will later exist?", and so on.

    Finally, on things after my death causing my life to go better or worse, I think commenters who state that you can't affect something that no longer exists are dead on. However, it's possible (but contentious) to suggest that events after my death can cause the life I had to have gone better. There's some backwards causation there, but backwards causation is more tenable than causation which affects a non-existent entity.

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  9. Light travels from the sun to our skin, though, so there's nothing there that violates our billiard ball "folk physics". My point is that harm doesn't need to "travel" in this way. Talk of "backwards causation" risks reinforcing this mistaken picture. It should be entirely uncontroversial that future events can determine whether past desires were satisfied. (A desire that P is satisfied iff P is true. Now see what happens when P is a proposition about the future.) But if wellbeing is merely a matter of desire satisfaction, then it follows that this too can be determined by later events.

    Of course you cannot physically "affect something that no longer exists". But I never claimed any such thing. I'm talking about moral harm, i.e. decreasing the welfare value of a life, and that's not a straightforwardly physical matter. If one implicitly conflates harm with physical damage, then of course my cross-temporality will seem bizarre. (You can't presently kick future people, for instance.) But the problem lies in the conflation. The physical analogy is just the wrong way to think about moral harm. Nothing is being "transmitted" here. So the earlier person is not "affected" in that sense. All that's going on is that their past desires are being thwarted. The future isn't turning out the way they wanted it to. According to the desire-satisfaction theory of welfare, that means that their life goes less well. But again, there's nothing at all mysterious about this.

    Perhaps the best way to make this point is to note that harm is merely a relation, rather than a kind of substance or bad energy that is transmitted from the actor to the recipient. Specifically, an event E harms a person X iff X’s life goes worse than it would have if E had not occurred. (The harming 'actor' is then the person responsible for bringing about E.) No transmission, time travel, or backwards causation (unless understood very loosely!) required.

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  10. Will (The Friendly Sociopath)3:08 pm, July 19, 2006

    I agree with Richard completely on this one. Even after a person dies they can be harmed in a variety of ways. More than harming the "non-existent" entity of a dead person (note the entire argument assumes that there is no heaven/hell, rebirth, soul that goes somewhere etc.) it is very possible to harm the effects the person had while alive. Long after we are dead, our effect on the world remains. This might be more obvious when you look at world figures, we still see the effects of Socrates, but everyone has a legacy to one extent or another. Actions and words can harm a legacy and a persons reputation long after they are dead. We would say a person is harmed if their reputation is unfairly destroyed while they are alive, even if they do not have knowledge of it. Why would they not suffer harm from having their reputation harmed after they are dead?

    We also have a notion of following a persons last will and testament. Why would we consider a persons last wishes important if they would not suffer harm by us refusing to follow their wishes? We do have a moral obligation to respect the deceased, follow their wishes and respect their legacy just like we have a moral obligation to respect the living.

    As for harming people who don't exist yet, I really don't have anything new to add at this time except to say ditto to Richard.

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  11. Brandon - this may be merely terminological. We presumably agree that people can be made slightly worse off, or much worse off, and the latter is more morally significant than the former. So long as you still agree that even the former is pro tanto bad (however slightly), is there any substantive disagreement here?

    Well, I think it's related to the question of whether benefits have to be optimized or satisficed, and so I don't think it's purely terminological. And I don't think every loss of benefit is bad; some benefits just come with expiration dates, for instance. Losing such benefits due to expiration is not a harm (or even bad), it's just a way in which the benefit is limited. And if we're going to start saying that we are harmed by limitations on our benefits, or that limitations on benefits are in themselves bad, I think we are stretching the terms to the point of uselessness.

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  12. Richard,

    Perhaps this is merely terminological, but I'm stressing it because I genuinely think that you're using very non-standard terminology.

    You state that: "My point is that harm doesn't need to "travel" in this way. Talk of "backwards causation" risks reinforcing this mistaken picture."

    But my point is that causation in general doesn't need to "travel". As I stated, gravity operates at a distance, as does magnetism, and others. Its just a misleading picture to say that harm isn't causation because nothing "travels".

    The broader sense of causation that I think is the standard usage holds in the case of future harms to past persons, in the counterfactual sense that without the future harm, there would be no harm to the past person. That's why the rest of your response is, I think, way off the mark - causation doesn't require 'travelling' of some subtance or other at all.

    It's backwards causation because the former event in the counter-factual is occuring after the latter - I have a desire, and it's only after that desire ceases to exist that it gains the status of being either fulfilled or not. When X's desire about the future is thwarted after her death, that can't affect her quality of life /at that time/, since there's no life with any qualities at all. It must affect how her life /was/, and that's backwards causation, at least when causation is understood in a suitably broad, but standard, sense.

    In short, I just don't see why you think causation requires 'travelling'.

    Thanks,
    Alex

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  13. Yeah, it's fine on a counterfactual analysis of causation. On that sense we already have to allow for backwards causation, since my past desire for [future P] wouldn't have been fulfilled if it weren't for [future P]. The future "affects" the past in this non-transmissive sense.

    But I think the (or at least "a") folk concept of causation does involve the idea of some kind of "transmission", say of conserved quantities of energy or momentum or the like. My point was merely that if one were to understand harm in such a way (or even in the way we understand physical damage) then the temporal jumps would indeed be deeply puzzling. They're not, in fact, deeply puzzling, as you agree. But some people seem to find them so, and this is a possibly explanation why.

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  14. The blog seems to require the ability to accurately determine what would have happened. I maintain that any hypothetical is unanswerable to any degree of accuracy except for "chance". Because of the cause/effect phenomenon there is not such thing as real chance (or accident).

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  15. "(A desire that P is satisfied iff P is true. Now see what happens when P is a proposition about the future.) But if wellbeing is merely a matter of desire satisfaction, then it follows that this too can be determined by later events."

    Consider this thought experiment: I tell my wife that I want her to cook lobster for dinner next Friday. [So, P is cooking lobster for dinner next Friday] On that day, I die of natural causes in my sleep. Next Friday, my wife is busy with the funeral, and does not cook lobster for dinner. Did she harm me?!

    By you logic, she did harm me.

    However, my proposal is that every desire has an implicit "assuming I am there to experience P, I would like P to happen."

    So, in the example of burning a gallery after it's owner dies, I would say this did not harm him, because his desire has an implicit clause that he can perceive the destruction of the artwork. I am sure that if you ask this person if he minds the gallery getting burned after he dies, he would say that yes, he does mind. But this is nothing more than psychological irrationality. He wouldn't mind, he just minds knowing about it.

    So if a villain came to that person and told him beforehand that he is going to destroy the gallery after his death, there might be some ground to say that this does hurt the person. However, if the gallery is destroyed after death of the person without any means for the person to predict the occurrence of that destruction, then I would be inclined to say the no harm was done to that person.

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