Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Is it always good to prevent harm?

Short answer: no. Of course, there's the obvious case where preventing one small harm would cause a greater one. But I'm not talking about that. Even when we consider the original harm in isolation, it may not even be pro tanto good, or locally beneficial in any way, to prevent it. That is one lesson that can be drawn from my recent discussion of our obligations towards future and potential persons. (Though I must credit Serge's prodding for bringing it to my attention.) Here's how it works:

Typically, in preventing a harm we thereby make someone's life go better than it otherwise would have. In such cases, preventing harm is beneficial, and that's why it is usually a good thing to do. But there is another way to prevent harms: you can prevent the subject who would have been harmed from ever actually existing. There's nothing particularly good about that.

My Pinocchio world can again help clarify our understanding of these issues. If someone damages a wooden statue, is it later wrong for the Priestess to bring that statue to life? (Assume the damage is moderate enough that the resulting life would still be well worth living.) Presumably not. It does mean that the earlier act of damage caused harm to the resulting person. And failing to bring Pinocchio to life would have been one way to prevent this harm. But it would not have been an especially good* way to prevent the harm. There is no real benefit to it.
* = If there is the option to bring a different, "healthier" statue to life instead, then that might be a better choice, even though no individual is made better off than they otherwise would've been. It would be a case of "goodness without benefit" (if 'benefits' are understood to accrue only to individuals). But these complications can safely be set aside for now.

So, there you have it. Although preventing harms is typically beneficial, this need not always be the case. There is also the rare possibility of preventing a harm by precluding the existence of he who would be harmed. The praiseworthiness of the beneficial kind of harm prevention need not carry over to the atypical, non-beneficial kind. (I'd say the latter is morally neutral, at least when considered in isolation.)



  1. I read an interesting book about a group who release a disease on the world that prevents any more children.
    I guess the harm is desire thwarting for SOME potential parents (and of assistance to others of course) but is it neutral?

  2. (actually the people do it in order to help humanity ie prevent the stage where human population gets really large and human welfare drops throug hte floor so to speak.
    In this case is it a morally good thing to do?
    Maybe even one of the most morally good thing you could possibly do?

  3. I have a question on this too.

    I don't understand why you can't see the prevention of harm that you talk about as pro-tanto good, but hugely outweighed by the positive quality of life of the individual that results? Wouldn't this approach get the results that we want, with a little bit more parsimony?

    In this case the benefit to failing to bring Pinnocchio into the world is still present: There's less pain or suffering in the world. Of course, as good consequentialists we're interested in maximising the amount of good minus bad, and Pinnocchio brings in enough good to outweigh the harm he brings.

  4. I think it would be a bad thing to prevent humanity's continued survival even if no particular individuals are harmed. (Such scenarios fall under the general discussion here.)

    Perhaps it could be a good thing to keep the population at moderate levels. But the goodness of this must be weighed against the badness of violating parents' autonomy, etc. (A better option would be to incentivize smaller families, so that more people would freely choose the desired outcome.) That's another topic though...

  5. well the assumption would have to be that you only had one policy instrument

  6. I would tend to agree with you BTW
    but I'm not sure if I could convince you if you didnt agree already (which makes finding out why you think it particularly interesting).

  7. Interesting post, Richard!

    You mention that there are "obvious case[s] where preventing one small harm would cause a greater one," and you say that you aren't talking about those kinds of cases -- presumably because it's trivially true that such preventions are not good.

    However, I'm not convinced that the cases you discuss are really any different. You say, roughly, that we could prevent future harms by preventing the person to be harmed from ever existing, but that "there's nothing good about that."

    Isn't that just to say that such actions prevent a small harm at the cost of a greater harm (in this case, preventing someone from existing)?

  8. Richard,

    I don't see the harm you're referring to in the Pinocchio case. Maybe I missed your point. The wood is slightly damaged and he is brought to life. The slight damage affects his life negatively only in the sense of (1).

    1. P's life is worse than it COULD have been had the wood not been damaged and he been brought to life.

    But P experiences no harm in being brought to life. (2) is false.

    2. P's life is worse than it would have been had he not been brought to life.

    P has no level of well-being before being brought to life, and so his level of well-being prior to being brought to life is not lower than it currently is. Therefore bringing him to life does not harm him (and neither does damaging the wood, so long as he would not have been brought to life without the damage. If the case is elaborated so that he would have been brought to life anyway, then the damage does harm him, but not the bringing to life. If the case is elaborated so that you had a choice about when to bring him to life--before or after the damage--and you choose after, then the bringing to life does harm him).
    Parsons (Josh) does have a few arguments that you can have a well-being in worlds in which you don't exist. But those arguments are not especially convincing.

  9. Mike, I'm talking about the harm in (1). [I agree that (2) is false.] But note that this harm would not occur if Pinocchio was not brought to life. (Bringing to life does not itself harm him. Rather, it is a necessary condition for the earlier act of damage to become harmful.)

    Will (and perhaps Alex), I don't think "preventing someone from existing" can be a harm. Who does it harm? You can't harm a non-existent entity. That's incoherent: if it doesn't exist, there's no entity there to be harmed! (Note also the crazy moral implications: must we set up "womb factories" in order to prevent the harm of non-existence to all those potential people who wouldn't otherwise get conceived?)

  10. There is no blanket answer to such a question. If each person on the planet can only honestly be their own experience of themselves then it is up to each individual in the moment of choice/discernment to act or not act to prevent harm.

    This could all get a little crazy if taken to extremes. Each moment is individual. Believe me, if my child is about to run out into the road, I'm going to stop that action to prevent it.

    Extreme thought is not always extraordinary thought. What is missing for me here in this discussion is the heart and the soul of the question. It is all intellectual - but that does not offer a whole picture.

    Lee Travathan
    Author, mentor, consultant

  11. Either
    1) There is confusion "not causing harm" with "this question is incoherent". I.e. you might as well ask if A is bigger than 1. i.e. these actions don’t “cause” harm OR “not cause harm”.


    Forcing it to work

    2) A) Creating the "real boy" (or preventing that creation) DOES create harm (creating him creates the entire set of harm and benefit of that new being's life).

    B) Harming the puppet IS causing harm to the real boy (imagine a timeless perspective or “back to the future”).

    However the question of how that affects morality is not clear cut because you can approach it as a “rights based” thinker (in which as individuals tend towards infinity rights tend to zero) or any other perspective.


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