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Harm and Causation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 February 2015

Birkbeck, University of


I propose an analysis of harm in terms of causation: harm is when a subject is caused to be worse off. The pay-off from this lies in the details. In particular, importing influential recent work from the causation literature yields a contrastive-counterfactual account. This enables us to incorporate harm's multiple senses into a unified scheme, and to provide that scheme with theoretical ballast. It also enables us to respond effectively to previous criticisms of counterfactual accounts, as well as to sharpen criticisms of rival views.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 Hanser, Matthew, ‘The Metaphysics of Harm’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 77 (2008), pp. 421–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Hanser, ‘The Metaphysics of Harm’.

3 Thomson, Judith Jarvis, ‘More on the Metaphysics of Harm’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 82 (2011), pp. 436–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Complicating matters further, badness so understood is unnecessary for harm, because harm requires only a decrease in well-being and thus is consistent with well-being still remaining high in absolute terms. Hanser gives the example of an injury that harms a Nobel Prize winner by reducing her cognitive capacity from exceptional to merely very good.

5 To repeat, on the contrastive view that this article will endorse, strictly speaking what is caused is not just a level of well-being but instead this level rather than some counterfactual alternative. But causal talk often takes a surface binary form (something which a contrastive view is able to accommodate; see Northcott, Robert, ‘Causation and Contrast Classes’, Philosophical Studies 139 (2008), pp. 111–23)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Hart, H. L. A. and Honoré, Tony, Causation in the Law, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1985)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Admittedly, it is unclear what if any role causation plays in some areas of fundamental physics. But: first, these doubts apply equally to any notion of causation, not just the difference-making one; and second, whatever our view of causation's ultimate metaphysical status, causation as difference-making is undoubtedly typical of everyday ‘special-science’ situations such as those that feature in discussions of harm (Woodward, James, Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation (Oxford, 2003))Google Scholar.

8 Lewis, David, ‘Causation’, Journal of Philosophy 70 (1973), pp. 556–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 See e.g. Northcott, , ‘Causation and Contrast Classes’ or Jonathan Schaffer, ‘Contrastive Causation’, Philosophical Review 114 (2005), pp. 297328, for detailsGoogle Scholar.

10 Pearl, Judea, Causality (New York, 2000)Google Scholar; Spirtes, Peter, Glymour, Clark and Scheines, Richard, Causation, Prediction, and Search, 2nd edn. (Cambridge, Mass., 2000)Google Scholar.

11 Woodward, Making Things Happen.

12 Northcott, Robert, ‘Partial Explanations in Social Science’, Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Social Science, ed. Kincaid, Harold (Oxford, 2012), pp. 130–53Google Scholar.

13 Hitchcock, Christopher, ‘The Role of Contrast in Causal and Explanatory Claims’, Synthese 107 (1996), pp. 395419CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Hart and Honoré, Causation in the Law.

15 Lewis, David, ‘Causation as Influence’, Causation and Counterfactuals, ed. Collins, John, Hall, Ned and Paul, L. A. (Cambridge, Mass., 2004), pp. 75106Google Scholar.

16 The phrase ‘e leaves A in a . . . state’ is intended to be shorthand for the fact that we can consistently say that causation is ultimately a relation between events, while it is simultaneously legitimate to talk of a person being caused to be in a particular state (see also Thomson, ‘More on the Metaphysics of Harm’, p. 458).

17 There is much detail to be added here about a contrastive definition of causation, such as how choice of c and e is constrained, what determines which c* and e* are salient, and technical wrinkles arising from the fact that c* and e* are in general sets of contrast events (Northcott, ‘Causation and Contrast Classes’; Schaffer, ‘Contrastive Causation’; Norcross, Alastair, ‘Harming in Context’, Philosophical Studies 123 (2005), pp. 149–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Maslen, Cei, ‘Causes, Contrasts and the Nontransitivity of Causation’, Causation and Counterfactuals, ed. Collins, John, Hall, Ned, and Paul, L. A. (Cambridge, Mass., 2004), pp. 341–58Google Scholar; Van Fraassen, Bas, The Scientific Image (Oxford, 1980))CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Feldman, Fred, Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death (Oxford, 1992)Google Scholar.

19 Nagel, Thomas, ‘Death’, Mortal Questions (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 110Google Scholar.

20 McMahan, Jeff, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life (Oxford, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Hanser, , ‘The Metaphysics of Harm’. In fact, as Hanser acknowledges, the first objection follows Seana Shiffrin, ‘Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm’, Legal Theory 5 (1999), pp. 117–48, who presents a number of similar examplesGoogle Scholar.

22 Hanser, ‘The Metaphysics of Harm’, p. 431, italics in the original.

23 Hanser, ‘The Metaphysics of Harm’, p. 424.

24 Following the literature, I take ‘beneficial’ to be the opposite of harmful, i.e. to involve an increase in well-being.

25 I am assuming here that it makes sense to understand well-being in a time-indexed way. For most currently popular measures, it does.

26 Hanser, ‘The Metaphysics of Harm’, p. 437, his italics.

27 For example, Nagel, ‘Death’; Bradley, Ben, ‘When is Death Bad for the One Who Dies?’, Nous 38 (2004), pp. 128CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thomson, ‘More on the Metaphysics of Harm’.

28 Other kinds of counterexample have been given besides (e.g. Norcross, ‘Harming in Context’, pp. 149–50).

29 Hanser thinks our intuitions assign greater moral weight to cases of positive causation than to those of mere prevention, and then objects that a counterfactual approach treats the two cases symmetrically (Hanser, ‘The Metaphysics of Harm’, p. 428). In reply: first, it is questionable whether our intuitions really do follow that pattern always and everywhere (Jonathan Schaffer, ‘Causes Need Not be Physically Connected to their Effects: The Case for Negative Causation’, Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Science, ed. Christopher Hitchcock (Oxford, 2004), pp. 197–216) But when they do, might this be explained away as the illicit seeping of type considerations into intuitions about a token case? If, as a matter of statistical fact, most morally blameworthy harmings we come across are cases of positive causation rather than of prevention, then our intuitions might have become more responsive to the former than the latter. (Norcross (‘Harming in Context’, p. 161) makes a similar point, albeit in a different context, when saying that our intuitions in such circumstances are ‘the result of the all too common confusion of judgements of actions with judgements of character’. Thomson (‘More on the Metaphysics of Harm’, p. 440) also endorses this kind of explaining away, albeit again in a different context.) Hanser's own formal scheme, it is true, does treat the two cases differently. On the other hand, it offers no explanation for why this formal difference should imply a moral difference.

30 For example, Shiffrin, ‘Wrongful Life’.

31 Hanser, ‘The Metaphysics of Harm’, p. 440.

32 Thomson, ‘More on the Metaphysics of Harm’, pp. 456–7.

33 Hanser, Matthew, ‘Still More on the Metaphysics of Harm’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 82 (2011), pp. 459–69, at 468CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Norcross, ‘Harming in Context’.

35 Thomson, ‘More on the Metaphysics of Harm’, p. 448.

36 Thomson, ‘More on the Metaphysics of Harm’, p. 447.

37 Experiment confirms this for a purely causal version of the same scenario, in which people are asked whether the fielder's catch prevented the ball reaching the moon (Northcott, manuscript).

38 Or at least experiment shows that this is the typical answer to the analogous question framed in causal rather than harm terms. More particularly, subjects typically disagree with the claim that your returning your unused coupon enabled the guest to get a free drink (Northcott, manuscript).

39 Hanser, ‘The Metaphysics of Harm’, p. 434.

40 Notice though that in all three cases judgements of harm do track judgements of causation, again endorsing a causalist approach.

41 Northcott (manuscript) discusses this in more detail, with a focus on causation itself rather than harm.

42 Norcross, ‘Harming in Context’; Feldman, Confrontations with the Reaper; McMahan, The Ethics of Killing.

43 Norcross (‘Harming in Context’) notes that more than salience may be relevant.

44 Hitchcock, Christopher and Knobe, Joshua, ‘Cause and Norm’, Journal of Philosophy 106 (2009), pp. 587612CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Schaffer, ‘Contrastive Causation’.

46 Hitchcock, Christopher, ‘Of Humean Bondage’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 54 (2003), pp. 125CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The example is originally due to Michael McDermott.

47 Northcott, ‘Causation and Contrast Classes’, pp. 112–13.

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