John Protzko

Odd problem with non self-comparative accounts of harm

Posted on | April 15, 2016 | No Comments

Non-comparative accounts of harm (a la Shiffrin) work like this:

You’re not comparing the person to a different version of themselves to determine whether they are harmed. So it’s not a counterfactual comparison or comparing them to where they were before you, say, punched them in the face. They are non [self] comparative.

Instead, whether someone is harmed is a function of where you have left them after the incident. If they in a poor state, you have harmed them. If, for example, you have removed a benefit from them, you have harmed them.

Consider the following situation: You see a homeless man on the street. You stop and give him $5.00. Have you benefited this man? Have you harmed him? In a non-comparative account, we would say you have benefited him because you have removed him from a harmful state (position 0 or p0) but you have also harmed him because you have left him in a harmful state [that $5.00 didn’t turn his life around; he is now in position 1 or p1]. On the whole, however, you have probably benefited him.

Non-comparative problems small benefit

This seems fine. A little odd to say you’ve still harmed the homeless man by not giving him enough to get into the positive side of life, but still acceptable.

Here are two problems with this that I’m not sure a purely non-self-comparative account can get around.

Lets say I walk up to a fabulously wealthy man driving a Bugatti Veyron [cost $1,000,000; best bang for you buck car according to Top Gear]. Now let’s say I give this man $5.00.

Non-comparative problems small benefit to wealthy

It seems like non-self comparative accounts would be forced to say, by the same argument as before, that I have both harmed and benefited this man. I have benefited him to a very small degree with the extra $5; but I have harmed him by removing him from p0. It seems ludicrous to say I have harmed this man by giving him $5; simply because I have moved him out of beneficial state p0.

It gets weirder.

Lets say I see another homeless man on the street with his cup of spare bills and change.

I walk up to him, and take all of his money.

By the non-self-comparative account and the same argument as before, I would have to say that I have harmed this man [by moving him into state p0] but I have also benefited him by moving him out of harm state p0!

Non-comparative problems small harm secretly a benefit

The easiest way out of all of this shenanigans is simply to invoke comparative accounts. I haven’t benefited the homeless man I stole from at all because he is worse off. I haven’t harmed the wealthy man by giving him money.

I’m not sure I can see a way a purely non-self-comparative account can get out of these, while still retaining the fact that I’ve benefited the first homeless man I gave money to.



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