Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why an unperceived harm is not a harm at all.

This is an excerpt from a larger essay I submitted on Organ Donation. Ultimately I argued that organ donation should be mandatory in almost all cases. First, however, I had to deal with some metaphysical arguments that stated that it is possible for one to be harmed after-death. The main defender of this point of view is Pitcher in his essay 'The misfortunes of the dead' (available here).
As always comments and criticism are welcomed.

Why an unperceived harm is not a harm at all:

There is a vast amount of philosophical literature that aims to convince the reader than we can be harmed by something without having knowledge of that something (Pitcher; Feinberg; Hamer and Rivlin). Often such writers will appeal to thought experiments to intuitively demonstrate this point. I believe that these thought experiments function as mere intuition pumps that exploit weaknesses in our use of language. They also encourage readers to adopt a ‘Gods-eye’ perspective that is neither accurate to how our lives are experienced nor useful in increasing the understanding of our lives. Ultimately I propose that the intuitions mobilized through the thought experiments of George Pitcher in his work ‘The misfortunes of the Dead’[1] are irrational and untrustworthy.

Pitcher begins his oft-quoted work with a thought experiment that describes the death of Mrs White. Mrs White, whilst alive, proudly operated a business that she hoped would flourish for a long time. After her death, however, her business collapsed and her employees were all laid off.  Pitcher claims that while it would be bizarre to think that the collapse of the business is a harm to the deceased Mrs White there is an entirely plausible sense in which the ante-mortem Mrs White is harmed retrospectively by the closure of her business after her death (Pitcher)

It will help here to establish what it is that we mean when we talk about ‘harm’. Perhaps the most obvious examples of harm involve a change in ones metaphysical state for the worse; for example, I might lose my jacket in a snowstorm and go from being comfortably warm to uncomfortably cold. This definition, however, is too restrictive posits Pitcher. His definition of harm is as follows:

An event or state of affairs is a misfortune for someone (or harms someone) when it is contrary to one or more of his more important desires.

In common dialogue this definition of being ‘harmed’ might be somewhat closer to what we think of as being ‘wronged’ – In fact Pitcher uses the term ‘wronged’ in place of ‘harm’ in the beginning of his essay to help the reader become accustomed to his definition of harm. An example used by Pitcher of somebody being ‘wronged’, and thus also harmed (Pitcher goes on to argue that they are the same thing), is as follows:

Bill Brown promises his dying father that he will bury him in the family plot when he dies. Bill instead sells his father’s corpse to a medical school for dissection by students. 

Pitcher claims that:
Our intuition tells us that Mr Brown has been badly betrayed by his son.

It is this intuition that drives Pitcher to the conclusion that such betrayals are ‘harmful’. In choosing to defy his father’s desires Bill Brown has wronged his father and also (if one accepts Pitcher’s definition of harm) harmed Bill Brown, says Pitcher. It is important to note that Pitcher clearly states that it is ante-mortem Bill Brown that is harmed and not the now deceased Bill Brown. To use Pitchers memorable phrase his son’s betrayal casts a ‘Shadow of Misfortune’ back over the life of Bill Brown. A consequence of accepting this view is that harms are essentially ‘timeless’ (Ott). As Feinberg states in his work ‘Harm to Others’:

It does not suddenly ‘become true’ that the ante-mortem [person] was harmed.[2] Rather it becomes apparent to us for the first time that it was true all along – that from the first time [person] invested enough in his cause to make it one of his interests, he was playing a losing game.(Feinberg)

To bring it back to the example of Bill Brown and his son, Bill Brown was harmed by his son’s betrayal as soon as he invested an interest in being buried (and not sold for research). Whilst Bill Brown may not have existed at the time of the betrayal his interests (in not being sold for research) still exist in the sense that they can be blocked or fulfilled (Feinberg). One benefit of this conception is that it both explains our intuitions that the young Mr Brown’s betrayal is harmful whilst avoiding the bizarre conclusion that the now deceased Bill Brown is being harmed. It also escapes any notion of backwards causation because it is not that the betrayal causes the harm, it’s that the betrayal makes true that Bill Brown was harmed all along (whilst he was alive).

I will now argue, in opposition to the Pitcher-Feinberg theory , that our intuitions are inaccurate and need to be modified rather than accepting that argument that ante-mortem people can be harmed by events occurring post-mortem. I will use two of Pitcher’s thought experiments to demonstrate my point. The first one is the story of Bill Brown and his son and is outlined above.

Pitcher would like to argue that the young Mr Brown harms his father by betraying his interests. I disagree that the young Mr Brown ‘betrays’ his father and believe that the use of such a word is misleading. I do not deny there is a certain uneasiness and empathy that we intuitively feel towards Bill Brown’s situation. This uneasiness, however, is a different sort of uneasiness to what one usually experiences when told about an instance of betrayal. Unfortunately, there is no word (that I am aware of) that precisely expresses the feeling that one has when made aware of ‘after-death betrayal’. To call it ‘betrayal’ (even if it is, perhaps, the closest existing word that we have to describe such a feeling) is misleading and implies several false conclusions, including the assumption that regular betrayal (when both parties involved are alive) and after death betrayal are similar and comparable.
In a regular instance of betrayal there are usually two flavours of experience that combine into a singular feeling[3]. These are:

a)      A sense of empathy for the negative experiences that the betrayed might now experience and;
b)      A sense of disgust (or other negative emotion) towards the moral character of the betrayer.

Usually (b) will follow from (a): It is because the betrayed will now have a worse existence than if the betrayal did not occur that the betrayal is a harm. In the case of Bill Brown, however, it is different. It is nonsensical to worry about clause (a) in Bill Browns situation because it is impossible for the deceased Bill Brown to have negative experiences[4]. Nevertheless we still might intuitively feel disgust towards the alleged ‘betrayer’ (the young Mr Brown) due to the likeness of such a scenario to other instances of betrayal. This disgust is, I believe, misplaced. The reason that we feel that the betrayers act is so depraved is because betrayal is usually associated with negative consequences for the betrayed. In Bill Brown’s case, however, there are no negative consequences of his son’s act and it is therefore not a ‘betrayal’ at all. 

I predict that those unconvinced by my definition might cite cases similar to Thomas Nagel’s scenario (Rachels) in which somebody is betrayed by his friends by being ridiculed behind his back but is always treated politely to his face. It is still betrayal, might say the critics of my view, despite the fact that the ridiculed agent might be oblivious to the truth of his ‘friendship’ with these people. To this response I would again rebut that the reasoning behind such a reply is based upon faulty intuitions. Scenarios similar to Nagel’s example above are very common, but they are all beset with the same weakness; that is, they all suffer from the uselessness of the ‘Gods-Eye Perspective’.

The ‘Gods Eye Perspective’ is the default position that we adopt in thought experiments. The realm inside of a thought experiment is drastically different to the world that we live in. When presented with a thought experiment we have full knowledge of all of the factors and can conceive of better and worse situations than the one presented. Rarely, if ever, are we so enlightened in life. When we consider the case of someone – let’s call him Jim – being ridiculed behind his back we can equally easily imagine a scenario in which he is not ridiculed. Thus, intuitively, we think that something bad is occurring in Jim being ridiculed. The reason for such thoughts is because we can imagine a world that is better (a world in which everything is the same but Jim is NOT ridiculed by his friends behind his back) and by comparison the world in which Jim IS ridiculed behind his back seems bad. It is this phenomenon, I believe, that falsely causes us to feel as if Jim is being harmed by the ridicule. 

If we eliminate the God’s Eye Perspective and try and imagine ourselves as actually being Jim we will find it much more difficult to locate any source of harm (provided Jim does not discover that he has been ridiculed). This is because when we step into Jims shoes and ask “Is this scenario bad” we are lacking the God’s Eye Perspective to imagine a better possible existence. Given that Jim’s subjective experiences of reality are pleasant we must concede that his life simply is pleasant. When we look from a God’s Eye Perspective we tend to judge the value of a scenario based on its comparative desirability in reference to other possible worlds. In the absence of such a perspective (i.e. in the ‘real world’) we can only judge how good our situation is based upon our subjective experiences of the world. I propose that we accept the Descartian/Humean ideal that regardless of the extent of our ignorance regarding the external world our perceptions of our internal states will always be true. 

Having demonstrated how the intuitions mobilized by Pitcher’s and Nagel’s thought experiments are untrustworthy I can move towards what I believe is to be a more reasonable conclusion. The conclusion that I would like to propose is that a harm cannot exist unless it can be perceived of. I believe that this conclusion is easy to reach once one understands how our intuitions regarding the harm of unperceived negative actions rest on unstable foundations. 

In a sense I am willing to ‘bite the bullet’ of the reductio ad absurdum argument and accept as a consequence of my argument that we are not harmed by the infidelity of our partners (for example) but by the discovery of such infidelity. I must admit, however strange it seems, that I would not be harmed by a partner that was unfaithful to me if I did not sense any difference whatsoever in their actions. Without the ‘Gods-Eye-Perspective’ of the thought experiment I would have no reason to imagine things being better. If I were to die having never found out about such infidelities I think it would be inaccurate to say that I was ‘harmed’ by my partners’ action. Infidelity is harmful because of the effects that it often has on peoples sense of self worth and the degradation of trust it causes when discovered. If you take away these negative effects (as happens in the case of the ignorant partner) it is much harder to say that the person cheated upon has been harmed. Nonetheless, such a choice to be unfaithful (when there is an expectation of fidelity) reflects very negatively on one’s moral character because to act in such a way is to acknowledge the risks of causing someone considerable suffering yet to continue regardless. Thus being unfaithful in a supposedly monogamous relationship might be considered ‘unvirtuous’ rather than ‘harmful’. 

When applied to the case of after death organ donations it becomes clear that an unconsenting organ donor cannot be harmed by a violation of her ante-mortem interests unless she knows (whilst alive) that her interests were going to be violated after death and suffers stress and anxiety throughout her life as a consequence. Thus, organ donation is not a harm unless it is perceived as harmful by a living agent.


Feinberg, Joel. The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law Volume 1: Harm to Others. Oxford University Press, 1987. Print.

Hamer, C. L., and M. M. Rivlin. "A Stronger Policy of Organ Retrieval from Cadaveric Donors: Some Ethical Considerations." Journal of Medical Ethics 29.3 (2003): 196-200. Print.

Ott, Walter. "Are There Duties to the Dead?" Philosophy Now March/April 2012: 14 - 16. Print.

Pitcher, George. "The Misfortunes of the Dead." American Philosophical Quarterly 21.2 (1984): 183-88. Print.

[1] And are representative of the sort also found in the works of Feinberg, Hamer, and Rivlin.
[2] When their interests are thwarted.
[3] There are probably more than two feelings involved in the emotional response to ‘betrayal’ however I believe these to be the most vivid.
[4] As Epicurus poignantly writes:
“So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more”  (Epicurus)


  1. Your conclusion was highly obvious.

    - Nemesis

  2. I'm glad that my arguments were convincing enough that you found the the conclusion to be obvious.

    The perspective I have taken is certainly not obvious (or even credible) to philosophers like Feinberg, Hamer, and Rivlin (and many others).

  3. But, you would think that being injured during your sleep might be perceived as a harm later?

    What about being tied up in your sleep. Is that a harm?

    - Nemesis