Philosophy of Harm

I believe that harm induces a kind of debt that should be repaid (like all good debts). In other words, harm is akin to stealing from the individual harmed because it has limited in some sense the possibilities of that harmed individual. A broken arm limits the possibility of movement and activity. Verbal attacks can harm an individual's ability to think well. For the harmed, a response that is common in today's world is to counterattack. I counsel against this response except in extreme conditions. Why would an individual who is being harmed want to incur a debt to his tormenter? The illusion sometimes is that the counterattack frees the harmed to act well. I think this is often mistaken.

I suggest an alternative framework for perceiving the conflict and resolving it. It is a friendlier approach. The harmer may not be in a good, rational frame of mind. To remedy this problem, the person harmed should not counterattack and escalate the conflict but rather try to steer via reason and love the harmer towards a better frame of mind. With this accomplished, the person harmed might avoid further harm from the harmer, and be able to avoid the obligation associated with a counterattack.

What state of mind belongs to a person who is in debt to another for harm done? A number of considerations might be relevant. First, the debt may weigh on the conscience of the harmer. This usually is not pleasant. The debt might be a source of regret. Second, it might be necessary to calculate in some ethical way the debt that is owed and this can be a source of consternation. Third, the harmer may become known as uncaring because of the harm done. This is an unfortunate label in society and may affect the standing of the harmer in the eyes of other individuals (for good reason). Why anyone would want to put themselves in this unfortunate state of mind through harming others unnecessarily is difficult to understand.

Another way to approach the issue of harm and the debt of harm is to think of respect. Is it respectful to harm somebody for no good reason, either in an initial way or as a counterattack? The two types of harm - initial and counterattack - could reflect a thinking where the suffering of others is not as important as the suffering of one's self. Depending on the culture and if it is meritocratic, it is possible that the suffering of another is equally or even more important than the suffering of the self. This depends on the relative places in society of the two individuals. If the worth of two individuals can be measured in a meritocratic society and compared, the more important (or meritorious or worthy) individual should be valued to a greater extent than the less important person. This may seem different than respecting each person the same and it is. Is it fair to treat individuals the same even thought they are morally unequal? Should criminals be treated the same way as the most upright moral people? I think not. My thinking that all harm incurs a debt is still true I think, just that the amount of harm to another (and society) depends on the victim's moral place in society. We can see this with an example. Suppose a good president of the United States, with all his responsibilities and capabilities to act and change thing for the better, is harmed. Is it more likely that his/her country will suffer if he is harmed, or if a criminal with very little good in him/her is harmed? This is to say the relative capacity to benefit society is different between the two individuals and thus the harming of their capacities will probably result in different moral outcomes for society. It is pitiable in some sense if anybody is harmed, it is just that it is even worse, for example, if a really good person (like a president) with great power to help others is harmed and prevented from benefiting society. A criminal who has no intentions or history of helping others will less likely produce as good a benefit to society that a good president could, at least hypothetically. There is always a chance that a criminal could reverse his/her trend of evil behavior and help society to a good extent, it just seems less likely. It is admirable to respect everybody, but perhaps some individuals are more worthy of respect than others, and should be treated as well as possible.

Another issue is this: each person can attend to only a portion of the people in their lives in trying to help them and refrain from harming them. I organize my help of others based on the principle that the most good people, who help society to a larger extent, should be helped first and to a greater extent than people who do little to help society. This decision is based on my analysis (a hunch) that society is helped to a greater extent based on this formula of helping. The problem is that the evil doers of society receive less help in this arrangement usually. They might tend to stay evil as a result of the lack of help. Additionally, they could be said to receive less support from me and as a result, be more harmed by my inattention. Why should the people who need help the most suffer such a great deal in this system of mine? I think the answer is that everybody should be respected and harmed as infrequently as possible, just so long as society is not harmed as a result. What I mean can be clarified with an example. Let us say that an evil child is benefited with the knowledge of learning how to use a weapon through some means of education. This evil child could harm many other people as a result, especially since they are evil. Some would say as a result that the child should be kept ignorant, perhaps for life, of the use of that weapon. Some would even extend the thinking here to prevent anyone from knowing how to use weapons because of the possible evil use of this knowledge.

What is missing from the above example of the evil child and the weapon is the ability of individuals in society to teach what is good, even to evil people. Should we focus a great effort on this moral education so that if the evil child does learn how to use a weapon, he/she will refrain from using it unless it is justified? Yes. And I think there is still an ideal formula concerning whom to help first and most often. Should we thus improve the worst people first through help (education)? The answer lies in the simple calculation of what produces the most benefit for society. My hunch that helping the most good individuals first has a dimension to it that involves the idea of efficiency. Dealing with good, non-harmful individuals can be easier than those who are evil. This is part of why I choose to help the good beings first. It is easier for me!

Dealing with individuals who are so embittered by their lives that they act only to hurt the majority of people they meet are difficult to help sometimes. There is a certain amount of virtuous bravery in trying to help these people that should not be overlooked. Depending on the calculus of societal benefit, it may be worthwhile to help these difficult individuals just as much or more than the people who are already producing a great benefit to society. The greatest help would thus be administered to the extremes of society. One might think - what about helping everybody with as much effort as possible? Wouldn't that be ideal? I think this is the best approach, so long as harm is minimized, and the benefit to society is maximized. It is exciting to think if everybody acted to maximize the good of society what could be accomplished. Each interaction is an opportunity to offer friendly suggestions (help) and benefit others.