Harm: The Concept and Its Relevance

Project Abstract

The present project investigates the concept of harm and its ethical significance. The focus is on three areas that have recently received a great deal of attention in the debate. The first area concerns harm and welfare. Topics in this area include putative asymmetries between benefiting and harming; whether we can harm a person by creating her; and the relation between harming someone, being bad for someone, and making a difference to the value of someone’s life. The second area concerns harm and time. The main issues here include whether all harm is temporal (i.e., whether a harm must be incurred at a time) and whether we can harm someone by frustrating a desire she no longer has. The third area concerns collective harm -- understood both as harm produced by, and as harm inflicted upon, a group of people. One central question in this area is whether it can be literally true that a collective can inflict or be a victim of harm, in a sense that cannot be reduced to sets of statements about individual members. While these three areas are interesting in their own right, one further motivation for the project is that they raise several important methodological issues about, for instance, the desiderata for an account of harm. The idea is that many disagreements in the three specific areas reflect disagreements on such methodological issues; as a result, getting clearer on the latter issues will improve our understanding or the former, and vice versa.