Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 809–823 | Cite as

Harming by Failing to Benefit

  • Neil FeitEmail author


In this paper, I consider the problem of omission for the counterfactual comparative account of harm. A given event harms a person, on this account, when it makes her worse off than she would have been if it had not occurred. The problem arises because cases in which one person merely fails to benefit another intuitively seem harmless. The account, however, seems to imply that when one person fails to benefit another, the first thereby harms the second, since the second person would have been better off if the first had benefited her. I argue that the cases of failing to benefit at issue are in fact cases of harming. They are cases of preventive harm. I also argue that we can explain away the intuition that no harm occurs in these cases, and that the relevant implication of the counterfactual comparative account is consistent with a variety of plausible views about the moral significance of harm.


Harm Comparative harm Omission Extrinsic value Counterfactuals 



I would like to thank participants at the workshop Harm: the concept and its relevance, Uppsala University, and also the PANTC Conference on Bioethics and the Philosophy of Medicine, University at Buffalo, in the summer of 2016. I am grateful to the following people for their helpful comments and suggestions: David Boonin, Ben Bradley, Ben Bramble, Susanne Burri, Erik Carlson, Andrew Cullison, James Delaney, Molly Gardner, Matthew Hanser, David Hershenov, Magnus Jedenheim-Edling, Jens Johansson, Stephen Kershnar, Justin Klocksiem, Duncan Purves, Katharina Berndt Rasmussen, Phil Reed, Simon Rosenqvist, and Dale Tuggy.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyThe State University of New York at FredoniaFredoniaUSA

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