Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 893–908 | Cite as

When Good Things Happen to Harmed People

  • Molly GardnerEmail author


The problem of justified harm is the problem of explaining why it is permissible to inflict harm for the sake of future benefits in some cases but not in others. In this paper I first motivate the problem by comparing a case in which a lifeguard breaks a swimmer’s arm in order to save her life to a case in which Nazis imprison a man who later grows wiser as a result of the experience. I consider other philosophers’ attempts to explain why the lifeguard’s action was permissible but the Nazis’ action was not. After arguing that principles having to do with consent, expected utility, and the types of harms and benefits at issue do not fully solve the problem, I argue for a causal solution to the problem. The causal solution includes both a causal account of harming and a distinction between causes and mere conditions. It then distinguishes between the lifeguard and Nazi cases with following principle: A harmful action that causes greater benefits can sometimes be justified by those benefits, but a harmful action that does not cause greater benefits cannot be justified by any subsequent benefits that the action, itself, does not cause.


Problem of justified harm Causal account of harming Non-comparative harm Counterfactual comparative account of harming Harmful omissions 



For helpful comments, I thank Stephen M. Campbell, Neil Feit, Duncan Purves, two anonymous reviewers, and audiences at the Workshop on Harm: The Concept and Its Relevance at Uppsala University 2016 and the Syracuse Philosophy Annual Workshop and Network 2016.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, 312 Shatzel HallBowling Green State UniversityBowling GreenUSA

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