Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 10, pp 2629–2656 | Cite as

Harming as making worse off

  • Duncan PurvesEmail author


A powerful argument against the counterfactual comparative account of harm is that it cannot distinguish harming from failing to benefit. In reply to this problem, I suggest a new account of harm. The account is a counterfactual comparative one, but it counts as harms only those events that make a person (rather than merely allow him to) occupy his level of well-being at the world at which the event occurs. This account distinguishes harming from failing to benefit in a way that accommodates our intuitions about the standard problem cases. In laying the groundwork for this account, I also demonstrate that rival accounts of harm are able to distinguish harming from failing to benefit only if, and because, they also appeal to the distinction between making upshots happen and allowing upshots to happen. One important implication of my discussion is that preserving the moral asymmetry between harming and failing to benefit requires a commitment to the existence of a metaphysical and moral distinction between making and allowing.


Harm Benefit Doing/allowing distinction Counterfactual comparative account of harm Acts Omissions 



I owe a significant debt to Neil Feit, Molly Gardner, Jens Johansson, Stephen Kershnar, Justin Klocksiem, and Michael Tooley for helpful written comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks to Matthew Hanser for a particularly illuminating conversation about these issues. I am also grateful to participants at the 2016 Bled Ethics Conference for their valuable feedback. Finally, this paper was significantly improved by a challenging set of comments from an anonymous referee for Philosophical Studies.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA

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