When Good Things Happen to Harmed People


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.

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  1. 1.

    See Elizabeth Barnes (2014) for an argument that having a disability can be good for someone.

  2. 2.

    This particular example comes from Elizabeth Harman (2004).

  3. 3.

    Cases like this are discussed in Parfit (1986), Woodward (1986, 1987), Shiffrin (1999), Harman (2004) and Bradley (2009).

  4. 4.

    This particular case is raised by Woodward (1986) and then discussed at length in Parfit (1986), Woodward (1987), Shiffrin (1999), Harman (2004), and Bradley (2009). It is also worth noting that a character in one of David Foster Wallace’s short stories ruminates about this kind of case. At one point, the character says,

    Was the Holocaust a good thing? No way. Does anybody think it was good it happened? No way. But did you ever read Victor Frankl? Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning? It’s a great, great book. Frankl was in a camp in the Holocaust and the book comes out of that experience, it’s about his experience in the human Dark Side and preserving his human identity in the face of the camp’s degradation and violence and suffering total ripping away his identity. It’s a totally great book and now think about it, if there wasn’t a Holocaust there wouldn’t be a Man’s Search for Meaning (Wallace 1999, p. 98).

  5. 5.

    Ben Bradley does not endorse this exact principle, but he suggests that consent can go a good way towards solving the problem (2009, p. 67).

  6. 6.

    Cf. Judith Thomson, who considers whether an appeal to hypothetical consent can solve the trolley problem. She rejects such a strategy, writing, “Why should we care about [hypothetical consent]? For my own part, I think we shouldn’t. What I think we should care about is not that such and such people would consent if they were asked, but rather whatever it is about them in virtue of which they would consent, if they would” (Thomson 1990, p. 187).

  7. 7.

    Ben Bradley does not endorse this exact principle, but he also takes expected utility to be relevant to whether harming someone is permissible (2009, p. 67).

  8. 8.

    In support of this point, she cites Woodward, who writes, “[T]he usual view is that whether or not the benefit is intended or ‘aimed at’ (Parfit’s phrase) makes very little difference to the justifiability of the action, although it may perhaps make a difference to the blameworthiness of the action if we decide that his action was unjustifiable” (Woodward 1986, footnote 8, cited in Harman 2004, endnote 32).

  9. 9.

    An anonymous reviewer questions whether the bruise really counts as a harm. However, I will stipulate that it’s a painful bruise. Given this stipulation, the bruise (or at least the pain that goes with it) should qualify as a harm on Shiffrin’s view; Shiffrin explicitly states that “pain counts as a harm” (p. 124). There may, of course, be a modified version of Shiffrin’s view on which pain does not count as a harm. But on that view, it’s not clear what Shiffrin’s sufficient condition for wrongdoing would contribute towards solving the problem of justified harm. Presumably, such a view would instead attempt to solve the problem by holding that what I’m calling “justified harms” are not really harms at all. This is a version of the “moralized harm approach,” which I discuss next. The upshot here is that if the painful bruise is a harm, then Shiffrin’s principle is false, and if the painful bruise is not a harm, then Shiffrin’s principle is irrelevant to solving the problem.

  10. 10.

    James Woodward (1986, 1987) explicitly endorses this view as a solution to the problem. There are also other philosophers who endorse moralized conceptions of harm, although they don’t explicitly consider the problem of justified action as I have framed it. Such philosophers include Joel Feinberg (1984) and Joseph Raz (1986).

  11. 11.

    An anonymous reviewer suggests that these additional principles can be derived from Kantian moral theory, from rule utilitarianism, or from any other plausible rights account, and that a solution that appeals to these theories might be preferable to the causal one I will eventually endorse. However, it’s not clear to me that any of these moral theories have direct implications for the particular cases at issue; we still need to supplement them with interpretive principles that tell us how these theories may be applied in particular sets of circumstances. If we want to use Kantian theory, for example, we will need to know when cutting open someone’s abdomen counts as treating her merely as a means, and when it does not. If we use rule utilitarianism, we will need to know what the specific rules are that govern harming someone for the sake of a future benefit. I suspect that the principles we appeal to when we interpret these theories will resemble the principles I have already discussed above. For example, many Kantians hold that you qualify as treating someone merely as a means in exactly those cases where she doesn’t or wouldn’t consent to your treatment.

  12. 12.

    For some of the recent work on the metaphysics of harming, see Norcross (2005), Hanser (2008), Harman (2009), Thomson (2011), Bradley (2012), Shiffrin (2012), Klocksiem (2012), Tadros (2014), Feit (2015, 2016), Hanna (2016), and Gardner (2015, 2017). With the notable exception of Shiffrin (1999), less work has been done on the metaphysics of benefiting; most philosophers seem to assume that an account of benefiting should simply be the mirror opposite of an account of harming. I find this assumption plausible, so I have formulated the two prominent accounts of harming I discuss as accounts of harming and benefiting.

  13. 13.

    This account of harming and benefiting is meant to be a generic statement of a view defended by Norcross (2005), Boonin (2014), Hanna (2016), and Feit (2015, 2016). Nevertheless, it is not an exact statement of any particular version of the view.

  14. 14.

    I thank Neil Feit for helping me to appreciate this point.

  15. 15.

    For example, Gardner (2015) combines a causal account of harming with a comparative account of harm.

  16. 16.

    For example, before Shiffrin (1999) and Harman (2004) advanced a causal account of harming as a solution to the non-identity problem, almost all of the literature on the problem took a counterfactual account of harming for granted. For an overview of that literature, see Roberts (2015).

  17. 17.

    See Harman (2004, 2009), Thomson (2011), and Gardner (2017).

  18. 18.

    Harman (2009) incorporates a substantive causal principle into her causal account of harming, but she does not defend her choice of principle.

  19. 19.

    See Thomson (2011).

  20. 20.

    This is Derek Parfit’s (1984) case, which he uses to illustrate the non-identity problem.

  21. 21.

    Even if this intuition can be vindicated, it is a further question whether the harm in a non-identity case can be justified. There is thus a very close connection between the problem of justified harm and the non-identity problem. It follows from my solution to the problem of justified harm that only those benefits that are caused by the procreative action that brought you into existence can justify any harms that this action caused you. Because not all conditions are causes, the procreative action does not necessarily cause each benefit you experience in your life. Thus, even if you have a life worth living, it is still an open question—to be settled by the particular details of your case—whether the harmful action that brings you into existence is morally justified.

  22. 22.

    See, for example, the harm-based solutions to the non-identity problem advanced by Shiffrin (1999), Harman (2009), and Gardner (2015).

  23. 23.

    Parfit (1984) and Woollard (2012) also comment on the significance of preemption cases for counterfactual accounts of harming.

  24. 24.

    These pit cases are modeled on Hart and Honore’s examples, which are based on actual tort cases; see Hart and Honoré 1985, p. 137.

  25. 25.

    Perhaps because of their attention to causal selection, Hart and Honoré’s book—while highly influential among philosophers of law—has had much less influence in the metaphysics literature. For example, L.A. Paul and Ned Hall’s (2013) book Causation: A User’s Guide does not cite them at all and even uses a brief discussion of causal selection to illustrate how not to theorize about causation (see p. 35–36). Nor are Hart and Honoré cited in Ned Hall’s (2006) Philosophy Compass overview of causation, nor are they cited in Jonathan Schaffer’s (2016) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the metaphysics of causation. Schaffer discusses causal selection, but he writes, “[S]election is now generally dismissed as groundless, and theorists seek to isolate some pre-selected, egalitarian conception of causation.” I disagree, of course, with the notion that selection is groundless.

  26. 26.

    For a helpful discussion of these other theories, see Hall (2006) and Paul and Hall (2013). By “Lewisian theories,” I mean theories inspired by David Lewis’s (1973) view.


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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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Correspondence to Molly Gardner.

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Gardner, M. When Good Things Happen to Harmed People. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 22, 893–908 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-017-9840-z

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