Moral Harm vs. Medical Harm

This post introduces a notion of moral harm. Subsequent posts develop this notion of moral harm. Some comments about my book Confronting Sexual Nihilism provide context for these discussions.

My book makes a case for the following so-called Paternal Principle.

A male may intentionally attain a sexual climax only in sexual intercourse with a consentingwoman to whom he is bound by a life-long, monogamous, socially recognized union for procreation, In addition he should:(1) intend to cooperate with his spouse to protect and promote the lifelong natural development of any conception resulting from this intercourse and (2) strive to appreciate with his spouse the natural value of their sexual satisfactions and cooperate with her to enhance those satisfactions..

In addition to condemning fornication and adultery, the Paternal Principle condemns three of what Aquinas called the unnatural vices: masturbation, homosexuality and beastiality.

A challenge to this principle is that many acts violating the principle seem to inflict no harm on anyone. If the acts are illegal, many people label the acts victimless crimes What definition of harm is presupposed by this type of challenge? I suggest that the following is the working definition of “harm” used in these evaluations of allegedly trivial and harmless sexual acts. There is some physiological or psychological condition such that remedial treatment for it would at least be a plausible candidate for reimbursement by medical insurance. Call this “medical harm.”

Many violations of the Paternal Principle do no medical harm. Indeed some might be medically beneficial! But there is no imperative from reason or morality that only physical or emotional disturbances are harmful.

Consider a derivative sense of “harm” so that a conclusion about what we think is harmful is derived from a judgment that a type of act is wrong. Doing the right act or being the right kind of person is good. Bringing about what is good is, by meaning of the terms, beneficial. Doing a wrong act or becoming the wrong kind of person is bad. What is good is better – more beneficial – than what is bad. So to bring about what is wrong incurs the cost, or harm, of getting less than what is better. This can be said without there being any calculation of benefits and costs.to reach the judgment of wrongness. This derivative sense of “harm” is appropriately called “moral harm” since it is derived from a moral judgment that something is wrong.

I suggest that our shame and guilt about past torture, slavery and racial discrimination indicates that there is a notion of moral harm. We who have done these things have inflicted some harm on ourselves.

The importance of this notion of moral harm, and a correlative notion of moral good,increases throughout my book and in these posts as it emerges as having more than verbal or “spiritual” status. As a case is made that morality, and especially how we ought to be, is in our nature, moral violations can be appreciated as damage to our nature. Conscious choices to conform to moral principles can be regarded as benefits to our moral character.

Some negative sentiments go with the thought of moral harm. There are no pure thoughts apart from any sentiment. So, there are negative sentiments associated with recognition of moral harm brought on oneself by immoral choices. What sentiments? I suggest that a sense of confusion and lack of direction because of being uncontrolled by law broadly characterizes this sentiment of moral wrong. In my own case, it is an awful sense of being ungoverned that comes from actual or imagined medically harmless violations of the Paternal Principle which is my feeling of their wrongness. Nonetheless, it is not the feeling of them being wrong that makes them wrong. Their wrongness is derived from the Paternal Principle


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