Moral Harm and Condom Distribution

Today’s post is based on my Dec. 27 post in which I introduce the notion of moral harm. A person harms himself morally simply by violating a moral rule. For instance, a person who steals harms not only the person from whom he stole. He also harms himself. He becomes a thief. A person who misleads others to break moral rules harms himself by becoming a corrupter and misleads those whom he corrupted into morally harming themselves. I concede that the notion of “moral harm” is not universally recognized.

However,intelligent people are able to understand what is being proposed. Whether or not there is moral harm has been an open question since at least Plato had Socrates propose in Gorgias that it is better to suffer a wrong than to do a wrong. Are there no occasions on which it is better to suffer a medical wrong than to do a moral wrong?

Let us examine how recognizing the difference between moral and medical harm helps sort out ambiguities when people use cost/benefit considerations to decide whether a practice is morally permissible because the benefits of following it outweigh the harm done by following it.

This example is dated. However, it is easy to find examples in current events where it is helpful to consider whether people are arguing about medical consequences, moral consequences or both. During the preparation of my book,Confronting Sexual Nihilism , Pope Benedict XVI visited Africa in March 2009. It was reported that he claimed condom distribution programs are not effective for controlling the spread of AIDS. I take seriously what the pope says on faith and morals. When he speaks ex cathedra on these matters I accept what the pope says. How should we interpret his reported claim about condoms and AIDS reduction? The notion of moral harm helps uncover ambiguities.

Benedict XVI was not speaking ex cathedra. He was speaking in an ordinary way about sexual policies. In our ordinary way of speaking of acts and practices we express disapproval by saying that it won’t work or it will have bad consequences. But it is very easy to be confused about what is meant by “bad consequences.” It could mean “bad” without any moral judgment used for deciding what is bad. Or “bad consequences” could be used so that moral standards are also relevant for deciding what is bad. For instance, in a discussion of whether or not a type of pornography is bad, some might hold that whether viewing it has bad consequences we should look at only medical conditions such as bodily tissue damage or clinical psychological trauma done to the viewer or people the viewer interacts with. Others might hold that inciting the viewer to masturbation, regardless of whether or not masturbation does any medical damage is a bad consequence because masturbation is a sexual immorality.

Despite the ambiguity in “bad consequences” public conversation tends towards accepting the medical standard for “bad.” It is as if “bad medical consequences” is the default meaning for “bad consequences.” Nonetheless, confusion on how to evaluate claims remains. Some of the claims seems as if they would be decisively refuted by the facts if the default meaning is used. This is the case for a claim that condom distribution does not effectively hinder the spread of AIDS. What about a claim that considers moral harm from condom distribution? Sexual promiscuity would be such a moral harm. Facts must be gathered to determine the truth of a claim that on the whole condom distribution does not reduce the bad consequences of AIDS cases and sexual promiscuity as much as some other program.

Prior to factual considerations, I think that it is likely that facts will support the claim that on the whole condom distribution does
not reduce the bad consequences of AIDS cases and sexual promiscuity as much as some other program. The pope is best interpreted as making the claim about AIDS and sexual promiscuity.


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