Moral Harm as The Wrath of God

In my previous posts on moral harm, morality has been discussed from a secular perspective. There was no mention of God or divine beings who cared about human morality; let alone created it. I did not take this secular perspective because I do not believe that God cares that humans follow the morality He gives us. I take the secular approach because I want to find the simplest or most basic concepts in our moral thinking. Thinking of a violation of a moral law as simply a violation of a law is simpler than thinking of the violation of a law commanded by God. Finding the simplest concepts in our moral thought enables us to recognize its structure. Recognizing the structure of our moral thinking increases our understanding of what we are thinking when we think morally.

In this post, I want to introduce the concept of moral laws as commands of God. Looking at moral laws as divine commands enables us to think of violations of moral laws as sins. Previously, I proposed from the secular perspective,Revision of Normative Theory of Moral Harm, that moral harm is the addition to morality of a negative prescription that harm ought to be done because of the violation. This negative prescription was characterized as dirt or junk in moral thought because it was something out of place in moral thought. This way of characterizing moral harm makes moral harm something formal or even verbal. However, with moral thought personalized as the thought of God on how humans ought to behave, the prescription that harm ought to occur because of the violation is not simply words. The prescription that harm ought to occur is God’s thought. A thought of God that harm ought to occur because of a violation of one of His laws can be fairly characterized as the wrath of God.

So from a religious perspective common in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the moral harm produced by simply violating a moral law, is the thought of God that now some harm ought to occur to humans – usually the perpetrator.

Unless God relents what He thinks ought to occur will occur. So, when we add a religious perspective, moral harm seems much, much more harmful than when described merely in secular terms.

The major “take-away” from this post is that the prescription in morality that harm ought to happen upon violation of a moral law cannot be regarded as simply the statement of a prescription for harm. It needs to be understood as the expression of a being offended by the violation of a moral law, with the authority to command the harm threatened by the moral law and some capability to bring about this prescribed harm

Moral Harm vs. Moral Injury

I need to distinguish the concept of moral harm from the concept of moral injury. Moral harm is a concept I have introduced to connect a collection of concepts used in discussing morality. These are concepts such as retribution, atonement, collective guilt and penance. The concept of moral harm is offered as a concept to be used in characterizing what morality is – a concept for use in moral theory.

Moral injury is a concept introduced into clinical psychology to discuss the damage done to a person’s moral thought and sentiments after experiencing the stress of situations strongly violating the person’s moral beliefs and sentiments.

“Moral injury refers to an injury to an individual’s moral conscience resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression which produces profound emotional guilt and shame, and in some cases also a sense of betrayal, anger and profound ‘moral disorientation’. The concept of moral injury emphasizes the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of trauma. Distinct from pathology, moral injury is a normal human response to an abnormal traumatic event. ”
Continue reading Moral Injury. for more details.

Usually, morally wrong acts cause harm in the natural world: physical or psychological harm. Moral injury is one of many kinds of natural harm which are caused by immoral acts. Moral injury is damage done to individuals by immoral acts. In contrast, moral harm is damage done to human morality simply by the violation of a moral law.

Two examples may illustrate the difference between moral harm and moral injury.

A young soldier has grown to admire the character of his platoon leader during training. This sergeant has become his model of how a man ought to be. He is a good father and husband as well as being a disciplined soldier. However, under combat conditions this sergeant “goes rogue.” He puts bullets into the heads of two prisoners after interrogation and on one occasion shot a woman going to a well because he said she was going to place a bomb in it.The sergeant lets it be known that anyone who reports him might not live long. Besides the physical damage this sergeant inflicts on his victims he also inflicts psychological harm on the young soldier who admired him. The young soldier becomes disorientated in his moral thinking. How could a good man be a killer?

Now the moral harm brought about by the sergeant’s egregious violations of the moral law “Thou shalt not kill” is addition to morality of a negative prescription that ought not be in morality. The prescription is that harm ought to occur to the killer. Morality is burdened with this negative prescription until it is cleaned up by the suffering of harm by the murderous sergeant.

For another example, consider the case of a fourteen year old Catholic boy who is struggling hard not to become a porn seeking masturbator. He recognizes the moral prohibition against intentionally seeking an orgasm outside coitus with a woman to whom he is committed for life. This boy seeks the advice of a priest. After several sessions with this priest, in some of which the priest has viewed pornography with him under the pretext of resisting temptation, there was a session in which they performing mutual fellatio. The boy left in shame and horror. He was painfully confused by sexual impulses and thoughts. Losing direction about what is right and wrong sexually is painful because you are totally under pressure from others on what you can and cannot do; and that direction from the outside, as opposed to inner direction, is totally ambiguous. Destruction of a sense of sexual inner direction along with losing hope in help from religion is a moral injury the priest inflicted upon the boy.

When we talk of sexual abuse, I propose that we restrict it to cases in which there was moral injury inflicted on one of the parties. I doubt that my proposal will be followed.

In this case of the priest and the boy, the moral harm is the damage done to morality by the priest violating the moral law against seeking orgasms outside marriage is a negative addition to morality of the prescription that harm ought to befall him. Our morality will be cluttered up with this negative prescription until some appropriate harm befalls this priest – until justice is done.

If the priest dies before any harm happens to him because of his seduction of the boy, many will lament that justice will never get done in this case. That failure to have justice done will remain forever in our morality as a failure to have a prescription fulfilled.

My notion of moral harm may not be a thought that people want to use explicitly. Indeed I do not know whether anyone has used it before. However, using it does help us understand some moral concepts we do use such as just illustrated: justice being done.

Compassion Undercuts Morality

This brief post draws a corollary from the theme of my previous post You Can’t Have Morality and Deny That There Is Moral Harm. in that post I pointed out that it is irrational to claim “X ought not be done but no one ought to suffer harm if X is done.”

Here I call “Full compassion” a belief and attitude that no one ought ever suffer harm. Of course, full compassion is not ordinary compassion for some individual we see suffering. So-called full compassion requires reflection. However, I submit that it is a widely held attitude. It does not require some bizarre philosophy to develop a belief that we ought to prevent all harm and if that is not possible we ought to alleviate harm as much as we can. But thinking that we ought to struggle to prevent or alleviate all harm is incompatible with seriously thinking that some acts are morally wrong.

Acceptance of morality requires accepting some “hardness of heart.” To be moral we have to be prepared to let some harm happen or even on occasion to inflict harm!

You Can’t Have Morality and Deny that There is Moral Harm

The goal of my exploration of a concept of moral harm is not development of a theory of punishment ; let alone a theory of retributive punishment.

I offered a post The Virtue of Taking Retribution in which my main goal was to show that the notion of moral harm could be used to articulate a concept of punishment as an effort to repair moral harm. Punishment understood as infliction of harm to repair moral harm is retribution.

I admitted that the punishment could have goals such as deterrence, re-education and prevention which all in some way harm the perpetrator. However, the initiation of harm on a perpetrator needed to be for retribution and the amount of harm from deterrence etc., had to be guided in some way by the thought of proper retribution. This discussion was too sketchy to be offered as a theory. It only showed a link between the concept of moral harm and concepts used in developing theories of punishment.

If I am developing any theory, it is a theory that the notion I am articulating as moral harm represents a fundamental notion in human moral thinking. My remarks on punishment were offered primarily to support my theory about the fundamental role of the concept of moral harm in our web of moral concepts. Helping make sense of the notion of retributive punishment provides evidence for the notion of moral harm as fundamental.

Here I want to show that it is inconsistent to make a moral judgment and deny that there is moral harm. I hope that simply reading the claims alleged to be inconsistent will
convince readers of the claims being an assertion along with a rejection of what is asserted.

I consider what I think are the two levels of moral imperatives: Second person and first person.

Second person moral judgments are standard. The judgments are made that a plurality, usually everyone, ought not do such-and-such.
It is inconsistent to assert: X ought not be done but nothing harmful ought to happen if X is done.

For those who might develop a moral theory that each individual had to decide for a particular situation what he ought to do, it is still inconsistent to assert: I ought not do X but nothing harmful ought to happen if I do X.

Revision of the Normative Theory of Moral Harm

The normative theory of moral harm needs revision. The main result of this post will be some working definitions, based on he revised theory, to be elaborated in subsequent posts.*

If interested see July 5, 2019 version Moral Harm is Moral Judgment.

My normative theory proposed that the moral harm of violating a moral law is the harm which ought to occur because of the violation. As I try to articulate a notion of moral harm, my greatest dissatisfaction with my own normative theory is that according to the theory moral harm is essentially potential and only accidentally actual. This is because whether the harm which ought to occur ever actually occurs is contingent upon natural causation from facts that people think about the violation, e.g. punishment, or natural consequences, e.g. AIDS following upon homosexual activity.

Consider a case of a detective who presents false evidence to convict a man of a murder to ease his work-load. Assume the crime is a killing during a fight in a homeless camp. Suppose also that the man on trial was too intoxicated to know whether or not he had committed the crime. Now on my normative theory the moral harm of a perjury is the harm a perjurer ought to suffer. But if the perjurer gets away with his lie and feels no remorse for his crime no pain which ought to occur because of the violation occurs. The poor wretch languishing in prison is suffering because of the violation of the eighth commandment; not the harm that ought to occur if the eighth commandment is violated.

So I have to go back to the post in which I developed my normative theory of moral harm. In that post I confronted my self with a dilemma. The dilemma emerged when I maintained that over-and-above the harm of any act violating a moral law the mere violation of the moral law was harmful. But what is that harm of merely violating the law? The dilemma is quoted below.

1] am faced with a dilemma between inventing some type of special harm which is necessarily connected with mere violation of a moral law or claiming that some natural harm always results from the mere fact that a moral law is violated.
2]If I invent some special non-natural type of harm such as creating disharmony in the moral order or even offending God, I make claims which I cannot justify since I want to justify my claims about morality on natural grounds.
3]If I claim that some natural harm, such as law abiding diminishes, situations can be invented as Pinker did with Julie and Mark, that shows the harm does not always occur.

I developed my normative theory of moral harm by rejecting [1] . I argued that the harm which ought to follow upon violation of a moral law was natural harm to human beings. However, the natural harm which ought to follow violation of a law frequently never actually occurs.

To revise my theory I reject [2].

I specify a subject – an entity- which necessarily suffers a wound when a moral law is violated. I bring out that what happens to this entity is rightly called harm even if no harm to the mind and body of any human being. While doing these two things I hope to indicate that this subject and its harm are not defenseless phantasies of a philosopher.
Human morality is harmed by any intentional violation of a moral law. There is a human morality even if there are conflicts within it. You can believe in the reality of human morality even if you think that it has been only a product of human thinking.

Human morality is harmed in two ways by violation of a moral law. First it puts junk moral laws into human morality. (Junk is stuff which does not belong.) This junk morality is made up of the new moral prescriptions specifying that harm for humans ought to occur. This is junk in moral thought because moral thought is for promotion of good.; not harm. So, my previous theory that moral harm is the harm which ought to follow upon violation of a moral law is modified to maintain:

Moral harm is the occurrence in human moral thought of a prescription that harm ought to occur because of a violation along with a stress in morality’s authority until the harm which ought to occur upon violation of a moral law actually occurs.

In the case of the lying detective human morality has been burdened with a prescription that some harm ought to befall him and the tension that disobedience to the moral law has not been rectified. Some harm happening to this detective would fulfill, and thereby eliminate, the prescription that he ought to suffer harm and return morality, at least with respect to this case, free from tension of losing its authority.

Upon this definition of moral harm, some definitions are proposed for discussion in subsequent posts

Natural moral harm is the harm which ought to be a consequence of violation of a moral law. Upon violation of a moral law a prescription for natural moral harm necessarily occurs in human morality but it is contingent upon circumstances in the natural world whether or not natural moral harm occurs.

Moral purification for a violation is the removal of moral harm of the violation from morality by the occurrence of the natural moral harm specified by the moral law. Purification removes the junk prescription requiring harm and eliminates the stress in morality of having its threat unexecuted

Moral punishment of a violator of a moral law is the intentional infliction on a violator of what is believed to be the natural moral harm for the violation.

Retribution for a violation is moral purification for a violation by punishment.

Retributive justice is the theory and practice of determining and applying proper punishments.

Penance for a violation is moral purification by a perpetrator by self inflicted harm.

I do not want any blog post to become a treatise although my series of posts on moral harm are steps towards treatise. So, let these definitions suffice for now.

* In conclusion, please note that the revision of the normative theory of moral harm does not affect the value of the moral harm syllogism for attacking an alleged moral principle. See Use of Moral Harm Syllogism in Making Gay OK.

Using the Moral Harm Syllogism to Make Gay OK

This post’s title acknowledges Robert Reilly’s important book*
In this post, I use the moral harm syllogism to sketch out what could have been implicitly the strategy for mis-leading people to abandon a belief that homosexual acts are immoral.
The moral harm syllogism is the following valid pattern of reasoning. See also The Moral Harm Syllogism.

Major premise: If X is morally forbidden, then harm ought to follow upon performance of X
Minor premise: But seriously no harm ought to result upon the performance of X.
So, when thinking seriously, we should not hold that X is morally forbidden.

The strategy for undercutting a belief in the immorality of a practice is to persuade a critical mass of people to assert the minor premises.
Or to put it another way:

When progressives make an effective case that a practice ought no longer be considered immoral they show that harm ought not follow upon exercise of the practice instead of making a factual case that harm does not follow upon exercise of the practice.

The tactics for implementing this strategy can be broken down into four movements. Concomitant with all these tactical maneuvers is a program of sympathetically portraying practitioners of the allegedly immoral practice so that we tend to wish them no harm.

A very powerful tactic is de-criminalization. De-criminalization says we ought not bring about harm through legal punishment. Of course, there is the platitude “just because it is legal does not make it right.” But the platitude ignores the fact of how powerful a policy of saying that we ought not inflict harm through our legal system is in fostering a belief that we ought not inflict harm at all.

Personally, though, even if I strongly supported de-criminalization of homosexual activity, I still thought homosexual behavior was immoral.

Legality does not wipe out all forms of punishment because there are still many social mechanisms for making people suffer for their behavior. Anti-discrimination laws forbid informal social punishments.

Personally, I oppose anti-discrimination laws with respect to sexual orientation. But for the most part I do not want there to be discrimination unless the discrimination is used to discourage promotion of homosexuality. Keep it in the closet and follow the “Don’t ask, don’t tell “ policy. So, since I think that homosexuals ought to suffer the personal discomfort of marginalization, I do not agree with a minor premise for the moral harm syllogism “Seriously, no harm ought to follow upon practice of homosexual acts.”

However, with sympathetic portrayal of homosexuals in the media, promotion of anti-discrimination legislations and gay-pride events, marginalization is vanishing. A single person, or just a few, cannot marginalize a group. Not even the Catholic Church is large enough to marginalize homosexuals in our society. Perhaps, then the question of whether social harm ought to occur vanishes because there is no social harm.

Let me add, though, that I feel sorry for people living in a house flying a rainbow flag. I think that the sense of self one must have to accept oneself as homosexual could be a pain which is some, or all , of the harm which ought to befall someone for homosexual practice. As I argued in my book**, if I accepted homosexuality in myself, I would suffer the despair of nihilism.

Another way of thinking that harm ought to follow upon practices considered immoral is to believe that in due course nature will bring about harm such as disease. Some might have thought that the AIDS epidemic was what ought to have come about and that we should have let it run its course. But there is a tactic which could be called the “therapeutic stance.” On this stance, we ought to minimize or eliminate all harm arising from natural causes. Since the therapeutic stance is widely adopted, the AIDS epidemic became a significant catalyst for leading us to think that harm ought not be resulting from homosexual activity.

Personally, I was ambivalent about trying to wipe out the AIDS epidemic. Nonetheless I made financial contributions to research to find causes and cures.

A fourth tactic is to lead people to think that it is positively harmful to try to correct homosexual behavior. We ought not even think that homosexuals ought to suffer the pain of trying to change their sexual orientation. Making reparative treatment illegal is a bit stronger than anti-discrimination legislation.

*Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything Robert Reilly, Ignatius Press, 2014

**My book Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism was released by Tate Publishing on March 11, 2014. See Book Web Page for information about the book. See pp. 72ff. for discussion of moral harm. Free copies can be obtained here by credit card by paying $3.75 for shipping and handling.





To receive a free book, send check of $3.75 for shipping and handling per copy. Send to:
Charles F. Kielkopf
45 W. Kenworth Rd.

The Moral Harm Syllogism

This post continues my series of Blog Posts on a notion of moral harm. I think we do have a notion of moral harm. I think my articulation of this notion is what people really mean by “moral harm.” I plan several posts to articulate this notion of moral harm. It’s a difficult task. Our moral thought is a complicated web of concepts. It will illuminate concepts such as atonement, permissiveness and vice as an illness.

The main purpose of this post is to introduce a “conceptual tool” for exploring some of these conceptual connections. I call this tool “ the moral harm syllogism.”

What is my theory? My theory is that moral harm is the moral judgment, concomitant with a moral law, that harm OUGHT to result from violation of the moral law. We can call it “ the normative theory of moral harm.” For more detail see Moral Harm is Moral Judgment

I do not claim any originality for this normative notion of moral harm. If others have articulated it earlier and better, give them credit for it. *

The moral harm syllogism is the deductively valid pattern of reasoning below. The first premise is the normative theory of moral harm. The second premise is a form expressing various cultural beliefs.

If X is morally forbidden, then harm ought to follow upon performance of X
But seriously no harm ought to result upon the performance of X.
So, when thinking seriously, we should not hold that X is morally forbidden.

Consider, some examples. In all of these examples harm may actually follow upon performance of the act. But the issue is whether or not we endorse the threat or promise of actual harm.

If masturbation is morally wrong, then harm ought to follow upon an act of masturbation.
But seriously no harm ought to result from masturbation.
So, when thinking seriously we should not hold that masturbation is morally wrong.

Readers can readily fill in this line of argument for homosexual activity, abortion, gambling, marijuana use and sale of alcoholic beverages. There may be interesting disagreement about prostitution, pornography viewing, cocaine use and tobacco use.

Readers are invited to think of other examples. For instance, draw upon how you think about protection of the environment. Indeed this little syllogism form can be used to draw out what you really think is immoral.

The value of the moral harm syllogism for exploring conceptual links in moral thought is that it exposes inconsistencies in our moral thinking. We may think that we believe that doing X is immoral but reflection brings out that we do not seriously think that harm ought to follow upon doing X. The interesting feature of analyzing our beliefs with the moral harm syllogism is exposing the subtle ways we conceal from ourselves that we seriously do not think harm ought to follow upon performance of certain acts. Such explorations are for subsequent posts.

My book Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism was released by Tate Publishing on March 11, 2014. See Book Web Page for information about the book. See pp. 72ff. for discussion of moral harm. I did not have the normative theory of moral harm when I wrote my book. Free copies can be obtained here by credit card by paying $3.75 for shipping and handling.





To receive a free book, send check of $3.75 for shipping and handling per copy. Send to:
Charles F. Kielkopf
45 W. Kenworth Rd.

The Virtue of Taking Retribution

In this post I use my theory of moral harm to understand and appreciate the thinking behind retributive punishment. This is not to say that I show that the thinking behind retributive punishment is precise. It’s radically imprecise!

What is my theory of moral harm? My theory is that moral harm is the moral judgment, concomitant with a moral law, that harm OUGHT to result from violation of the moral law. See Moral Harm Is a Moral Judgment.

However, nothing in the moral law tells us what the harm ought to be. Moral laws are categorical imperatives: Don’t do it! Their “tone” conveys the message “Don’t do it or else!” The what else is unspecified harm – infinite harm in the sense of unlimited. For the functioning of moral thinking the threat, perhaps promise, of unspecified harm gives authority to moral laws. There is no negotiating with moral laws.

If we regard moral thinking merely as the evolution of one way, amongst other ways, of thinking and feeling to inhibit specific behaviors, it is not surprising that the sanction for violation of moral laws is infinite – unlimited. The trouble arises when we take it upon ourselves to apply the sanctions.

Unfortunately, this imprecision of the harm that ought to result leads us to great vices in moral practice. Some have taught doctrines about infinite torment by some non-human agency for small infractions, history and current events tell us of cruel and unusual punishments and terribly destructive vengeance has been allegedly justified as retribution.

Shortly we will appreciate use of the term “vices,” in an Aristotelian sense, to label the horrible excesses and sometimes shameful laxity in proposing and applying punishment.

The thinking behind retribution is radically imprecise and always requires moral reflection to justify a punishment. The radical imprecision rests on the fact, just noted, that the moral judgment that harm ought to result from violation of the law does not specify how much harm ought to come about. The imprecision is radical because it is at the roots of every moral judgment. From the tautology “The harm that ought to be a consequence of the violation is harm that ought to be” we formulate the dictum “The punishment ought to fit the crime.” Not surprisingly for a dictum formulating a tautology,the dictum “the punishment ought to fit the crime” tells us little. It only tells us that we are supposed to think morally, in some way or other, about what harm we ought to inflict if we take it upon ourselves to bring about the harm that ought to occur if a moral law is violated.

Punishment is intentional infliction of harm on people because a law has been violated. I restrict attention to laws which are also moral laws. This restriction includes the large overlap of morality and legality. Many of the laws of a community express the morality of a community Prohibitions against killing, cheating, beating, sexual misconduct etc., reinforce the moral laws. The point of this restriction is to set aside the complex discussion of the differences between morality and legality. I want to focus on interpreting thought about what ought to be done when a law is violated; be it legal or moral.

This harm which ought to result from the mere violation of a moral law is retribution for violating the law. Intentional infliction of this harm is retributive punishment.

To admit that the infliction of punishment for violations of rules is radically imprecise is not to admit that the proper amount cannot be decided upon. It is only to admit that it cannot be decided by further moral rules. So, if we say that meting out justice is totally a matter of following rules, application of punishment is not exactly meting out justice.

What justifies inflicting harm because a moral law has been violated? The moral law which has been violated provides the fundamental justification for inflicting harm because of its violation. For, on my theory, part of the moral law specifies that harm ought to result from its violation. Further moral thought is needed to decide who ought to inflict the harm, on whom ought it be inflicted and how much harm ought to be inflicted. But what is this further moral thought? Ultimately, it is not finding more rules.

Answering the questions about who inflicts punishment and on whom to inflict it is for social and political philosophy. Over the centuries many with the competence have confronted these questions. For simplicity, I consider cases where it has been morally decided that there is a group authorized to inflict the harm, it has been decided that the harm ought to be inflicted on the violators of the law ought and somehow the harm ought to “fit the crime.” To say that an infliction of harm fits the violation is really only to say that the harm is the proper retribution. I do not think that we have ever adequately decided what it is for a punishment to fit the crime.

I propose that the only moral justification for punishment is retribution. The other rationalizations for inflicting harm on violators are morally justified only in so far as they are part of retribution. Consider the others.

1. A violator may be restrained for many years to prevent him from committing more violations. However, the pain of the number of years of restrain ought to be neither more nor less than the harm which ought to follow upon violation of the law.

2. Pain, whipping, imprisonment, putting in stocks, etc., may be inflicted upon a violator to deter others from violating the law. Again, however, the pain to deter others and the violator from future violations ought be neither more nor less than the harm that morality requires for its violation.

3. The group authorized to punish may require a violator to make restitution for goods stolen, or more generally restoration for a condition destroyed by the violation. Making restitution and restoration are painful in so far as they require effort or loss of violator’s property. Now the requirement to make restitution or restoration are not punishment. So, restoration is not a justification for punishment. However, the authorities many consider whether the pain of restoration is some, or even all, of the, harm required by the violation.

So the moral way to mete out punishment is to aim at having the violator suffer the right retribution which as just noted, may involve attaining other goals. But moral laws do not tell us what is the right retribution. So, in meting out punishment we must recognize in moral thinking a type of moral thought different from following rules. I call this Aristotelian virtue thinking because the goal is to reach a mean: not too little and not too much harm. Punishing requires Aristotelian virtue thinking. Wise judges have the virtue of discerning what is the proper amount of punishment. Judges who are too lenient or too harsh have a vice.

Now as noted above, having the virtue of meting out proper punishments is not simply a matter of justice. I suggest that we have a moral imperative to show mercy. This mercy imperative authorizes modifying thought about “what is due” when finding the punishment which is neither too much nor too little.

With introduction of “mercy” into a discussion of the network of concepts in our ways of thinking morally about punishment, this post threatens to become a treatise on punishment. So, I stop here and repeat my goal for writing this post.

My goal has been to show that my notion of moral harm makes sense of the notion of retribution and the notion of retribution is essential for making sense of punishment although it does not specify what the punishment ought to be.

The Pain of Moral Harm

Theoretically moral harm is not actually harmful but actually moral harm is harmful! What?

In a previous post, I conceded that moral harm is not actual harm. Moral harm is the moral judgment that actual natural harm OUGHT to result from breaking a moral law. For instance, the moral harm of a murder is the thought, concomitant with judgment that murder is immoral, that bad things ought to a result from this crime. Separable from this judgment that bad things ought to happen might be moral judgments that the bad things be the death of the killer.

The moral judgment that harm ought to result can be a factor in causing all sorts of unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Some are of these thoughts and feelings are guilt, shame, anxiety, anger and hatred. These unpleasant thoughts and feelings can be classed as natural harms. They are painful. But they are the causal effects of moral harm; not the moral harm itself. Moral harm can help cause actual natural harm because moral harm by virtue of being a moral judgment is a thought. Thoughts have causal consequences. The pains of moral harm can be spread beyond the perpetrator of an immoral act. For instance, a murderer may suffer guilt and fear while witnesses suffer anger.

Of course, another type of natural harm connected with moral harm are the bad consequences which ought to happen as a result of breaking a moral law, do happen. The most obvious cases of this are when society punishes a perpetrator. A subsequent post will focus on moral harm and punishment. Here the point is that the actual harm that so to speak is required by moral harm is not the moral harm.

I am updating my post with the following quotation from a review in July 18, 2019 edition of the New York Review of Books. It illustrates that feeling moral harm is painful, that moral harm is diffuse by not condemning only the perpetrator, and is connected with the religious notion of atonement. Orlando Figes is reviewing novels of the Russian writer Sergei Lebedev. Figes writes on p.42 “In Lebedev’s fiction, the desire to confront the Soviet past comes with a sense of being burdened by its crimes. In Oblivion, the narrator travels to the island because he wants to atone for the sins of Grandfather II, whose blood runs in his on veins.”

My book Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism was released by Tate Publishing on March 11, 2014. See Book Web Page for information about the book. See pp. 72ff. for discussion of moral harm. Free copies can be obtained here by credit card by paying $3.75 for shipping and handling.





To receive a free book, send check of $3.75 for shipping and handling per copy. Send to:
Charles F. Kielkopf
45 W. Kenworth Rd.

Moral Harm is a Moral Judgment

In this post I make and support a claim that moral harm of an act is the moral judgment that harm ought to be a consequence of the act.

In my book*, I introduce a notion of moral harm to challenge Steven Pinker’s proposed counter example to an absolute prohibition against incest. For simplicity’s sake suppose the moral law in question commands: A brother and sister ought never engage in coitus with one another. Pinker asks us to imagine a scenario in which a brother and sister in their early twenties practice recreational coitus. He names them Julie and Mark. In the imagine scenario the couple takes such elaborate contraceptive measures that pregnancy is physically impossible. We are also asked to imagine that these siblings are psychologically disposed never to feel regret or guilt about this act. They will only remember it as some fun. And no one else will ever know about it.

Pinker alleges from anecdotal evidence that people cannot answer the question: What is wrong with what Julie and Mark did? Presumably his respondents understood the question as: What harm resulted from Julie’s and Mark’s recreational coitus. In the imaginary scenario it seems that every possible harm has been imagined out of the picture: unwanted pregnancy, regrets, bad example.

Pinker did not explore my type of response. I would reply: “ The harm Julie and Mark did was doing something they ought not do; they disobeyed a fundamental moral rule.”

My imagined argument with Pinker begins with challenging the very idea of doing harm simply by violating a law. The challenge could start by accusing me of begging the question. Pinker might claim that the question at issue is “What is wrong – what is the harm- brought about by disobeying the alleged moral law?” Pinker could go on to note that that I am begging off answering the question at issue by simply asserting that the harm is disobeying the law.

I would reply that I am not begging the question because the question is ambiguous. The question about the harm done by a morally forbidden act can be interpreted in two different ways as illustrated by the two questions A and B.

A. What is the harm done by performance of the forbidden act?
B. What is the harm done by violating the law forbidding the act?

Does it make sense to distinguish damage done by a violation of a law and damage done simply by the law’s being violated? The intelligibility of the distinction between harm done by a violation of a law and harm done by violating a law is brought out by considering traffic laws. It makes sense to consider whether I did any harm by violating a speed limit when my speeding caused no accident and was undetected. Even if many people will simply answer “Actually no harm at all” their answering the question, instead of challenging the question as senseless, indicates that they understand what is being asked.

However, a concession that it makes sense to ask about the harm done simply by violation of a law seems to bring us back to the original question which stumped Pinker’s respondents. A new question is “What is the harm done by the mere fact of violating a moral law?

I am faced with a dilemma between inventing some type of special harm which is necessarily connected with mere violation of a moral law or claiming that some natural harm always results from the mere fact that a moral law is violated.

If I invent some special non-natural type of harm such as creating disharmony in the moral order or even offending God, I make claims which I cannot justify since I want to justify my claims about morality on natural grounds.

If I claim that some natural harm, such as law abiding diminishes, situations can be invented as Pinker did with Julie and Mark, that shows the harm does not always occur.

What is the result of the discussion so far?

1. It is not a fact that acts violating moral laws always result in harm. (Pinker’s example)
2 It is not a fact that the mere violating of a moral law itself results in harm. (Concession from my dilemma.)

Because I cannot claim that there is some natural harm which inevitably result by the mere fact of violating a moral law but claim that moral harm is an inevitable consequence of violating a moral law, I have to concede that moral harm is not actual harm. So, to say that Mark and Julie suffered moral harm due to their incest is not to say that they or anyone else has actually suffered any harm. What, then, is moral harm?

It is a fact that people can get away with murder. My next sentence gives the key to my thesis about the reality of moral harm. People ought not be able to get away with murder. Unfortunately, there are many examples. Let one suffice. Think of a lynching in “the old south” of the 1930s. Of course, great harm was done to the black man. The perpetrators had enjoyment; let alone suffered harm. They died without any punishment or ill effects. Moral thinking warrants the thought “That is not how it ought to have been nor is it how it ought to be.” Some harm should have resulted from that terrible violation of the fifth Commandment “Thou shalt not kill!” Even now, after every member of the lynch mob is dead, there is still the warranted moral judgment that there ought to be harmful consequences. Now it is unspecified to whom the harm should fall upon.

The moral harm from the lynching is the warranted moral judgment that some harm should befall some human beings because of an awful violation of the moral law against killing.

The moral judgment creating moral harm is always unspecified with respect to whom ought to suffer harm and what the harm ought to be. The judgments about who ought to be harmed and how are separate moral judgments made to carry out the moral judgment that harm ought to result from violation of the moral law. The judgment that harm ought to occur because of a violation of a moral law is part of the moral judgment that an act ought not be done. That there is a sanction for violating a moral law is logically connected to the moral law. What the sanction ought to be and who ought to be sanctioned are further moral judgments – they are morally, not logically connected to the moral judgment that an act ought not be done.

I have used this notion of moral harm in a recent post Identity Politics and Collective Guilt.

In closing, I suggest much of the outcry for justice of the victims of clerical sexual abuse is a cry that some natural harm ought to result. The victims have to see that someone or something connected with the Catholic church needs to suffer harm even if the alleged perpetrators are long dead. There seems to be little complaint from the public at large if those of us who are faithful to the Church suffer economically and socially because of those secret sins between priests and boys.

* My book Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism was released by Tate Publishing on March 11, 2014. See Book Web Page for information about the book. See pp. 72ff. for discussion of moral harm. Free copies can be obtained here by credit card by paying $3.75 for shipping and handling.





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