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.

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