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Friday, December 29, 2023

A Hybrid Account of Harm

Unruh, C. F. (2022).
Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 1–14.


When does a state of affairs constitute a harm to someone? Comparative accounts say that being worse off constitutes harm. The temporal version of the comparative account is seldom taken seriously, due to apparently fatal counterexamples. I defend the temporal version against these counterexamples, and show that it is in fact more plausible than the prominent counterfactual version of the account. Non-comparative accounts say that being badly off constitutes harm. However, neither the temporal comparative account nor the non-comparative account can correctly classify all harms. I argue that we should combine them into a hybrid account of harm. The hybrid account is extensionally adequate and presents a unified view on the nature of harm.

Here's my take:

Charlotte Unruh proposes a new way of thinking about harm. Unruh argues that neither the traditional comparative account nor the non-comparative account of harm can adequately explain all cases of harm. The comparative account says that harm consists in being worse off than one would have been had some event not occurred. The non-comparative account says that harm consists in being in a bad state, regardless of how one would have fared otherwise.

Unruh proposes a hybrid account of harm that combines elements of both the comparative and non-comparative accounts. She says that an agent suffers harm if and only if either (i) the agent suffers ill-being or (ii) the agent's well-being is lower than it was before. This hybrid account is able to explain cases of harm that cannot be explained by either the comparative or non-comparative account alone. For example, the hybrid account explains why it is harmful to prevent someone from achieving a good that they would have otherwise achieved, even if the person is still in a good state overall.

Unruh's hybrid account of harm has a number of advantages over other accounts of harm. It is extensionally adequate, meaning that it correctly classifies all cases of harm as harmful and all cases of non-harm as non-harmful. It is also normatively plausible, meaning that it accords with our intuitions about what counts as harm. Additionally, the hybrid account is able to explain a number of different phenomena related to harm, such as the severity of harm, the distribution of harm, and the compensation for harm.