A Defense of the Counterfactual Comparative Account of Harm

American Philosophical Quarterly 49 (4):285 – 300 (2012)
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Although the counterfactual comparative account of harm, according to which someone is harmed when things go worse for her than they otherwise would have, is intuitively plausible, it has recently come under attack. There are five serious objections in the literature: some philosophers argue that the counterfactual account makes it hard to see how we could harm someone in the course of benefitting that person; others argue that Parfit’s non-identity problem is particularly problematic; another objection claims that the account forces us to see many harms where there is just one; a fourth objection is based on the claim that the counterfactual account makes mysterious the distinction between harms and mere failures-to-benefit; and a final problem arises from cases of pre-emption, in which the nearest possible world in which the harmful event does not occur is a world in which some other harmful event occurs. This paper argues that, properly understood, harm essentially involves a counterfactual comparison, and that these comparisons are sensitive to context in the manner typical of counterfactual conditionals, and that, augmented with two plausible distinctions, this account has the resources to provide satisfying responses to each of the objections that have been raised against it.



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Justin Klocksiem
New Mexico State University

Citations of this work

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Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
Reasons and Persons.Joseph Margolis - 1986 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 47 (2):311-327.
Well-Being and Death.Ben Bradley - 2009 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
The Right and the Good.W. D. Ross - 1930 - Philosophy 6 (22):236-240.
The Right and the Good.Some Problems in Ethics.W. D. Ross & H. W. B. Joseph - 1933 - Journal of Philosophy 30 (19):517-527.

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