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Robot Sex (cont.): The Harm Principle Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 11 July 2013

“Say there are two women,” began my friend; “they love one another and are committed to one another the way you and your wife are committed to one another, and say they’re engaged in an act that, if their biology were different, might lead to children, but in this case cannot. Why does the absence of this one, single dimension of the act make it morally wrong?” 

In previous columns, I’ve suggested that one problem with this question is that it involves a subtle equivocation in terms. To talk about “sex” that “lacks only one dimension of the act” – namely an openness to children – is like talking about “hammering” without any openness to using nails or building anything. Is that really hammering?  Making a certain motion in the air with my hand holding a hammer is not the sole determiner of what constitutes “hammering,” any more than making a certain motion with my hips is the sole determiner of what constitutes “sex.”

So the first thing we should clarify is that a man and woman (or a woman and a woman) who are engaged in a certain physical motion are not really engaged in the same act as two spouses who are engaged in a fundamentally procreative act, any more than a surgeon who cuts open a patient to operate on his liver is not really doing the same act as Hannibal Lecter when he cuts open a victim to eat his liver.

There is more to an “act” than merely the physical motion. So too there is more to an “act” than merely the intention with which it is done. According to the Church, we must consider both the “object” of the act and the intention with which it is done, as well as any relevant circumstances.

But let’s say we change the question. The way most of my students ask me about the Church’s moral teachings is this: “Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do what I want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else?” 

The first thing to say about this question is that it betrays a fairly simple-minded utilitarianism of which the questioner is usually unaware. My students haven’t pored over the works of Bentham and Mill and decided they were right. No, this sort of utilitarianism is simply in the air they breathe. So my first task is to suggest to them that “the harm principle” isn’t a particularly good way of thinking about moral questions.

No harm? 

Why? Well, because it is usually difficult to define “harm” in such a way as to justify forcing someone else to stop doing whatever it is he wants to do. Our dorm rectors face this problem all the time. “All I want to do is play my music at night while I work; that doesn’t hurt anybody,” a student will insist. Well, when you play your stereo so loudly that others can’t sleep or study, then that “harms” them. But does it?  If you define “harm” as punching someone in the face, then no. So how much harm does a person need to suffer for you to curb your activities? 

The prevalence of the “harm principle” is one of the reasons we are obsessed in our society with trying to show that something aesthetically distasteful, like smoking, is actually going to kill bystanders who are getting the merest whiff of smoke. Your smoke isn’t merely distasteful to me, it’s harming me. So you must stop. Needless to say, smokers often don’t find this sort of argument all that convincing. Students who love loud music often don’t either.

Often unnoticed in all this is the fact that the “harm” principle presupposes a very problematic view of the human person. Students who understand that it’s wrong to drink and drive (someone might get harmed) will ask me: “If I just get drunk alone in my room, and no one else gets hurt, why is that wrong?” I reply: But someone is getting hurt: you! Why can I only “care” if someone else gets hurt? 

The way modern questioners assert the harm principle often presupposes a misbegotten sort of reductivist individualism according to which a person is not intrinsically connected to others. Is it true that what I do, even to myself, really has no bearing on others? Or does what one does to oneself have a profound impact on one’s friends, family, and society? Have we no obligations to others, to love and care for them? Doesn’t damaging oneself rob others of something owed to them? 

Indeed, isn’t suicide, which many of us take to be a private affair, not in fact the ultimate selfish act by which I cut all ties and obligations to family, society, and God? The ultimate anti-suicide pact is the realization that I did not give myself life – it was given to me as both a gift and a responsibility – and thus I have no right to take it.

The other problem with the harm principle is that it is question-begging. Is physical harm the only sort? How about moral harm? Do I harm myself when I do certain things, not only physically, but also psychically and spiritually. Those who have suffered drug or alcohol addiction will tell you that the physical damage is the least of it. The greater damage is internal: on one’s own self-possession. And of course the damage it does to relations with loved ones is the worst of it, even if no outward physical harm was done to them. Moral harm can be the most harmful.

No, the “harm principle” just won’t do. And Catholics can get themselves tied in knots trying to answer a question that can’t be answered in the way the questioner asks it. Moral teaching is not only a matter of stating what the Church teaches, but also of showing why the Church has a better way of thinking about life and its most fundamental questions. 

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Ib, July 11, 2013
I really like this post, Dr. Smith. That oftentimes a question can't be answered properly the way it is posed is an important point that every student of philosophy must bear in mind. It isn't obvious to most people that asking an answerable question requires insight into the pertinent aspects of the context behind the question. For example, questions about the planetary epicycles, impetus, phlogiston, embyro recapitulation, cosmic aether, cosmological constants, hidden quantum mechanical variables, etc, simply cannot be answered since they assume something about the context which just isn't so. Similarly, moral questions posed using a falsified moral context (principally through an inadequate presentation of human nature) can never be properly answered. The vast majority of our moral difficulties today result from inadequate consequentialist thinking (such as utilitarianism or "the harm principle"), that in more insightful times would never have been trusted. The challenge is to educate students in an adequate philosophical account that will enable them to apprehend when a moral question cannot be adequately answered as it has been posed.

I remember when I first understood this. See, I had done an undergrad degree focusing on analytic philosophy and mathematical logic, but had come out with absolutely no inkling of this important insight. Only when I was studying for my grad degrees in theology did this come to me. In particular the following quote from St. Thomas Aquinas was critical:

"Omne quod recipitur in aliquo, recipitur seu est in eo per modem recipientis"
Summa Theologiae I.q75.a5 contra

I think Alasdair MacIntyre was right: the only moral philosophies at the present time which are genuinely alive are those of Nietzsche and Aristotle. I offer my hurrah for St. Thomas and Aristotle ... Thank you Dr. Smith for your post!
written by irenaeus, July 11, 2013
"Moral teaching is not only a matter of stating what the Church teaches, but also of showing why the Church has a better way of thinking about life and its most fundamental questions."
This is SO true! I teach morality to teens and have come into conflict with some uber-conservative colleagues who want to skip over the "why" part of morality. They think the students are just going to swallow whole what the Church says because the Church says it. I do not know what century they are from, but that just isn't going to be effective. If you are going to teach teens you have to come with a big bag of logic and reasonableness. But do not soft-pedal or skip over the tougher teachings either. I have gone toe to toe with teens about such issues as why skipping Mass on Sunday is a mortal sin, and I actually received more respect and following than if I had been mealy mouthed about it. But the WHY is essential.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, July 11, 2013
Miss Anscombe really went to the heart of the problem in her 1958 paper, Modern Moral Philosophy: "In present-day philosophy an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one; to give such an explanation belongs to ethics; but it cannot even be begun until we are equipped with a sound philosophy of psychology. For the proof that an unjust man is a bad man would require a positive account of justice as a “virtue.” This part of the subject-matter of ethics, is however, completely closed to us until we have an account of what type of characteristic a virtue is – a problem, not of ethics, but of conceptual analysis – and how it relates to the actions in which it is instanced: a matter which I think Aristotle did not succeed in really making clear. For this we certainly need an account at least of what a human action is at all, and how its description as “doing such-and-such” is affected by its motive and by the intention or intentions in it; and for this an account of such concepts is required."

That difficulty has still to be overcome
written by Jill D, July 11, 2013
Our daughter gave us an article to read, one for Christian parents of gay children, which proclaimed that our child's sexuality was not about US. That thought was repeated over and over, and somehow I knew it just wasn't true, not completely. Thank you for writing this as it expresses what I knew in my heart. The "American rugged individualism" thing is a lie. Sounds good in theory; breaks hearts in practice.
written by Paul Dion, July 11, 2013
Thanks for this. Thanks for taking it outside the purely doctrinal and spiritual realm of our Catholic identity. That being said, I allow myself to mention that as Catholics we have a deep seated faith in the Communion of Saints and that is the fundamental and elemental reason why the Catholic Church has "a better way of thinking about these things."
Think about it :-) !

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