Robot Sex (cont.): The Harm Principle

“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 a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.