Tuesday, July 31, 2012

No Harm, No Foul

I am sure you have heard the expression, “No harm, No foul.”  If an action does not hurt anyone, then it is no big deal.  Don’t sweat it, so to speak.  Sometimes this expression is used somewhat playfully, like in a pick-up basketball game when someone gets accidentally knocked to the ground but rises unhurt.  No harm, no foul.  But other times this principle is used in more significant moral contexts.  It is often referred to as the “harm principle”: A person is free to behave in whatever manner he or she chooses so long as the behavior does not harm anyone else.  While the actual phraseology of “no harm, no foul” rarely appears in these moral arguments, the concept remains the same.

The problem for this view is that is it relatively easy to illustrate that lack of harm, standing by itself, is insufficient to render an action morally permissible.  Take, for example, two Peeping Toms.  The first climbs a tree every night and leers at his target in varying stages of undress, but he is never discovered.  As a result, his target remains unaware and goes about her life with no scars from the repeated episodes.  The second Tom does the exact same thing.  The difference between them, though, is that the second Tom is caught.  As a result, his target has to deal with all the emotional scars that accompany such a violation.

Does the morality of the Toms’ actions depend upon whether they are caught?  In the first example there is no harm to the target, therefore according to the harm principle the first Tom’s actions should be morally permissible.  In the second example there is harm to the target.  Therefore according to the harm principle the second Tom’s actions should be morally prohibited.  However, there is no difference whatsoever between the actions taken by the two men.  The only difference lies in the actions of other people; i.e., those who caught the second Tom and failed to catch the first.  How can the actions of outside actors determine the moral value of an action taken by someone else?  The two Toms did nothing different.  They took the exact same actions with the same intent.

This is not to say that harm is completely irrelevant to the moral equation.  After all, harming someone without adequate justification is immoral.  But neither harm nor lack of harm, standing alone, is sufficient to answer the moral question.  Sometimes inflicting some degree of harm is permissible, such as disciplining a child or incarcerating a criminal.  Likewise, sometimes actions that harm no one are still morally wrong, such as the Peeping Tom example above.  Certain actions are inherently wrong, regardless of their consequences.  Therefore, while “no harm, no foul” may have its place in a friendly sports game, it is not an adequate guide to morality.

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