Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Intending harms: some thoughts

Following the Double Effect conference organised by the Anscombe Centre, I've been thinking about what it means to intend harms. Here are some preliminary thoughts.

There are a range of ways of understanding what constitutes intending a harm, which corresponds to different ways of understanding intention as a whole. A preliminary characterisation of harm would include pain, loss of function, and loss of opportunities for good.

1. An agent intends any harm he knowingly brings about.

2. If an agent intends a physical effect which is a harm to the patient, then he intends the harm which is constituted by that physical effect.

3. If an agent intends a loss of function (etc.) to the patient, then he intends the harm constituted by the loss of function.

4. If an agents intends that the patient by harmfully effected by something, then he intends that harmful effect.

To illustrate:

A. Spraying mosquitoes: Adam sprays an area from an aeroplane to kill disease-carrying mosquitoes, in the knowledge that a small number of people will suffer a painful allergic reaction to the spray.

He intends harm under (1) but under none of the others.

B. Beatrice uses the body of Duncan to cushion the fall of Edith from a ladder. Beatrice intends Duncan to absorb the impact of Edith’s fall, a physical event which is harmful to Duncan.

Beatrice intends harm to Duncan under (1) and (2) but not (3) and (4).

C. Freddie tapes up Georgina’s mouth and nose to prevent her using up oxygen on a stricken submarine.

Freddie intends to harm Georgina under (1), (2) and (3), but not (4)

D. Henry the government official is impervious to requests for help for those suffering from an epidemic. Irene infects him with the disease, in the hope that his own suffering will prompt him to change his policy.

Irene intends to harm Henry under all the definitions.


It is easy to show that definition 1 is too wide.

Justin knows he will suffer some pain and stiff limbs after his exercise routine, but he is not motivated by bringing about these harms, he is motivated by the desire to get fit.

Contrary to definition (1), Justin does not intend the harm, since intention is tied to reasons for action and motivation. Which is to say, intending something which brings about a harm is not the same as intending a harm.

It is harder to show if any of the other definitions are too narrow, since here the question is of whether it should be said that what the agents bring about is a harm, or (like Justin’s exercise) that it merely bring a harm about.

Craniotomy: is reducing the size of the baby’s head ipso facto harming the baby, or does it merely bring about harm to the baby?

Fat Man: is using the Fat Man to stop the trolley (to soak up the trolly’s kinetic energy) ipso facto harming him, or does it merely bring a harm about?

In the exercise case, the causation of harm by the agent is direct and inevitable; it is clear that it is not intended, however, since it is clearly besides the point of Justin’s practical reasoning (though it is accepted as a side-effect of what he does): it is neither an end nor a means. In Craniotomy the death of the baby is beside the point in the same way, but the physical modification of the head is not beside the point: it is intended.

I am inclined to say: This bodily modification is not merely a cause of a harm, it is something which is undesirable in the same way that a loss of function is undesireable, that is, in and of itself. I am harmed if my limbs or organs are radically pushed out of shape; it not merely the case that having them radically pushed out of shape will cause me a harm, rather it is a harm to me. If this is right, then definitions 3 and 4 are too narrow.

This is supported by intuitions such as this. If we were to define theft in terms of intentions, then it might be ‘to intend of another the loss of property rightfully his’. The intention of something which will probably lead to a loss of property is not theft: such as taking on a weaker opponent in a game of skill, with a wager. On the other hand the harmful nature of the loss of property does not have to intended: the thief need not intend the victim to suffer grief or want, for example. All the thief needs to intend, to intend a theft, is an objective transfer of goods from the victim to himself. One way of explaining why this is wrong is to say that although the thief may not intend that the victim be harmed in terms of grief or want, taking someone’s goods harms him ipso facto. The thief intends something which is a harm, even if he does not intend the victim’s harm as a separable objective.

Again, we are harmed when cheated, betrayed, or libelled, because those things are bad things when they happen to us. Agents who intend those bad things to happen to others are intending harms to happen to their victims. They may not, in fact, care about the victims’ well being; that may be indifferent to them, whereas they have some other end in view for which cheating and so on is a useful means. Nevertheless, they intend to harm insofar as they intend these bad things to happen to their victims, since these bad things are harms.

Looking at it in this way suggests that a wide definition of harm is needed: harms include not only loss of function, but the compromise of physical or material wellbeing. Causing the loss of wellbeing in this wide sense is not necessarily wrong, but it will normally be wrong if it is intended as an end or a means.


Helen Watt said...

Isn't it rather a (common and convenient) fiction to say we're intending harm in any of those cases, except for the last?

Sure, we may be doing something seriously wrong in cases where we intend something that in fact constitutes harm for the victim (such as craniotomy/skull crushing, even though the permanency of the skull being crushed need not be intended: this is still a deliberate bodily invasion of a kind which does an innocent person no good but only lethal harm).

In short, why make intention of harm do all the moral work, as opposed to intentions we clearly do have - to invade the body - coupled with morally conclusive side-effects (serious permanent harm and no good for the person invaded). Shouldn't we keep the phrase 'intention of harm' (if we're speaking precisely) for cases where harm is in fact among the goals we have? The invasion itself is one of our goals with craniotomy, but the permanent damage need not be.

The agent may just dig his heels in and say, it's a simple psychological fact about me that I wasn't intending harm as such when I crushed the skull or (to give some other examples) gave my euthanasiast or simply grossly inept therapeutically-motivated injection which was immediately fatal. In fact, I was intending to benefit: that's what euthanasia (or alternatively, that's what inept medicine) is all about. (Of course, in the inept medicine case there is no foresight of lethal effects, so this is quite different morally from craniotomy or euthanasia; however, the intended bodily invasion does in fact constitute harm, unbeknownst to the doctor.)

Interestingly, even in the case of intentionally killing an innocent person, where the killing itself is clearly intended, the person is probably not killed qua innocent person but qua obstacle to our progress, etc.

Alejandro said...

Dear Joseph:

I agree with your analysis. But if this analysis is correct, how could you explain the common case used by the double effect tradition according to which it is licit for someone to put himself in the trajectory of a bullet (or an arrow, in the original example) that is directed towards the King or towards a friend? Do you think that the authors were mistaken in considering licit the act of the saver?

This case is analogous, in its intentional structure, to the fat man case that is pushed into the rail of the trolley (we may suppose that the fat man puts himself in the rail, to save his children that are trapped in the rail).

Sorry for my precarious English.

Un saludo desde Chile,

Alejandro Miranda M.