Friday, September 16, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: The “No Harm” Argument

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

You’re all familiar with this one. It’s a defense for something traditionally considered immoral that usually begins with a variant of “if two consenting adults want to …”

We could call it a “no harm” argument. It’s the idea that if nobody’s demonstrably hurt, nothing wrong happened. But even the New York Times recently poked holes in it.

Tom: Immanuel Can, is it possible to have a sin without a resulting injury?

Immanuel Can: The short answer? No, I don’t think it is.

Who Owns Whom?

But before we decide that, hadn’t we better decide who owns us? I say that because I think the world has got this badly wrong. It thinks that we own ourselves. But from a Christian perspective, the individual is not self-owned, and what he does even strictly to himself or herself has moral implications for the true Owner.

Tom: Agreed, and that is very much relevant to the Christian. But the sort of person who uses the “no harm” argument is generally (though not always) blissfully unaware that he owes anything to anyone, except maybe to himself.

Studies on Perception

What I find interesting about the Times piece is that its authors, Kurt Gray and Chelsea Schein from the University of North Carolina, did a series of studies on the subject of perception where these sorts of “no harm” activities are concerned, and found that liberals and conservatives alike perceived victims in acts that they considered to be immoral, whether or not these acts could be demonstrated to be harmful.

So this is not a conservative or Christian issue. Many social liberals react to climate change deniers, pet owners or meat eaters with the same intensity of moral outrage that the average Christian reserves for abortion or that many conservatives feel toward the idea of government-sanctioned gay marriage.

IC: Well, yes; except that if you’re a secular person, then “moral outrage” of any kind is simply misplaced. For such insist that there ARE no moral absolutes. Therefore, their outrage is not grounded in any facts they recognize. It must be rather a taste for rage on their part, and nothing more. What it cannot be, according to their own lights, is a rational and moral response to actual injustice.

Gucci Boots and Starvation

Speaking of the meat-is-murder set, I was just listening to secular philosopher Peter Singer inveigh long and loud about people who buy Gucci boots rather than giving their money to the starving poor. One of the things he points out in this connection is that “no harm” arguments fail to take into account the moral importance of good-not-done. For example, he says, if you spend your income on “harmless” luxuries, then that money is being taken away from other, better or more moral uses. And he says that taking account of the harm of good-not-done is a key part of any real moral calculation of harm.

Do you think he’s on point about any of that?

Tom: Oh, I think he’s quite right about good-not-done. It’s just that outside of an agreed-upon worldview in which the values of heaven are front and center, there’s little merit in Mr. Singer lecturing me about what that ‘good’ is, or vice versa. Because if it’s down to my subjective opinion or Mr. Singer’s, who will judge between us? What makes the starving poor a good cause and my comfort a bad one in world without God and a future without judgment?

IC: Oh, quite. But either way, he throws a pretty good wrench in the “no harm” argument. It means you’ve not just got to say you aren’t actively harming anyone, but you also have to know you could not possibly be doing better for anyone.

The Scriptural Standard

Anyway, even that is short of the scriptural standard. We are not just told to not harm people, but to actively do good to them; to seek out the best and promote their good. Then we’re also told actively to find out what pleases the Lord and do that. So “I didn’t hurt anyone” is an idiotically low standard.

Tom: Agreed. It’s an unacceptably base threshold for a Christian, and we should make sure our kids grow up with a more biblical understanding of morality.

“Psychologically Real” Perceptions

Now the takeaway from the Gray/Schein studies, we’re told by Mr. Gray, is this:

“The key message of our research, and an important step in improving moral dialogue, is to realize that perceptions of harm are psychologically real to the perceiver of immorality. They are not merely concocted to antagonize those with opposing views or to further inflame the passions of sympathizers.”

So if the studies’ conclusions are accurate, for liberals and conservatives alike, “perceptions of victimhood [are] automatic and effortless, not belabored rationalizations”. Even so, I wonder if knowing that is likely to “improve moral dialogue”.

Do you think it matters to a liberal whether our perceptions of harm are “psychologically real” or “merely concocted”? Would it matter to you?

IC: Well it certainly should — that is, if one happens to be a person who is interested in justice. The writers of the study seem not to know the difference between claiming to be hurt and really being hurt. It seems it’s enough to them for someone merely to claim hurt. But such claims can be mistaken, misguided or manipulative.

Moreover, the degree to which the offended party feels “hurt” has nothing to do with whether or not they’ve been hurt. They may have, or they may not have. For example, a couple of times in my life the cops have pulled me over for speeding … and believe you me, I felt hurt in getting a ticket. But that didn’t mean I was actually harmed; in fact, I confess that I got exactly what I deserved to get: justice.

“Hurt” must be real, not just perceived. And frankly, the sincerity of the claimant does not impinge on accuracy of the claim.

The Potential for Dialogue

Tom: Hmm. Been there, done that. So the whole “dialogue” thing between liberals and Christians or conservatives is probably a non-starter from your point of view? Because I must confess I don’t hold out a whole lot of hope for any kind of common ground either. But it is interesting to note that (at least supposedly) liberals share some kind of common ground with conservatives or Christians in that they may actually believe their own tropes. That is not something I really anticipated. But if it should happen to prove true (which I cannot currently confirm), I would be more than happy to grant them the benefit of the doubt as to their motives whenever they pursue an agenda that to me seems, well … insane.

IC: You know, I wonder too how much they actually believe what they say. Our political situation today is such that lots of people want to claim to be “offended”, “aggrieved”, “marginalized” and even “victimized” by others, so as to claim special consideration and the high moral ground. And they all expect us to take their self-pitying and self-righteousness as seriously as they do …

It doesn’t mean we have to go along with their illusions, though. Nothing morally requires we accept that they’ve been “hurt”. If they have been, then the facts will show it.

Playing Spot-the-Victim

Tom: Here’s the thing about playing spot-the-victim as the final answer to what is right or wrong: Sometimes the facts don’t show it … yet. When you use a “no harm” argument to say there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing, you are assuming a level of knowledge beyond anyone’s actual capability. What we’re all doing as fallible human beings is flailing around in the dark here, and this is why we need an external standard of right and wrong. Why is homosexuality wrong? Because God says so. As it happens, I also believe there are observable social, personal and conscience-related harms that occur as a byproduct of the homosexual lifestyle, but I don’t need to be able to show that and I don’t expect to be able to convincingly demonstrate it to anyone else.

It’s wrong because God said it, and that’ll do it for me every time.


  1. “The key message of our research, and an important step in improving moral dialogue, is to realize that perceptions of harm are psychologically real to the perceiver of immorality. They are not merely concocted to antagonize those with opposing views or to further inflame the passions of sympathizers.”

    The above conclusion appears to me to be a significant attempt at avoidance of the true quality or nature of "perception of harm" by the study authors. If the authors, either incompetently, or deliberately, conclude or imply that such a perception has only, or primarily, a psychological component to it they are clearly totally wrong or being deliberately misleading.

    The observer (perceiver) does not have to have a psychological component at all but most likely, definitely in my case, is able to make a factual assessment of the morality of the action involved, and doing it as coolly as an icicle without being psychologically impacted. Dictates of morality, to the rational person, are rationally grounded, especially when grounded in Christianity, and do not require more than that for the moral person. Immoral actions are defined as such by the bible and Christian teaching precisely because of their destructive impact on the material world and its inhabitants. If there was no such impact, immorality would not even get a mention in the bible. It is therefore misleading to make it look that such impact is not primary and can be watered down and filed away as some psychological notion.

    1. Agreed. The phrasing of the message they'd like us to take away from their research seems naive to me at best.

      I mean, it's nice to be reminded that some folks on the "other side" of some of these issues are principled too. That's not really the problem though. It's that those principles are frequently rotten to the core and based on lies.

  2. We live in a culture that puts "victims" on a pedestal perch atop the high moral ground, and then fawningly placates them until they cease whining. The placaters heap on the supposed victims public praise while excoriating those the so-called "victims" have condemned as their alleged oppressors -- meaning anyone who disagrees with them.

    Then these "victims" begin to claim "rights" no human being ever possessed or should possess, and use them as if they were trumps. They claim a "right" to preferential treatment, to historic redress, to public celebration, to immunity to criticism, to do what they want with their own bodies (or even with the bodies of others), to lavish financial compensation, and so on.

    Most of this is just posturing. Real cases of truly aggrieved victims are few, far between and very distinct -- such as, say, the victims of slavery and segregation. The rest are merely preening, self-important opportunists. And as such, they ought to be roundly ignored. Unfortunately, our society has also developed a taste for self-righteous posturing as the defender of the oppressed, so this feeds the toxic cycle. And so we get absurd precepts like the idea that when a "victim" merely *perceives* there to have been an offence, then the offence must be deemed to be real, and anyone who doubts it can instantly be branded a bigot and hounded without conscience.

    All this means that today we have to be exceedingly careful whenever anyone claims to be "hurt," that they will not abuse that falsely privileged status actually to hurt others. They love to do that today.