Saturday, December 27, 2014

Coercively harming a minority

miller (a.k.a. trivialknot) asks the question (regarding Christmas music): "[I]f [some social] gain requires coercively harming a minority, is it truly worthwhile?"

"Harm" and "coercion" are subjective terms: we cannot talk about "harm" without talking about how a person feels about something; we cannot talk about coercion without talking about will and consent, so their will can be coercively violated without their consent. These terms are also morally loaded. "Harm" is morally unacceptable negativity; coercion is morally unacceptable force. So the question as its stands is trivial or circular: unacceptable actions are unacceptable. In a morally neutral sense, a person is harmed if and only if they subjectively feel that they have been harmed, and they are coerced if and only if they subjectively feel that they have been coerced. The only way to detect harm and coercion is to ask people. (We also need to discover whether or not the objectively determinable actions they claim to have been harmful or coercive actually occurred.)

We could, of course, define harm and coercion objectively. However, such an objective definition would include and exclude actions as harmful and coercive only according to our a priori moral beliefs about actions. The best we can do with objective definitions is to talk about consistency, not correctness. Thus, miller's question would be, "Is ubiquitous Christmas music substantively similar to other things we consider coercively harmful (morally unacceptable), and substantively different from things we do not consider coercively harmful (morally acceptable)." Ubiquitous Christmas music cannot intrinsically be coercively harmful; in a morally neutral sense, it is coercively harmful if and only if people subjectively feel like they are being coercively harmed. In other words, we cannot examine the objective characteristics of ubiquitous Christmas music, ignoring how people feel about it, and come to a moral determination.

(You may disagree with the above paragraph. Most philosophers who advocate deontic and objective moral philosophy would disagree. I would welcome any argument that's less circular than "subjective moral philosophy is not objective," or, "subjective moral philosophy is contradictory when interpreted objectively.")

There are also the subjectively reflective definitions of "coercion" and "harm": I believe you have been coerced or harmed if you subjectively feel you have been coerced or harmed, and I subjectively feel you have been coerced or harmed, and both of us believe so in an objectively consistent way (i.e. I believe that all objectively similar actions are also coercive or harmful). Again, we can still have a morally neutral reflective definition: the reflective definitions just distinguish between actions that a some people consider coercive or harmful, and actions that almost everyone considers coercive or harmful. For example, a lot of people believe that affording secular (non-religious) marriage to gay people is neither coercive nor harmful, even if a lot of religious people feel coerced or harmed by secular gay marriage. There's an argument that people who feel coerced or harmed by secular gay marriage do not feel like they are coercing or harming Muslims, for example, by eating pork. However, this objective inconsistency can be eliminated by admitting that in a morally neutral sense, eating pork does coercively harm Muslims, and so what?

Again, if we define coercive harm in a morally neutral sense, then by definition saying that some action requires coercive harm (in the subjectively reflective sense) is not saying that it is therefore, and for that reason only, morally unacceptable. We would have to add the statement as a premise, not a conclusion. However, adding the premise entails unresolvable contradictions in our present physical circumstances.

It is not (perhaps not yet) the case that everyone can have and do everything they want, and people who don't get or do what they want have a tendency to feel coercively harmed, especially when they don't get what they want because other people with superior power (either numbers, privilege, or violence) do get or do what they want. So we have to make trade-offs entailing morally neutral coercive harm: trade-offs are a physical necessity. Of course, if we can choose between harming no one and harming someone, most people (besides sadists) would agree the former is preferable. But a lot of social choices, including not only whether to play Christmas music ubiquitously for a month or two but also most criminal and property law, requires trading off coercive harm against some people to benefit others.

Let's consider a trade-off with, to most 21st century Americans, a subjectively obvious answer: chattel slavery of black people. The existence of chattel slavery requires unambiguous subjectively reflective coercive harm to slaves. The slaves themselves feel coercively harmed, and if free white people were in the same situation, they would feel coerced and harmed, so at some level they agree that slavery is coercively harmful. On the other hand, the abolition of chattel slavery requires unambiguous subjectively reflective coercive harm: the owners of slaves feel are harmed by the coercive deprivation of their property, and most 21st century Americans consider deprivation of property by force to be coercively harmful. (One could argue that people cannot be property, but "property" is just as subjective as "harm" and "coercion"; by deciding that people cannot be property, one embeds the moral judgment in the definition a priori. As a subjectivist, I think that embedding moral judgments in language is perfectly fine, so long as we're honest and upfront about it and do not pretend to be objective.) If we have the moral premise that if X entails coercively harming someone, then X is wrong, then both the preservation and abolition of chattel slavery is wrong. We could, of course, have the moral premise that if X is wrong, then its imposition is coercively harmful, and its abolition is not coercively harmful. But that renders the first premise vacuous: wrong things are wrong. Or we could say that when we have two choices that are coercively harmful, we have to just decide between them on some other basis.

And that is precisely what we did with chattel slavery, and what we do with Christmas music. Both alternatives are, in a morally neutral, subjectively reflective sense, coercively harmful (and the imposition of music can be a form of torture, arguably worse than the imposition of pain). We simply have to choose between them. How we do so is a matter for scientific inquiry; how we should do so is a matter of philosophical and political theoretical inquiry.


  1. (I'm not sure if my previous comment got through, please delete it if it did.)
    A few assorted thoughts:

    1. This moral calculus appears to be non-utilitarian. Do you agree?

    2. I think you do more to frame the problem than to really solve it. Of course, the problem of conflicting preferences is too general to be solved so simply.

    3. Reflecting on Christmas music, I thik I have a personal preference against it, but I am also fine with society playing Christmas music, based on my beliefs on how we should deal with our conflicting preferences. Thus it would be non-coercively harmful. On the other hand, I have no power over whether my family or retail outlets play Christmas music, so it is coercive. Thus, it is coercive and harmful, but the two are not connected. I think it could be useful to define some notion of "coercive harm" that is more than the sum of its parts (like with the Gettier problem, which shows that "knowledge" must be more than just "justified true belief").

  2. 1) I don't really agree, but utilitarianism is more complicated than its original proponents offered. Or, I agree, that my thoughts on moral philosophy are substantively different from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill.

    2) Yes. I think the biggest problem with moral philosophy is bad framing.

    3a) I don't thing Gettier problems are interesting; the problem is that "justified true belief" doesn't differ epistemically from "justified belief"; adding "true" doesn't change anything. No justification can be found faulty for any reason except by comparison to a different justification. Since all justifications are held as imperfect, when they disagree, it could be that the second justification is incorrect and the first correct.

    3b) If you want to embed a moral definition into "coercion" then you subjectively feel you are not being coerced because you subjectively feel that playing Christmas music is not wrong. If you use a morally neutral definition, then I think you are being coerced (if you feel you are), since you have to pick between two harms, at least one of which is intentionally imposed by others. But in this morally neutral sense, just finding that you have been coercively harmed is not dispositive: we have to (somehow) weigh the coercively harmful alternatives and include how we feel about you being coercively harmed in this way.

  3. I know almost nothing about moral philosophy, but something doesn't sit right with me about the idea that "harm" is subjective.

    If you were to kill me in my sleep, and you managed to do so without waking me or causing me any pain, then in the morally neutral sense Larry describes above, I wouldn't have been "harmed", because I wouldn't feel that I had been harmed. In fact, I wouldn't feel much of anything at all, 'cuz I'd be dead. One could claim that my friends or family members were "harmed" by losing me, or even that you had "harmed" yourself by having killed me, but because I was never conscious of what happened, I would not have been "harmed" in the "morally neutral sense" that Larry describes.

    That seems plainly absurd to me.

    "Harm" is objective. It might be arguable, but it's about objective reality. What's *subjective* is our *judgement* about the harm caused, i.e. whether the harm caused is good, bad, or some degree of both. Take the much less emotionally loaded example of me accidentally breaking the window in my living room. Did I "harm" the window? One could argue that while the inhabitants of the house may feel "harmed" by no longer having a window to protect them from the elements, the window itself was not "harmed", because it's only glass, so it's incapable of feeling harmed. But its function as a window *has* objectively been harmed. And yes, even the act of thinking of that particular assemblage of glass and wood as a "window" is subjective, but once you agree what its function is, identifying "harm" becomes an objective matter of identifying a loss of functionality. Subjectivity comes into play when we judge that a broken window in my living room is a good or bad outcome. For the neighborhood birds, it could be a good outcome, because it would turn my living room into a really nice cave for them to seek shelter in.

    "Harm" is an understanding of damage done to a given system, tool, life form, etc., and arguments about whether harm is done are arguments about objective reality. It's only when we evaluate whether the harm is good, bad, or some of both that the argument becomes subjective.

  4. If you were to kill me in my sleep, and you managed to do so without waking me or causing me any pain, then in the morally neutral sense Larry describes above, I wouldn't have been "harmed", because I wouldn't feel that I had been harmed.

    Killing is kind of a special case in all moral philosophy. But, fundamentally, we don't like killing because we don't want to be killed, which is a subjective feeling. We have to infer the harm, we have to infer that, just before you were killed, you didn't want to be killed, but that's not a difficult inference to draw.

    the window itself was not "harmed", because it's only glass, so it's incapable of feeling harmed.

    You're just equivocating here on distinct meanings of the word harmed. You might as well argue that I commit terrorist every time I bomb on a test.

    "Harm" is an understanding of damage done to a given system, tool, life form, etc., and arguments about whether harm is done are arguments about objective reality.

    <shrugs> Again, words in natural languages have a lot of different meanings. That's one perfectly good meaning, but why should we consider that the only morally relevant meaning, or even a morally relevant meaning in the first place?

    1. The distinction I'm making is more important than merely quibbling about different definitions of "harm". It's a distinction between two different classes of arguments.

      I'm thinking I need to be more explicit in how I define "subjective" vs "objective". If the truth of a statement is "subjective", it's truth is dependent upon our perception of reality. If the truth of a statement is "objective", it's truth is dependent upon reality itself. Objective truths, at least in principle, can be independently tested or verified. Subjective truths can only be argued in terms of self-consistency.

    2. I wasn't equivocating about windows, I was expressing what would happen under your understanding of subjective harm, vs my understanding of objective harm. Sorry that wasn't clear.

    3. I don't think killing is a special case, here. The same argument would still apply if a doctor made a mistake during surgery that caused such profound brain damage that the patient was unaware of any harm done. Harm to a given life form, system tool, etc, is objective, that is to say, if you disagree about whether harm has been done, it's a disagreement about reality. Whether that harm is good or bad is whe argument that is subjective.

  5. And yes, even the act of thinking of that particular assemblage of glass and wood as a "window" is subjective, but once you agree what its function is, identifying "harm" becomes an objective matter of identifying a loss of functionality.

    This statement completely undermines your argument. Objectively, the window changes its physical state; you apparently claim here that it has, however, been harmed only in relation to a subjective feeling about what a human being wants the window to do.

    Keep in mind that harm, even though it's subjective, is usually not completely divorced from objective reality; it's usually a feeling about something in objective reality: you cannot be subjectively harmed by me breaking your window unless I objectively break your window. (n.b., "We also need to discover whether or not the objectively determinable actions they claim to have been harmful or coercive actually occurred," from the post.)

    1. I was attempting to anticipate counter-arguments here. Basically, this is an example of the idea that some people have that reality itself is subjective, because it depends upon our subjective interpretation of it. Which is, of course, pure nonsense. Reality is reality, and the fact that our understanding of it is based on our own subjective filters doesn't change the fact that it exists outside of our minds and is not affected by our ideas of it.

    2. this is an example of the idea that some people have that reality itself is subjective, because it depends upon our subjective interpretation of it

      You have to be careful here, because there are a lot of philosophical subtleties. However, since I already accept that objective reality exists, we don't have a controversy on that point.

      However, some things really are subjective, just existing inside the mind, and not referencing something in objective reality.

  6. Larry,
    I knew you advocated consequentialism although I didn't recall whether you advocated utilitarianism specifically. That's why I asked. The moral calculus here does not appear to be utilitarian, because "harm" already encapsulates utility, while "consent" seems to encapsulate... something else.

    Re: killing -- It is hopeless to come up with an example of an action which is harmful, but not subjectively harmful. If a person wishes to argue that an action is harmful (and to win the argument), then obviously they subjectively feel it is harmful, undermining the entire argument. I think the harder problem is that people generally disagree about what is harmful, and change their minds about it too.

    Although I felt this post was tackling a different problem altogether. Even when everyone agrees that, say, Christmas music is harmful to those who don't like it, and beneficial to those who do, we do not necessarily agree on the appropriate course of action. Likewise, not playing Christmas music is harmful to those who like it, and beneficial to those who don't like it. Both choices are compromises, the question is which compromise should be preferred.

    1. I think the problem here is a lack of clarity about what is harming what. When you say that "harm" is a loaded term, implying a negative judgement, that implies saying that one thing harms another thing is the same as saying it is harmful in a more global sense. Which is not only imprecise, but it is impossible. This is why you both are mistakenly thinking that "harm" is necessarily subjective. It's the vague idea of global or universal harm that is not only subjective but also ridiculous. It's extremely helpful in all arguments about harm to be very specific about what is harming what.

    2. Let's take Larry's example of the religious people who feel "harmed" by secular gay marriage: In what sense are they being "harmed"? Well, I'm doubtful that most of the people who hold this belief could articulate a clear answer to this, but I'll do my best to fairly represent this religious viewpoint as follows: when secular gay marriage is legal, it makes homosexuality "normal" and even "socially acceptable" in the larger society, thereby causing harm to (A) their religious views of homosexuality as an "abomination", (B) their definition of "marriage" as being between a man and a woman, and (C) to their families, because if any of their children have a tendency towards that "lifestyle", a society in which homosexuality is socially acceptable makes their own children more "vulnerable" to it.

      Now, these arguments employ at least a few ideas that I would consider contrary to reality (e.g., the idea that it's a "lifestyle", not an "orientation", and that their children could "choose" to become homosexual based on social acceptance). However, the disagreements I would have with this understanding of "harm done" would be disagreements about reality, which is objective, not value judgments based on my individual viewpoint or feelings, which are subjective. In other words, I would argue that when their families are broken apart because their children say they are homosexual, the harm was caused by the parent's attitudes, not by secular gay marriage. That doesn't mean that someone with different values than me couldn't argue against my assertion of reality. But that class of argument is an argument about reality, not an argument about values.

      The questions of "who, what, when, where, why, & how" are very different from "should" and "ought". Our values and subjective preconceptions may shape the way we each perceive reality, but reality is reality, no matter what we think of it.

      On the other hand, the letter (A) argument above, that secular gay marriage makes homosexuality more socially acceptable, thereby causing "harm" to their religious views, is something I can actually agree with. It *does* cause harm to their religious views. If you disagree with me on this, we would be having a disagreement about objective reality, not subjective values, but assuming we can agree on the reality of this particular "harm", let's explore the subjective side of this.

      It's my admittedly subjective viewpoint that the harm done to their religious views of homosexuality is a good thing. Causing harm to these homophobic religious viewpoints is morally a good thing not only for the lesbian and gay people who wish to get married, but also for the religious people themselves, for their children and families, and for society as a whole. I could support this assertion with numerous arguments, but that's beyond the scope of this discussion.

    3. @Matthew,
      Yeah, I take the point that people can be wrong in their subjective beliefs that something is harmful. I could believe that A is harmful because A leads to B and B is harmful. But I could be wrong, if A does not in fact lead to B. Even if everyone felt the same way as me, we could all be wrong.

      I suppose when people have direct experiences of harm, the harm is subjective. But when people are predicting harm, it is possible for them to be objectively correct or incorrect about the prediction.

    4. (Based on comments downthread, I seem to have a different notion of "objective" from Larry.)

  7. miller,

    I'm writing a post on utilitarianism. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, complex subject. I think I'm going to have to introduce dialectical/historical materialism to the concept.

    If we take utilitarianism as the idea that we assign a consistently determinable numeric score (positive or negative) to the utility each person will experience from an action, add up these utilities, and prefer the action with the highest score, then I'm not a utilitarian; I don't think anyone really can be a utilitarian in that sense.

    If we take utilitarianism to mean that we individually and collectively try to do what we can to make as many people happier (or suffer less) as we can, however vague, uncertain, and subjective our judgment of happiness and suffering might be, given that different people (and the same people at different times) will have different subjective judgments, given all the physical, historical, and contingent constraints, and given that we're really bad at intuitively judging probabilities and predicting the future, then yes, I'm a utilitarian.

    Who says moral reasoning ought to be easy? ;-)

  8. "consent" seems to encapsulate... something [other than "harm"].

    I dunno... I definitely feel harmed (sometimes) when my consent is violated, even if I would have consented if asked.

    1. The objective statement of harm here is to say that your feeling of control over [whatever they did without your consent] was harmed by the fact that they did not ask for your consent. Again, there is the objective and specific statement of harm, and the subjective judgement about that harm. The subjective side of this would have to balance the objective harm caused against the objective benefits of them not seeking your consent. Hence, your need to say "(sometimes)". Easy to think of a case where the benefits of not seeking consent outweigh the harm to your feelings of control (as in the case of an urgent life-saving medical procedure when a patient is unable to give consent).

    2. Hm. Let me try that again, lol. The objective statement of harm here is to say that by not asking your consent about something that affects you, they harmed your self-determination. This eliminates the subjectivity, and thereby clarifies the issues at play.

    3. Hahaha, see, it takes practice, and even though I just screwed it up, once you identify the objective core concept of what is being harmed and how, and separate that from any judgement about whether that harm is good or bad in the balance of everything else, it brings a much greater clarity to the overall ethical discussion.

    4. Matthew: It's easier to follow the discussion if substantive comments are posted not as replies but to the top level of the thread. Use replies for adding minor details or clarifications to a substantive reply.

    5. I'm sorry, yeah, that makes sense. I'm a bit of a novice when it comes to blogs.

    6. When you discuss "coercive harm", I thought you meant to imply they are different things. Otherwise, why not just talk about harm, or just about coercion? However, I may have been mistaken about your intended meaning--after all, I was the first one to use "coercively harming a minority", and you simply borrowed that in your response.

    7. I also apologize if I'm treating the comment responses wrong, although in my defense I wasn't trying to say anything substantive.

    8. No need to apologize! I'm just trying to make sure I can follow everything without getting lost. I actually strongly dislike multi-level threaded discussions.

  9. Matthew: In general, the subjective harm of killing (or other consciousness/subjectivity-destroying actions) is just prior to the act: I feel harm by being killed because before I'm killed, I didn't subjectively want to be killed. And if I really do want to die, then I'm not harmed by being killed.

    Second, I think you are making a category error: if we are using "harm" in a morally neutral sense, then just like feeling harmed does not necessarily entail that a moral wrong has occurred, not feeling harmed does not necessarily entail that no moral wrong has occurred.

    But the class of actions that are morally wrong without anyone feeling harmed seems rather small. For example, destroying an archeological artifact that you have just discovered would probably be a moral wrong even though no one actually feels harm. However, we still have subjunctive, counterfactual harm: people would have felt harm had they known what you did.

  10. Also, I don't know if you're aware of how I use "objective". In this sense, a proposition is objective if its truth or falsity does not depend on the state of any mind at any time, factually or counter-factually. For example, the proposition, "The mass of the earth is approximately 5.97219×10^24 kg" is true (at a certain level*) regardless of the state of anyone's mind. On the other hand, the proposition, "Larry likes Indian food," is true depending on the state of my mind. Objective statements are those everyone can be mistaken about; subjective statements are those that at least one person (with a mind) cannot be mistaken about.

    *Ignoring for the purposes of this conversation that the symbols inside the quotation marks have meaning only in relation to minds that read English and use the metric system.

    Similarly, the proposition, "that specific car was crushed into a cube," is an objective statement. However, the proposition, "Larry was harmed by the crushing of the car into a cube," is true if and only if I subjectively felt (or would have felt) harmed. If my present car were crushed into a cube, I would feel harmed. My previous car was crushed into a cube, but because I didn't want it any more, I was not harmed. Now, as it happens, I didn't want it for specific objective reasons, but even if I had felt that I just didn't like that car any more," I still would not have felt harm.

  11. You might argue that my above comments redefine the colloquial use of the term "harm" to force it to fit the idea that "harm" is necessarily objective. To that I would argue that it's also a redefinition of the term to require that it be necessarily subjective, but that the subjective version of "harm" is more discordant with the colloquial use of the term than the objective definition that I have proposed. But if we get into that, then we're just arguing about what is the best term for this concept...

    Even if you use a vague, colloquial definition of "harm", I'm suggesting that there will always be an assertion about the reality of impeded functionality at the heart of it.

  12. To that I would argue that it's also a redefinition of the term to require that it be necessarily subjective, but that the subjective version of "harm" is more discordant with the colloquial use of the term than the objective definition that I have proposed.

    That's what philosophers do: we redefine terms. We are not lexicographers.

    There definitely is an objective meaning of harm. If you back into my car at 2 mph, you will objectively not harm my car. If you crash into it at 50 mph, you will almost certainly objectively harm it. And if I pay you $100 to put my car in the crusher, you have still objectively harmed the car. However, the morally interest question is: have you harmed me?

    The problem is, the objective meaning doesn't relate directly to morality; we have to introduce extra premises to connect harm to right and wrong. Since miller's original question was about the moral status of harm, I was looking at the moral meaning of the term, which I argue is subjective. I do not believe we can create a definition of harm that both specifies objectively what does and does not constitute hamr and includes only that which is morally wrong or excludes only that which is morally right or neutral.

  13. I'm suggesting that there will always be an assertion about the reality of impeded functionality at the heart of it.

    Being called certain racial or sexual epithets, for example, can be harmful without impeding functionality. Being refused service in a public accommodation is a harm, and you can sue for it. If you take a broad enough view, we objectively "impede" each other's "functionality" (for example by locking my front door) so often that "harm" becomes ubiquitous. We would be forced to redefine "harm" as "impeding functionality in subjectively objectionable ways." My point is that the "impeding functionality" part of the definition is irrelevant; the "subjectively objectionable ways" part is salient.

  14. @Larry: I agree, there are some forms of harm which are purely subjective in the sense that they are psychological harms, as with racial or sexual epithets. They feel tremendously harmful, emotionally, psychologically, you can even have involuntary physical reactions, but finding an "objective" core that isn't rooted in subjective interpretation seems to be impossible. Harm is certainly intended by the people doing the harassment, and the victim's sense of dignity, contentment, well-being, and possibly even safety are impaired or impeded, but since that harm is purely psychological, it's very difficult to call it objective. And I also agree with you that the subjective aspect of harm is what really matters when we're talking about ethics.

    I'm thinking I overstated the case for objective harm. Nonetheless, I also think that it really helped me to analyze "harm" by not thinking of it as purely subjective, and by thinking in a more specific sense about what exactly is being harmed, and why.

  15. And Matthew, I will readily admit that truly objective elements are important in defining legal crimes and torts, which are directly related to morality and ethics; subjective elements — e.g. consent, intention, deliberation, malice, foreknowledge, — need to be consistently determinable on perceptual criteria in a similar manner to objective things.

  16. Thanks, by the way, for this stimulating discussion. I've enjoyed your thought-provoking arguments enormously.

    In my failed attempt to argue that all harm is objective, I feel like I learned something that is important beyond the issue of "objective" vs "subjective". And that is this: if we think of harm (or benefit) merely in a general, nonspecific sense, that makes it too easy to stop thinking about it. If one asks, 'How should we choose between two choices that are coercively harmful?' then we've already limited ourselves to only two choices, and we've already begun thinking of "harm" in a general, nonspecific sense.

    The formulation of the statement, "[person/group A] is harmed by [X], while [person/group B] benefits from [X]" is too vague to properly evaluate (even if A, B, and X are specified), because the nature of both the harm and the benefit are obscured. When we focus on *who*, we think of harm or benefit as a net positive or net negative result for that person/group, which might be an acceptable conclusion of a moral evaluation, but should never be the starting point of a moral evaluation. When, on the other hand, we examine *what* [X] is harming (or benefitting) *which* [Y], and *how* (the mechanism by which [X] harms/benefits [Y]), the specific issues at hand become more clear.

    In a conflict situation, focusing on *what* and *how* helps to depersonalize the conflict, and ironically, by not focussing on *who* is harmed or benefited, it actually helps us to have a greater sense of empathy and understanding for those with whom we disagree. It also helps to present opportunities for recognizing common (subjective) values and identifying alternative solutions that might at least placate, if not completely satisfy, all parties involved.

    1. I think, Matthew, that you are very close to grasping dialectical reasoning. You might want to continue on to Hegel and Marx.


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