Being worse off - but in comparison with what?

On the baseline problem of harm and the harm principle

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Abstract

Several liberal philosophers and penal theorists have argued that the state has a reason to prohibit acts that harm individuals. But what is harm? According to one specification of harm, a person P is harmed by an act (or an event) a iff, as a result of a, P is made worse off in terms of well-being. One central question here involves the baseline against which we assess whether someone is ‘worse off’. In other words, when a person is harmed he is worse off, certainly—but what is worse off a variation from? A central part of the paper critically discusses different answers to this question based on versions of what we can call: the temporal baseline, the baseline from mankind and the counterfactual baseline. Essentially, it will be argued that the counterfactual baseline leaves us with a better understanding of harming than the other baselines discussed. The final part of the paper will describe some of the implications of our investigation for the application and evaluation of the view that harm matters in the justification of which type of acts should be criminalized by the state. The overall conclusion of the paper is that adherents of a view like the harm principle face a dilemma. Either they can accept the counterfactual baseline but then, they can do without the harm principle. Or they can reject the counterfactual baseline—but then they will have to formulate an alternative baseline which, as will be shown in the paper, is no easy task
Original languageEnglish
JournalRes Publica
Volume20
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)199-214
Number of pages16
ISSN1356-4765
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - May 2014

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