"As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

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"As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby athelas » Mon Aug 10, 2009 9:08 pm UTC

You often hear this argument from people seeking justification for whatever they're doing (most recently, a friend of a friend claiming that cheating in a LDR doesn't count, because it's not like you could give the other person that much more if you'd been monogamous). Until recently I had given it some credence as a sort of consequentialism-for-dummies folk argument. However, I recently stumbled across this essay that gives a strong rebuttal to this line of reasoning.
Even so, perhaps the single most idiotic way of argumentation that I often see mindlessly applied is that some activity should be accepted or legal because "it doesn't harm anyone". There might be a chance that this phrase is just well-known common shorthand for some more solid argument, but I kind of doubt it. (If it is, could somebody point me to the right direction so I can see it, please?) I find this argument so stupid because even though standing by itself, the rule "an action is morally acceptable if and only if it doesn't harm anybody" sounds good and certainly makes a great bumper sticker, in reality it simply does not work at all and makes no sense.

For starters, this rule is far too restrictive. According to it, it would be wrong to apply for a job for which there are several applicants, since your getting this job harms the person who was the second choice. Similarly, a company inventing a product that makes some other company's product obsolete harms the employees and shareholders of that other company since they can no longer profit from their product. Yes, I would say that taking away somebody's livelihood constitutes "harming" him by any reasonable definition of this word. The proponent of the ethos "an action is morally acceptable if and only if it doesn't harm anybody" therefore quickly has to add all kinds of qualifications and exceptions until his whole framework essentially collapses into naive utilitarianism.

Second, the rule is absolutely meaningless without an objective and operational definition of "harm". For example, many Muslims currently seem to be very hurt by the famous Danish cartoons. Similarly, many Christians feel very hurt about gay marriage, another thing that famously never seems to harm anybody. Of course I can't see into their brain to measure if these people are really "hurt" or just pretending to be, but based on their externally observable behaviour, I tend to believe them. At this point, the proponent of this ethos can do no better than spin ad hoc explanations why somebody "really isn't harmed" even though he sincerely feels that he is, or to explain that when you hurt only feelings, it is not really "harming" at all. (Very well, let's see if you still think this way if I start mocking rape and cancer victims.) Or as seems to be common with these particular examples, argue that harming some people actually isn't that bad since they don't really count. For example, Pat Robertson's feelings and anguish seldom seem to be much concern to anybody.

Perhaps the rule could be modified so that it says "an action is morally acceptable if and only if it doesn't cause anybody having justified feelings of harm". But this is just a sleight of hand that tries to sweep the problems under the word "justified". Hiding these problems doesn't make them go away, since people can't agree at all when somebody's feelings of being harmed by somebody else's very existence are justified. We can see this vividly in, for example, the anguish of mom-and-pop stores when Wal-Mart comes to town. (By the way, I think it's quite funny how the vocal proponents of gay marriage and the vocal opponents of Wal-Mart tend to be the exact same people, who totally reverse their logic of what constitutes "harming others" when they switch between these two tasks.)

Third, all our actions have a vast array of direct and indirect consequences that we are not able to track or perceive. The butterfly flapping its wings causing a hurricane and so on. Anything that we do is certainly somehow bound to harm other people. This ethos simply turns ignorance into virtue: as long as you are suitably unaware of the consequences of your actions, you can do anything you want!

At this point, I would like to link to the absolutely excellent article "A really, really, really long post about gay marriage that does not, in the end, support one side or the other" in the blog "Asymmetrical Information". This article, among many other things, explains why the common practical arguments of the form "We must allow X, since I can't see X harming anybody because I sure know that it wouldn't harm me" are invalid, which in turn has a huge practical effect on whether we can draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable actions based on whether it "harms" somebody or not.
So basically, it's too restrictive if you take it literally, it makes no distinction between valid and invalid harms, and is usually used alongside a simplistic argument that willfully ignores the unpredictable downstream effects. Thoughts?

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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Vaniver » Mon Aug 10, 2009 9:14 pm UTC

To me, it is shorthand for "an action is only wrong if it violates someone else's rights"- which moves the conversation off to rights (Do we have a right to define marriage the way the majority wants it to be defined, or do all couples have the right to a legally recognized marriage).

That gets rid of the trivial things (applying to a job doesn't violate anyone else's rights), but it also doesn't cover everything (saying something mean to someone harms them, but doesn't violate their rights). But I think it establishes a nice baseline.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Elvish Pillager » Mon Aug 10, 2009 9:21 pm UTC

Well, the negative side ("Never do anything that would cause harm") is clearly bogus, but I think the other side ("Never ban anything that doesn't cause harm") is defensible.

What I see as the weakest point in that argument is this:
athelas wrote:Second, the rule is absolutely meaningless without an objective and operational definition of "harm". For example, many Muslims currently seem to be very hurt by the famous Danish cartoons. Similarly, many Christians feel very hurt about gay marriage, another thing that famously never seems to harm anybody. Of course I can't see into their brain to measure if these people are really "hurt" or just pretending to be, but based on their externally observable behaviour, I tend to believe them. At this point, the proponent of this ethos can do no better than spin ad hoc explanations why somebody "really isn't harmed" even though he sincerely feels that he is, or to explain that when you hurt only feelings, it is not really "harming" at all. (Very well, let's see if you still think this way if I start mocking rape and cancer victims.)

I agree with the argument when it says that hurting feelings constitutes harm - the difference I see is that the Muslims and Christians who are 'hurt' by these actions need merely avert their eyes. Thus, I think one could legitimately argue that the harm or lack thereof that comes to those Muslims and Christians is not in the hands of the cartoonists or homosexuals in question, but in the hands of they themselves.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Strilanc » Mon Aug 10, 2009 9:33 pm UTC

The obvious reply to your friend is that they are doing harm, it's just not definite harm. For example there is a chance their long distance partner will discover the infidelity and be hurt emotionally.

An action which truly has no negative consequences would by definition not be wrong, but there is no such thing. Even the most trivial actions may have unpredictable outcomes, meaning all you can do is try to minimize the risk of negative consequences.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby TheAmazingRando » Mon Aug 10, 2009 9:38 pm UTC

Perhaps the rule could be modified so that it says "an action is morally acceptable if and only if it doesn't cause anybody having justified feelings of harm". But this is just a sleight of hand that tries to sweep the problems under the word "justified". Hiding these problems doesn't make them go away, since people can't agree at all when somebody's feelings of being harmed by somebody else's very existence are justified. We can see this vividly in, for example, the anguish of mom-and-pop stores when Wal-Mart comes to town. (By the way, I think it's quite funny how the vocal proponents of gay marriage and the vocal opponents of Wal-Mart tend to be the exact same people, who totally reverse their logic of what constitutes "harming others" when they switch between these two tasks.)
This article, as well as the one it links to, likes to treat economic harm and baseless disgust as though they are the same thing. There's a difference between the "harm" caused by Wal-Mart moving into town - a tangible loss of profits from other businesses (though whether or not they should be protected from it is debatable) - and the "harm" caused by a gay couple getting married - someone, somewhere saying "that's gross, they shouldn't be allowed to do that."

I can't imagine a stable system where being offended at what someone else chooses to do which does not otherwise effect you is a legitimate reason to make something illegal. Maybe it causes harm, but it not the sort of harm that should be legislated against. If you want to mock rape and cancer victims to their face, you're an asshole, but you shouldn't be punished legally for it. I fully support the right to offend, and to offend deeply.

And of course everything may cause harm. That's why we try to balance it out and choose the side that causes less harm. Maybe you could make a case for gay marriage having some negative impact on someone else. But how extreme would that harm have to be to cancel out the harm caused by the present situation, where individuals are denied the same rights as the majority because they're seen as "unnatural" or "sinful?"
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby athelas » Mon Aug 10, 2009 9:38 pm UTC

Elvish Pillager wrote:I agree with the argument when it says that hurting feelings constitutes harm - the difference I see is that the Muslims and Christians who are 'hurt' by these actions need merely avert their eyes. Thus, I think one could legitimately argue that the harm or lack thereof that comes to those Muslims and Christians is not in the hands of the cartoonists or homosexuals in question, but in the hands of they themselves.
I'm not sure why you draw the line there, however. As the guy said, mocking cancer victims is legal but we generally regard it as morally wrong, and it fits your argument about how if you don't like it, change the channel to another stand-up comic.

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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Elvish Pillager » Mon Aug 10, 2009 9:41 pm UTC

It is a good parallel: Much as it's disgusting to us to get humor out of mocking cancer or rape victims, it shouldn't be illegal.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Enuja » Mon Aug 10, 2009 9:48 pm UTC

I see that cliche very differently than both you and the essay-writer do. To me, the cliche is not an argument that something is morally acceptable if and only if it harms no-one, but instead a statement of self-ownership of morals. I think that phrase is not applicable to cheating (because you are harming the person you are cheating on), but applicable to choices made between consenting adults. In fact, I think that the phrase is all about the idea that if something is morally OK to the consenting adults, then the moral judgment of you, the outsider, is irrelevant. I know that this isn't the literal meaning of the phrase, but I think that it's the functional meaning. So the phrase is not actually a moral justification at all but instead a staking out of space for one's own individual moral power.

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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby athelas » Mon Aug 10, 2009 10:42 pm UTC

Elvish Pillager wrote:It is a good parallel: Much as it's disgusting to us to get humor out of mocking cancer or rape victims, it shouldn't be illegal.
I don't think that gay-marriage proponents will be very happy at having the status "we all think it's immoral and disgusting, but fine, we'll let it slide." And as I understand it, people who use the "it's not harming anyone" argument to defend gay marriage are seeking to have it considered moral, not just legal.

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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby TheAmazingRando » Mon Aug 10, 2009 10:55 pm UTC

athelas wrote:And as I understand it, people who use the "it's not harming anyone" argument to defend gay marriage are seeking to have it considered moral, not just legal.
I've never seen the argument applied towards morality, just towards legality. And I've almost always heard it coming from people emphasizing that the two should be distinct.

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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby 6453893 » Mon Aug 10, 2009 11:18 pm UTC

Am I the only one who uses that phrase in a very shallow sense? I generally loathe getting bogged down in ethics and morality, especially if particular friends of mine are in the conversation. When I say "as long as it doesn't harm anybody", I generally mean "as long as it will not provoke any retaliation". Obviously there are instances where the two are not equivalent, and sometimes I even do use the phrase in the moralist sense, but more often I am just looking pragmatically at the implications of the action. I thought more people were like this, but it doesn't seem so.

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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Elvish Pillager » Tue Aug 11, 2009 12:43 am UTC

athelas wrote:
Elvish Pillager wrote:It is a good parallel: Much as it's disgusting to us to get humor out of mocking cancer or rape victims, it shouldn't be illegal.
I don't think that gay-marriage proponents will be very happy at having the status "we all think it's immoral and disgusting, but fine, we'll let it slide." And as I understand it, people who use the "it's not harming anyone" argument to defend gay marriage are seeking to have it considered moral, not just legal.

That is not what I was suggesting. Also, I don't intend to get into the issue of morality, since it runs up immediately against the "can morality be objective?" issue, which is a huge argument in its own right.

The point is that same-sex marriage should be legal even if a lot of people find it immoral and disgusting, because it doesn't harm anyone. Similarly, mocking cancer or rape victims should be legal even though a lot of people find it immoral and disgusting, because it doesn't harm anyone (...maybe. I'll get back to this). This argument gives no judgment on whether the actions actually are disgusting or immoral; it is an argument regarding legality regardless of how many moral or social objections there are.

Actually, you could make a very strong argument that mocking cancer/rape victims DOES harm people in a way that the former doesn't - encouraging an insensitive culture, etc., with lots of nasty results down the road. The attitude of the view that I'm currently expressing is that the harm is caused by the person who could most easily have prevented it - e.g. it is easier for Christians to look away and not be offended than it is for homosexual couples to deny themselves marriage. This guideline makes the cancer/rape jokes a very borderline case, which actually means that the general rule "it's okay if it does no harm" doesn't apply (it's a heuristic judgment, so it simply does not apply to borderline cases.) Such jokes, of course, don't need this rule as an argument in their defense, because they're covered under freedom of speech.

It seems that the essay's basic purpose in bringing in the jokes as an example was to insist that same-sex marriage should be defended no more than they should, with the rationale that they did no more harm than same-sex marriage. Whether or not you agree with the rationale (I certainly don't, but I see how someone could), it isn't a criticism that applies to the view I'm putting forth here.

Summary of this view:
1) A person's action is considered to "cause harm" is there is any physical, emotional, or economic harm for which there is no easier way to prevent it than for that person to refrain from doing the action. Borderline cases aren't covered.
2) The "easiness" of any method of prevention (including refraining from the action) is based on how much work it is and whether it causes physical, emotional, or economic harm to the person choosing it.
3) No action that does not "cause harm" should have large penalties given for doing it.
4) Making an action illegal is the obvious example of such "large penalties", though as with any other argument about legality, there are exception cases in which an action would be made illegal for some purpose other than assessing a penalty to people who do it; those aren't covered.
5) Because of how our economic system works, denying employment to the person for no other reason would also constitute a large penalty, which can be prohibited by law - consider minority-protection laws. Most other things - for example, denouncing the person and refusing to talk to them - would not be a 'large penalty'.
Addendum: I can imaging a devil's advocate arguing that an insane person might find it much less "easy" to refrain from going on a killing spree than their victims would to stop them. Since the insane person isn't rational, it makes sense to treat them more like a natural disaster than a human who can be penalized; the purpose of laws against this type of thing are not to penalize the person, but to make it possible to stop them under the normal methods of law enforcement, so they fall under the exception to (4).

There are very many borderline cases, but I think there are enough non-borderline cases that this isn't nearly as vacuous as the original essay argued. There might be some holes in this or cases I didn't consider - I'm getting sleepy. Catch your responses in the morning.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Whimsical Eloquence » Tue Aug 11, 2009 12:52 am UTC

I think fraising it in the manner the Openning Poster did demeans the arguement somwhat making it appear slightly childish or adolesence. First, it is not being argued that this should be the only guide to what is wrong and what is right, which is a seperate issue, rather it argues that anything which dose not harm anyone else cannnot be considered wrong. One of Locke's few good principles was this, the Harm Principles. In essence: My right to swing my fist ends where your body begins. That is, of course, unless you quite clearly want me to punch you but in general I can't see fault in this principle. My right to act shouldn't be restrained unless it conflicts with others rights.

As for your Cancer Paitent example, I would think it more distasteful rather than morally wrong. One could make a case that a preoccupupation with mocking people and deriving pleasure from that is partially wrong, espicially if you activly seek them out but I think in general it is by no means on the same level as actually undertaking harm againist somone is.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby YourReality » Tue Aug 11, 2009 3:36 am UTC

It might help clear up matters here to get to the source of things. John Stuart Mill's Theory of Liberty is where this idea comes from. What is being loosely discussed as 'do whatever you want so long as you're not hurting anyone' is much more thoroughly and eloquently discussed in his work on the matter. It's not without flaw, of course, as it is only one among many ethical philosophies and ethics is one of those things with no correct answer. It does, however, clarify what exactly is meant by the idea. For those who won't read the whole article (many, I imagine) Mill specifically distinguishes between harm and offense. If you want to cut to the meat of the matter at hand, head straight for the section about his Theory of Liberty.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stuart_Mill

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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Soralin » Tue Aug 11, 2009 5:30 am UTC

The problem is, this whole argument is a logical fallacy.

He starts with this:
Even so, perhaps the single most idiotic way of argumentation that I often see mindlessly applied is that some activity should be accepted or legal because "it doesn't harm anyone".

So in other words (it doesn't harm anyone) -> (it should be accepted or legal).

The problem is, the whole rest of the argument isn't talking about that at all. It goes off talking about things like this:
For starters, this rule is far too restrictive. According to it, it would be wrong to apply for a job for which there are several applicants, since your getting this job harms the person who was the second choice.

Which seems to be talking about, if it does harm someone, it shouldn't be accepted or be a law
Or in other words ~(it doesn't harm someone) -> ~(it should be accepted or legal).

This isn't the same statement at all, it's it's inverse, and the inverse of a true statement is not necessarily a true statement itself. An inverse of a statement is not implied by the original statement.

He tries to work his way out of it by making an alteration to the original argument (an alteration which he conveniently leaves out of the opening to the introduction, and the conclusion):
"an action is morally acceptable if and only if it doesn't harm anybody"

Adding the "and only if", which is not there in the saying at all, which completely changes the meaning of what was said. It's not a common statement that people would say that every action which causes any harm to anyone is immoral, which is what is added to the original statement by the "and only if". And this is what his entire argument is based on, none of which touches the original statement, and which turns the whole thing into a giant strawman.

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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Griffin » Tue Aug 11, 2009 5:39 am UTC

Yeah, the argument is epic fail for the reasons stated by the poster above - namely, it isn't talking about what it claims to be talking about, at all.

"It doesn't harm anyone" is a pretty good defense of any action as at least being morally neutral - in many moral codes, some form of harm is necessary (though few see it as sufficient) for an action to be "wrong". To me, that makes sense.

Of course, people use it to defend situations where there is very clearly harm or high potential of harm, so its not always used well, but I think it still has value.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby mister k » Tue Aug 11, 2009 9:55 am UTC

Yeah, the iff statement comes from absolutely nowhere, and is fallaciousicious. I don't think anyone is truly claiming that something can only be legal if it does no harm.

The article does, finally, argue its point correctly by mentioning that every single action is likely to cause some form of harm. This is actually a solid enough point, if people's opinions were truly that unnuanced. I suspect what we mean is that we wish to minimise harm. In most western societies, at least, the harm of offence is given low value- the fact that we enshrine freedom of speech would imply that we care less about the harm from offence than the harm from not being able to talk. In that case, there is clear harm, in for example, banning gay marriage, by preventing gay people equal legal and social rights, which I believe certainly outweighs the potential harm such a policy might cause in offence. The long article it links to is tiresome, makes causality=correlation fallacies and again hides a good point in bad arguments. That being, that actions can have unintended consequences, and claiming that gay marriage definitely won't effect the institution of marriage is probably incorrect. Whether this is an issue or not is another matter.

I think the principle of attempting to minimise harm is actually quite a good one, and I tend to apply it myself.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby BattleMoose » Tue Aug 11, 2009 1:24 pm UTC

Despite the obvious strawman in the original quoted text this has become an interesting discussion.

Arguing

"an action is acceptable as long as it doesn't harm anyone


is clearly very different to the argument.

"an action is morally acceptable if and only if it doesn't harm anybody"


That being said, I think its going to be difficult to find an action that doesn't harm someone using some definition of the word "harm". Although some people/groups do tend to get very easily offended, I do think it is still best to try and avoid harming people in whatever context even if they are being rediculuos and absurd, as long as your inaction isn't harming you or anyone else.

Cleary any action that violates anyones rights or breaks any laws is unnacceptable so this discussion should really focus on that grey area on actions that:

a) Kinda harm other people (Watering your garden while there are water restrictions)
b) Kinda harm people because they are unreasonable (Practising an unpopular religion)

And the glorious set of actions which either harm you or others through inaction or others through your action, reasonably or otherwise. Gay marriage would be a good example here.

But for those actions which barely harm or really don't seem to harm anyone, as reasonably as possible, then while that might not provide the motivation for performing that action, it provides a strong moral position that I shouldn't not be able to do it. (Dressing up at DND conventions and no, I have never done that, I don't even play DND, but I do think they should be able to dress up as silly as they want to, whatever their motivations and if they have an awesome time doing it, then thats just awesome. The world needs more people feeling awesome.)

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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Diadem » Tue Aug 11, 2009 11:07 pm UTC

The first problem I have with both the initial proposition ("It's good if it doesn't harm anyone") and the counter arguments the essay gives is this: They are both based on a dualistic approach to morality. Something is either good or bad.

I say nay. Things that are not good are not necessarily bad. And things that are not bad are not necessarily good. Not shooting my neighbour in the head for fun is certainly not bad. But is it good? Is not murdering someone in cold blood an act of moral virtue? Giving away most of your worldly possessions and taking a trip to Africa to help starving children is certainly morally admirable. But does that mean that anything short of that is morally wrong?

Similarly, the statement "It's good if it doesn't harm anyone" falls into the same trap. So let's start by replacing this with the statement "It's not bad if it doesn't harm anyone". This can be alternatively phrased in more direct language: "Things that do not harm people should be legal".

The problem with this statement, as the author of the essay rightfully remarks, is the word 'harm'. It's too vague and has too many different meanings that we do not want in this case. So I propose a second modification: "it's not bad if you do not initiate violence". And let me stress here what that not say. It does not say that not initiating violence is good. Neither does it say that initiating violence is bad.

I won't claim this version of the statement is perfect. Initiating violence is still not a term defined with perfect rigor, for a start. But I do believe it's a vast improvement.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Plasma Man » Wed Aug 12, 2009 8:33 am UTC

How about if you replace "It's not bad if you do not initiate violence" with "It's not bad if you do not inflict measurable harm". Physical harm is measurable, as is economic harm (taking money or posessions from someone). Offending someone is not measurable, so would be allowed by this statement.
Of course, just because something does cause measurable harm to someone, that does not mean it is immoral. In surgery, committing measurable harm by cutting someone open is generally considered to be moral, as it is for that person's benefit. With the job interview situation, I would argue that this is a fair competition: By applying for the job each person accepts that they are entering into a competition for the job and the best candidate will succeed.

I would also modify the statement to "It's not bad if you do not inflict measurable harm to anyone other than yourself". If I choose to smoke, that harms me, but it is my decision to make. If I smoke in an enclosed public space without the consent of all others present, I am inflicting harm on them through passive smoking. If someone visits me in my house and states that they do not mind me smoking around them, they are consenting to the (small) amount of harm done to them, making it moral.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Zamfir » Wed Aug 12, 2009 8:51 am UTC

Plasma Man wrote:Physical harm is measurable, as is economic harm (taking money or posessions from someone). Offending someone is not measurable, so would be allowed by this statement.


I don't think this works. What's measurably harmful about locking someone in a room with plenty of food, besides that the person in question doesn't like it? And if "the person doesn't like it" counts, than why is offending someone not measurably harmful?

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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Diadem » Wed Aug 12, 2009 10:19 am UTC

I don't think 'measurable harm' works either. Going to a job interview and getting the job deprives someone else of that job. This is certainly measurable harm. But there's nothing wrong with it. And the harm that offending someone does might be hard to measure, but I do not see how it is inherently unmeasurable.

What is wrong with the phrasing of 'initiating violence'? Of course we still need to define this. Let's define violence as "taking, destroying or damaging possessions of another person without permission". So theft is violence. So is rape (you own your body. Or if you don't like that view, change the definition to 'possessions or body of'). Insults are not violence. Maybe not a perfect definition, but close enough for now. Initiating means that your violence is not in response to violent action of the person the violence is aimed at. If someone hits you, hitting back is violence, but not the initiation of violence. Oh and you can't inflict violence upon yourself (since you always have your own permission for your actions).

I think we now have a pretty good rule of thumb. Still just a rule of thumb, one should be able to find a few expections. But still useful in setting moral guidelines.

The main problem I see right now is that this always excuses inaction. Watching passively while your neighbour's kids drown for example would be excused by this argument. But perhaps we should bite the bullet and say that this is indeed not wrong (which, I stress again, is not the same at all as saying that it is good). After all, all of use are continuously watching passively as millions of kids starve to death. And I think I can argue that we can help (at least some) starving kids in Africa with less cost and less risk to ourselves than we can help our neighbour's drowning kids.

As a sidenote: Libertarians often go one step further and claim not only that not initiating violence is not bad, but also that initiating violence is bad. I think this is a bridge too far. For a start, it makes all form of government impossible.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby Elvish Pillager » Wed Aug 12, 2009 10:56 am UTC

That definition defends responding to petty theft with a bazooka attack. Maybe you want something more like "escalating violence"? Also, I'm not comfortable with calling theft violence.

How about just "If you don't take, damage, or destroy anything that belongs to someone else, it's not wrong"?

But here's the kicker: Are we counting psychological damage? If we're not, it protects some things it shouldn't, and if we are, there's hardly anything interesting that it necessarily protects.
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby dosboot » Wed Aug 12, 2009 8:55 pm UTC

To me, accounting for other people's feelings is a matter of "politeness" and not "morality". One can imagine a culture where it is not impolite to burp in front of others, and another culture where it is highly impolite. There is no morality of burping, there is only how you or your culture is currently accustomed to reacting to it. Mocking cancer, being openly gay (or anti gay) are similiar, the difference being where it falls on the scale and how much variation people feel about these acts.

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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby DSenette » Thu Aug 13, 2009 2:18 pm UTC

don't know if this has been said yet in this thread but...

maybe if it were worded as "as long as it doesn't cause INTENTIONAL harm, or [b]IMPOSE[/url] harm on the unwilling".....if your actions weren't done out of malice or with intent to harm...but they inadvertently harm someone then it's a much smaller issue than if you did something that you KNEW would cause harm in some way...but decided it was trivial because you don't view the harm as real....and to the imposition of harm....that would go towards the "avert your eyes" concept with regards to the danish cartoons, or a movie that someone is offended by.....if a person would be offended (harmed) by an action...but they are not forced to be affected by that action (don't watch the movie and you won't be offended...no body said you HAD to go see it or they'd kill you) then the action itself isn't wrong
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Re: "As long as it doesn't harm anyone": bad argument?

Postby YourReality » Fri Aug 14, 2009 10:52 pm UTC

Soralin wrote:The problem is, this whole argument is a logical fallacy.

He starts with this:
Even so, perhaps the single most idiotic way of argumentation that I often see mindlessly applied is that some activity should be accepted or legal because "it doesn't harm anyone".

So in other words (it doesn't harm anyone) -> (it should be accepted or legal).

The problem is, the whole rest of the argument isn't talking about that at all. It goes off talking about things like this:
For starters, this rule is far too restrictive. According to it, it would be wrong to apply for a job for which there are several applicants, since your getting this job harms the person who was the second choice.

Which seems to be talking about, if it does harm someone, it shouldn't be accepted or be a law
Or in other words ~(it doesn't harm someone) -> ~(it should be accepted or legal).

This isn't the same statement at all, it's it's inverse, and the inverse of a true statement is not necessarily a true statement itself. An inverse of a statement is not implied by the original statement.

He tries to work his way out of it by making an alteration to the original argument (an alteration which he conveniently leaves out of the opening to the introduction, and the conclusion):
"an action is morally acceptable if and only if it doesn't harm anybody"

Adding the "and only if", which is not there in the saying at all, which completely changes the meaning of what was said. It's not a common statement that people would say that every action which causes any harm to anyone is immoral, which is what is added to the original statement by the "and only if". And this is what his entire argument is based on, none of which touches the original statement, and which turns the whole thing into a giant strawman.


Correct, indeed. It's called 'denying the antecedent' in technical logical violation terminology.


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