Can the dead be harmed?
Word Count: 2058

It is a widely held belief that the dead can be harmed. However, I shall argue that this belief is mistaken. I will begin by arguing that a dead person is not a valid subject for harm before showing that Pitcher’s argument that the dead can be harmed whilst they are alive is unconvincing. Before discussing posthumous harms it is useful to make some cursory remarks about harm itself. What is required for harm to take place? When someone is harmed a harming event takes place and he is placed in a harmed condition. This is uncontroversial. Without a harmed condition it is bizarre to say that someone was harmed. However, one can see that this requirement of a harming event and a harmed condition implies two further requirements – a subject and a location in time. These are important points when discussing posthumous harms and whilst they seem obvious they need to be remembered. They are also uncontroversial requirements. Anyone who said, ’A harming event has taken place but no-one was harmed’ would, rightly, be treated with suspicion. Likewise, someone who said, ’A harming event has taken place but not at any time.’ would also be treated with suspicion. Anyone who made these utterances would be challenged to make sense of them and would struggle indefinitely to explain what he meant. Whilst I have not said anything about what sort of event a harming event may be I will follow Pitcher and construe a harming event as the thwarting of interests. Having seen what some of the requirements for harm are, can we straightforwardly say that the dead can be harmed? No. Imagine a scientist that has spent his entire life trying to find a cure for cancer. After he dies his laboratory is burnt down and someone spreads a rumour that it was arranged by him before he died. There is no truth whatsoever in this rumour. If there are posthumous harms, then surely this is a perfect example of one. The scientist has had his laboratory burnt down and lies spread about him, surely this is a harm. So, if this is a posthumous harm then, it is legitimate to ask who has been 1

It is but so much dust (Pitcher. At first glance. If the scientist still exists then. it would seem that the only way this could possibly happen is if there was backwards causation. 1984). breathing human being it no longer is. So. and all manner of inanimate objects that one does not think capable of being harmed. however. the dead cannot be harmed in a straightforward manner. The former description is a description of an ante-mortem person after his death while the latter is a description of a post-mortem person after his death. he does not exist as something that can be harmed. creates difficulties for a straightforward account of posthumous harm. Since the antemortem person is a living person we need an account of how a living person can be harmed after their death. so can tables. Pitcher argues that they can. Pitcher (1984) has argued that there is still a sense in which the dead can be harmed. One can either describe a dead person as he was during some stage of his life – as a living person – or describe a dead person as he is now – rotting away in a grave perhaps. I shall outline his view before dealing with the problems it raises and showing that it is. for Pitcher. integral to understanding posthumous harms. So an event that takes place at a later 2 . Given this distinction and the fact that post-mortem persons cannot be harmed the remaining question is whether ante-mortem persons can be harmed after their death. A dead body is a lump of inanimate matter just like a table. Although a dead body used to be a living. In order for the ante-mortem person to be harmed he needs to be placed in a harmed condition. Pitcher begins his account by outlining a distinction that can be drawn when we talk about the dead. Imagine. This distinction between ante-mortem persons and post-mortem persons is.Y3700774 harmed. someone dies and someone else starts spreading lies about the deceased. Asking this question. However. ultimately. However. It would seem then that if the dead can be harmed in this straightforward manner then. he exists only as a dead body. inadequate. He is beyond harm. the event that places him in this condition – the harming event – takes place after his death. chairs. Is there any sense in which we can say a table has been harmed? It seems absurd to attribute harm to tables but a dead body is similar in many ways to a table.

On Pitcher’s account however. Imagine. This is a straightforward. This is. The mugging merely makes true that he was harmed. uncontroversial case of harm. Consider the implications this has for normal harms. the case of the scientist again. I shall now deal with these problems. however. Now. So backwards causation seems to be an obstacle for the idea that an ante-mortem person can be harmed. at that point when he develops the interest that will later be thwarted. He was harmed because the harming event was going to happen. The mugger harms Smith – places him in a 3 . his account is not without its problems. One problem for Pitcher’s account is pinpointing when the subject is placed in a harmed condition. The post-mortem event is responsible for the ante-mortem harm. As we have seen this the ante-mortem person is in a harmed condition before death but when exactly is he placed in this condition. Suppose. something that does not seem possible. he was harmed when he acquired an interest in not being mugged and keeping his money. that is not what his account is. Smith is walking to work one day. when was Smith harmed? Surely. His interest in not being slandered could not be thwarted if he didn’t hold this interest. Seemingly. However. Presumably. Pitcher has managed to provide an account of posthumous harms that gets around the tricky problem of who is harmed. However. If the posthumous spreading of lies makes it true that he was harmed before his death then presumably it was true that his interest was going to be thwarted only when he developed the interest in not being slandered. Pitcher argues that whilst it is natural to construe the thesis that ante-mortem persons can be harmed after their death as saying that the harmed person remains unharmed until the harming event takes place. So. 1984). These problems render his account unconvincing. This is not how we ordinarily think of harm. You are harmed when the mugger harms you not when you develop an interest in not being mugged. an unsatisfactory response.Y3700774 time alters his condition at an earlier time. consider the other side of this case. when he was mugged. Pitcher’s account is that the occurrence of the harming event makes it true that during the period before the person died he was harmed (Pitcher. This would require an altering of the past. Whilst he is on his way he is mugged and all his money is stolen.

So. If no one is responsible then. I am doomed to die but I am not now in a harmed condition because of this fact. either no one is responsible or the mugger is. The mugger is responsible for placing Smith in a harmed condition – he is responsible for harming Smith. it appears Smith has suffered a mere misfortune. the mugger is responsible for placing Smith in a harmed condition before he mugs Smith (Callahan. the mugger is responsible for the fact that Smith is in a harmed condition. One might wonder. it is fair to ask who is responsible for Smith’s being in a harmed condition. Smith is doomed to be in a harmed condition in the future but doomed is not the same as harmed. If this is the case then. Seemingly. The mugger is responsible for harming Smith before he mugs him. It could be said that the mugger is responsible for mugging Smith but not for Smith’s being in a harmed condition. however. Because Smith will be mugged he is in a harmed condition. is in a harmed condition before the mugging. for instance. if Pitcher’s account is correct the time at which the mugger becomes responsible differs from our ordinary conception of harm and responsibility. Again. the case that Smith. However. There appear to be two options. 1987). to say that Smith has suffered a misfortune is ridiculous. On Pitcher’s account Smith is placed in a harmed condition before the he is mugged. It is not a mere misfortune that Smith will be mugged – someone will mug him. whether this analysis of responsibility is correct. however.Y3700774 harmed condition. Perhaps it would be better to jettison the belief in posthumous harms in favour of an account of harm that fits with our ordinary understanding and practices. This seems to be the hallmark of misfortune – someone was harmed but no one was responsible. however. Consider a man who is struck by a falling tree. When does the mugger become responsible for harming Smith? On our ordinary understanding the mugger is responsible for harming Smith when he places Smith in a harmed condition. He has been placed in a harmed condition yet no one was responsible. The mugger is responsible for the fact that Smith will be mugged and the fact that Smith will be mugged is why Smith is in a harmed condition. Such a radical departure from our ordinary understanding of harm is a high price to pay for posthumous harms. 4 . Both these problems appear because Pitcher places the harmed condition before the harming event. It is not.

Pitcher agrees with this but holds that the dead can be harmed as ante-mortem persons. possibly stronger. Who is doing the desiring? No one! Interests are products of interest-bearers they do not come about by themselves and they do not carry on existing without an interest-bearer. I have argued that this requires us to revise our ordinary accounts of harm and responsibility to a degree that is unacceptable.Y3700774 The previous two objections put Pitcher’s account of posthumous harms on shaky ground but there is a further. Can one even make sense of the idea that interests exist without interest-bearers? It seems highly unlikely. Whilst. To remove interest-bearers. Equally. as the dead. not the ante-mortem person for that person is no longer around to hold the interest. For Pitcher’s account to make sense it has to be the case that someone’s interests can be thwarted after his death. The dead are not proper subjects of harm. Pitcher’s account relies on this thwarting occurring after death. The only option left is that the interest itself is thwarted but this makes a mystery of the whole thing. the question now is whether we can make sense of this idea. Consequently. Pitcher’s account requires a mysterious account of interest survival. 5 . objection to consider. the conditions required for fulfilment of an interest are objective conditions – they do not require any satisfaction or pleasure on the interest-bearer’s part – this does not mean that interest-bearers are not required at all. In conclusion. an interest is thwarted if that which is desired does not occur – if I do not eat an ice cream then my desire has been thwarted. corpses are incapable of having interests. Whose interest is thwarted? Surely not the corpse. It is this thwarting that makes it true that someone was in a harmed condition antemortem. They are interminably interlinked with the functioning of our brains. First. Interests are thwarted when that which is desired does not come about. For instance. I have argued that the dead. When we die our brains cease to function and our interests cease to be. There is no one to whom this interest belongs – no one that desires that which isn’t going to occur. So. Not only this. to fulfil my desire for ice cream I need to eat an ice cream. is to remove the reason these interests matter – they matter only in so much as they matter to someone (Partridge. Likewise. cannot be harmed. 1981). for an interest to be fulfilled that which is desired needs to occur.

6 .Y3700774 despite our intuitions it appears that the dead cannot be harmed.

183–188. pp. G. (1981). The misfortunes of the dead.Y3700774 Bibliography Callahan. 91. American Philosophical Quarterly. E. 341–352. 21(2). Partridge. (1984). Ethics. pp. 7 . J. Posthumous interest and posthumous respect. Ethics. 243–264. Pitcher. pp. (1987). On harming the dead. 97.

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