The Myth of Posthumous Harm
Taylor (James Stacey)
Source: American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Oct., 2005), pp. 311-322
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. In 1415 the remains of John Wyclif, who died in 1384, were exhumed and burned by the Catholic Church to punish him for his criticisms of the doctrine of transubstantiation. But the view that the dead can be harmed is not confined to the religious leaders of the fifteenth century. It is still common for people to feel sorry for a decedent if his projects fail after his death, or if others misappropriate the credit that was owed to him in recognition of his achievements1. Such sentiments are endorsed by orthodox philosophical opinion, for the view that the dead can be harmed is widely accepted by philosophers2. The champions of this view are undoubtedly George Pitcher3 and Joel Feinberg4, and its adherents range from philosophers engaged in the theoretical debate over the correct analysis of well being to those concerned with the practical issues of applied ethics.
  2. Given that accepting the view that the dead can be harmed has such widespread implications it is important to realize that, lay opinion and philosophical orthodoxy notwithstanding, the most influential arguments in favor of the view that the dead can be harmed – those offered by Feinberg and Pitcher – are mistaken.
  3. Of course, one might hold that even if the Feinberg-Pitcher account of how the dead can be harmed is mistaken the intuitions that give rise to it are so well entrenched that an alternative account of posthumous harm should be developed to accommodate them.
  4. To extinguish this belief it will be shown in this paper that the intuitions that lead many philosophers to believe that the dead can be harmed can be fully accounted for without endorsing the possibility of posthumous harm.
  5. The argument of this paper thus differs considerably from others offered against the Feinberg-Pitcher account of posthumous harm, for it does not focus on showing that the Feinberg-Pitcher position has counterintuitive implications. Rather, the argument of this paper will seek to show that since accepting the intuitively plausible claims that are widely taken (by both its proponents and critics alike) to support the Feinberg-Pitcher position do not commit one to doing so, there is no reason to accept their view at all.

  1. The Intuitive Case for Posthumous Harm
    • The Anti-Hedonistic Intuition
    • Wronging the Dead
  2. The Feinberg-Pitcher Argument for Posthumous Harm
  3. Assessing the Argument for Posthumous Harm
  4. Accommodating Orphaned Intuitions
    • Accommodating Feinberg's and Parfit5's Anti-Hedonistic Intuitions
    • Can the Dead Be Wronged?
  5. Conclusion

  1. The Intuitive Case for Posthumous Harm
    • There are two obvious objections to the thesis that the dead can be harmed:-
      1. The Problem of the Subject”: if the person no longer exists, how can he be harmed, as there is no subject for the harm to affect?
      2. The Problem of Backward Causation6”: where later events cause earlier ones.
    • These objections might be overcome by establishing two intuitions – “anti-hedonism” and the claim that the dead can be wronged7.
    • The Anti-Hedonistic Intuition: this is the rejection of the hedonic view of well-being. The claim is that someone can be harmed when alive by things of which they are ignorant, and which have no impact on their feeling of well-being, and consequently could be harmed when dead (and necessarily ignorant and insensate).
    • "Feinberg (Joel) - Harm to Others" (pp. 181-2) tries to establish the AH intuition by comparing two cases: in both, an agent’s projects go badly for her, and in both cases she is in ignorance, but in the first case (A) the “harm to her interests8” is ante-mortem (but friends hide / deceive) and the other (B) is post-mortem. Feinberg can see no relevant difference between the cases.
    • Similarly, "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons" (p. 495) claims that a man is harmed by the disgrace of his children even if (in exile) he never comes to hear of it. If he is harmed, despite the lack of (hedonic) effect on him, so may the dead.
    • Wronging the Dead: Feinberg amends Case B by making the (alleged) post-mortem harm to be brought about by a lying conspiracy, whereby she is also wronged. Who could be wronged but the person lied about? And if wronged, why not harmed? Feinberg thinks this is especially clear when harm is an essential ingredient of the wrong. So, it seems, “the problem of the subject” is not a genuine one.
  2. The Feinberg-Pitcher Argument for Posthumous Harm
    • Taylor focusses on "Pitcher (George) - The Misfortunes of the Dead", of which Feinberg’s account is a reiteration.
    • Pitcher distinguishes ante-mortem from post-mortem persons, both referred to after their death. Reference to a person as ante-mortem is to him as he was in life, while as post-mortem is to him in death, maybe mouldering in his grave.
    • It is evident (to everyone, Pitcher thinks) that the post-mortem person cannot be harmed, so the harm must be the ante-mortem person.
    • A person is harmed if his interests are harmed, and this can happen if the interests of an ante-mortem person are thwarted after his death – in which case the ante-mortem person is harmed post-mortem.
    • Consequently, “the problem of the subject” is avoided9.
    • If the person dies unharmed, and is only harmed post-mortem, then it looks as though we’re stuck with backward causation10. But Pitcher thinks that the ante-mortem person is harmed during his lifetime11.
    • He thinks this is possible because of an analogy: if the world had ended during the presidency of Reagan’s successor, Reagan would have been the penultimate President, but this would not require backward causation12. So, he says, with post-mortem harm.
  3. Assessing the Argument for Posthumous Harm
    • Taylor (disingenuously?) starts his assessment by saying that Feinberg and Parfit’s13 TEs are “compelling” and that Pitcher’s arguments to circumvent both the problem of the subject and backward causation14 are “elegant and persuasive”.
    • However, he rejects Pitcher’s “Reagan” argument to the effect that there’s no backward causation15 on the grounds that “being the penultimate President” is a sequential16 property.
    • Harm, however is not a sequential property; rather, Taylor attempts to define it as a reduction in well-being. So, there’s no reason to believe that non-sequential properties, like harm, can be retrodicted just because sequential ones can so be.
    • Taylor admits that the rejection of this analogy doesn’t imply that no analogy could be successful, and others have been tried.
    • "Grover (Dorothy) - Posthumous Harm" proposes one such – “a killer”. The case arises where A shoots B, but dies before B does.
    • Other (to my mind) weaker examples are given based on post-mortem fulfilment or frustration of current desires.
    • So, backward causation17 isn’t required for people in the past to possess properties they did not then possess.
    • Even so, this isn’t sufficient to show that harm can be retrodicted unless it is of the same type as those properties whose retroactive ascription is metaphysically unproblematic.
    • Levenbrook and Luper point out that a person’s reputation can wax and wane after his death, without incurring backward causation18, but Callahan points out that a posthumous reputation is not the possession19 of (say) Einstein, but a description of what the currently existing community believes about him.
    • The key point in all this seems to be that the various examples that are alleged to be parallel to post-mortem harm clearly don’t require backward causation20, but this isn’t clear in the case of post-mortem harm itself; so – says Taylor – nothing has been proved.
  4. Accommodating Orphaned Intuitions
    • While the possibility of post-mortem harm hasn’t been proved (says Taylor), we are still left with intuitions that it is possible. We might just try harder to prove that it is indeed possible, but Taylor thinks we should employ Ockham’s Razor – or rather the Principle of Philosophical Parsimony – and try to rid ourselves of the temptation to believe in the possibility
    • Accommodating Feinberg's and Parfit21's Anti-Hedonistic Intuitions: Taylor tries to explain these intuitions without invoking post-mortem harm.
    • Firstly – in Feinberg’s Case A – Taylor agrees that the agent is harmed by her projects going badly, but only because this is why people hide the situation from her. But this harm arises because of the deception and the undermining of her autonomy, not from the “going badly” itself. The claim is not that her well-being would have been better if she’d known, but that the life she would have led would have been better22.
    • Consequently, Feinberg’s Case A lends no support to the possibility of post-mortem harm (Feinberg’s Case B). This is because – while it can be accepted that the ante-mortem person is both ignorant of, and qualitatively unaffected by, the post-mortem thwartings (as in Case A) – her life23 will be unaffected, and so there’s no clear evidence that she is harmed. Basically, the sort of harms that affected the agent in Case A (who was alive and could act) cannot affect the person24 in Case B.
    • Parfit’s25 examples aren’t so easily disposed of, but Taylor thinks we should adopt the Principle of Philosophical Parsimony rather than suppose post-mortem harm really occurs.
    • It was clear in Feinberg’s Case A that the agent was harmed by a combination of the failure of her projects, and the deceit of friends. But in Parfit’s26 case, says Taylor, it’s not so clear that the exile allegedly harmed by the disgrace of his children is harmed27 at all. Indeed, Taylor thinks, he’s better off not knowing28.
    • Taylor rejects the claim that “by definition” the thwarting of a person’s interests harms him – saying this is just stipulation29, rather than demonstration.
    • Taylor thinks that those who claim the dead can be harmed face a dilemma30:-
      • 1. Where the agent is clearly harmed, this intuition can be explained so as to offer no support to the thesis that the dead can be harmed.
      • 2. Where the example clearly implies that the dead can be harmed, then the intuition will not be strong that harm is indeed caused to the ante-mortem person in the example.
    • Can the Dead Be Wronged?: How about the weaker thesis that the dead – if they cannot be harmed – can at least be wronged – eg. by the post-mortem blackening of their name?
    • The trouble with this thesis is that the claim can be undermined similarly to the “harm” thesis. Taylor elaborates:
      • 1. People can be wronged but not harmed, so even if the dead can be wronged, this doesn’t imply they can be harmed.
      • 2. The claim that the dead can be wronged doesn’t even hold up.
    • Proof of (1) – if someone offers a friend a lift, but fails to turn up – yet the friend gets a lift from someone else with no detrimental effect – then the friend is wronged but not harmed. So, it is consistent to admit that the dead can be wronged, while denying that they can be harmed. Taylor also thinks that the exile in Parfit’s31 example is wronged (by his children’s disgrace) but not harmed.
    • Proof of (2) – Taylor has two objections. The first is similar to the case of harm. The wrong is not to the post-mortem individual who is defamed, but to those who might act wrongly on the basis of the defamation. His second objections applies where the first doesn’t work. In this case, the wrong only refers to the dead.
    • So, if a person betrays some dead individual, the description of the wrongdoing includes reference to that individual, without that individual being wronged. Taylor gives an analogy. If X tries to pick Y’s pocket, which just happens to be empty, then “X tries to steal from Y”, but as nothing is taken, Y is not32 wronged. Taylor seems to agree that the dead can be defamed or betrayed, but denies that this commits us to believing that they can be wronged.
    • As a result, unless further reasons can be adduced for the claim that the dead can be wronged, the “problem of the subject” remains.
  5. Conclusion
    • Taylor rather confidently concludes that neither Feinberg nor Pitcher have given us “any reason” to think that the dead can be harmed. The intuitions can be explained otherwise.
    • But, because the intuitions are so widespread, Taylor wants to explain why this is the case. He suggests that there is an explanation from evolutionary33 psychology34.
    • Taylor suggests35 that what appears to be posthumous harm might be taken to reflect badly on the genetic36 fitness of the descendants of the deceased, so there might be an evolutionary37 advantage to those who take an adverse attitude towards those who bring about such states of affairs, along the lines of “what if this were to happen to me”.
    • Be this as it may, at the very least Taylor thinks that the case for posthumous harm is “not proven”. But, there are accounts other38 than those of Feinberg-Pitcher, so the possibility of harming the dead still cannot be ruled out.
    • Taylor closes with the thought that even if the dead cannot be harmed, this does not imply that their wishes should be disregarded – there might be rule-consequentialist reasons (based on the disquiet of the living, who want their own wishes respected) for respecting their wishes anyway.
    • Finally, if the Feinberg-Pitcher account of how the dead can be harmed is indeed unsound, as Taylor has argued, we either need to look for another account, or abandon the practices39 that rest on the supposition that this is so.

  1. I would further complicate the question by asking what sort of thing “the dead” – or indeed “the living” – are.
  2. In particular, I’d ask whether we should adopt a 3D40 or 4D41 approach to persistence.
  3. If an individual is a 4D object – a timeless space-time worm – then “harming” takes on different meanings when that worm is complete (post-mortem) as against when it is still in process (ante-mortem).
  4. When the worm is complete, all that can be done to it is to effect its “value” – ie. its appreciation by the living. It is harmed when its value goes down, and benefitted when it goes up.
  5. But, when alive, harm can (but may not) affect its well-being, and the very form of the “worm”.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Joan C. Callahan noted the first of these phenomena in "Callahan (Joan C.) - On Harming the Dead" (1987), p. 341.

Footnote 2: Footnote 3: See "Pitcher (George) - The Misfortunes of the Dead".

Footnote 4: See "Feinberg (Joel) - Harm to Others".

Footnote 7: Note the distinction between “wronging” and “harming” an agent.

Footnote 8: This may be key – it is “their interests” rather than they themselves that are (equally) harmed.

Footnote 9: I wonder whether this is so for the presentist, for whom the ante-mortem person would no longer exist?

Footnote 11: But – while this may solve the “problem of the subject” – isn’t this, then, an example of backward causation? Pitcher addresses this issue immediately.

Footnote 16: I suppose that this argument can be generalised – or the examples could be picked off one by one (as in this paper) – but really it ought to be demonstrated that no such property could be adequately analogous.

Footnote 19: People may go against the consensus of the day – maybe at great personal cost – expecting to be “justified by posterity”. Should they care if this is ever forthcoming, or are they just doing what they think is right, irrespective of what other people then or in the future might think – and the expectation of post-mortem justification is just an expression of their confidence in their own rectitude?

Footnote 22: This isn’t spelled out – maybe the reason her life would have gone better is because she might have been able to address the situation, or simply because awkward truths are better than comfortable fictions.

Footnote 23: I see two issues here:- Footnote 24: I’m not sure about this because it’s claimed that “the person” is the ante-mortem person, who could act.

Footnote 27: Well, he would have been harmed, had he known, and not knowing, he’s under the illusion that he’s been a successful parent, and aren’t illusions harms?

Footnote 28: Footnote 29: Well, maybe not if this is part of the meaning or common usage of “thwart”, for instance.

Footnote 30: Footnote 32: I’m doubtful about this. If Y found out that X had tried to pick his pocket, but failed, he’d be almost as outraged as were X to have actually succeeded.

Footnote 34: Maybe this appeal to sociobiology was still all the rage in 2005, but I have grave reservations about these “just so” stories.

Footnote 35: The suggestion is very sketchy, and as I can’t see why it’s necessary – and it seems to detract from the rest of the paper – I’ve not tried too hard to understand it.

Footnote 36: In a footnote, there’s the suggestion that the fitness of the genotype might be damaged, but this harm to the existing genotype cannot be classed as harm to the dead.

Footnote 38: "Levenbook (Barbara Baum) - Harming Someone after His Death" is cited, but her approach is criticised by "Callahan (Joan C.) - On Harming the Dead".

Footnote 39: Footnote 40: Ie. Endurantism.

Footnote 41: Which comes in two flavours: “Perdurantism” and “Exdurantism”.

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