Desire Fulfillment and Posthumous Harm
Portmore (Douglas W.)
Source: American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan., 2007), pp. 27-38
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. The standard account of posthumous harm goes as follows.
    • Acts such as those that betray, destroy one's reputation, or undermine one's achievements can harm a person while she is alive even if they never affect her experiences. For instance, it seems that the slandering of your reputation can be harmful to you even if you never become aware of it, even if you never experience any change in how others act around you, even if you never feel any less respected as a result of the defamation – the reason being that you care not only about feeling respected, but also about being respected. In other words, it is important to you that your desire for esteem is actually fulfilled, and not just that you think that it is.
    • Since you can desire to be respected not only while alive but also after your death, the slandering of your reputation, even after your death, can harm you. For if it is not necessary that you learn of the slander, or experience any ill effects as a result of it, for it to be harmful to you, then why would you need to be alive at the time of the slander for it to harm you? Your death makes it only all the more certain that you will never learn of, or be experientially affected by, the slander.
    Or so some philosophers have argued.
  2. One problem with the standard account is that it relies on the desire theory of welfare, a theory that, as many of us believe, should be rejected. Yet the desire theory still has many supporters, and there is not enough space here to seriously engage in the debate. So, instead, it will be argued that even those who are sympathetic to the desire theory should be skeptical about whether the standard account succeeds.
  3. There are, at least, two problems with the standard account from the perspective of a desire theorist.
    • First, as most desire theorists acknowledge, the theory must be restricted in such a way that only those desires that pertain to one's own life count in determining one's welfare. The problem is that no one has yet provided a plausible account of which desires these are – an account that would ensure that desires for posthumous fame and the like are included.
    • Secondly and more importantly, if the desire theory is to be plausible, it must, it is argued, restrict itself not only to those desires that pertain to one's own life but also to those desires that are future independent, and this would rule out the possibility of posthumous harm.
  4. If the foregoing is correct, then even the desire theorist must reject the standard account of posthumous harm. Posthumous harm cannot plausibly be accounted for in terms of desire fulfillment (or the lack thereof).

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