Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article

Wrongful Life and the Counterfactual Element in Harming

Joel Feinberga1

a1 Philiosophy, University of Arizona

I shall be concerned in this paper with some philosophical puzzles raised by so-called “wrongful life” suits. These legal actions are obviously of great interest to lawyers and physicians, but philosophers might have a kind of professional interest in them too, since in a remarkably large number of them, judges have complained that the issues are too abstruse for the courts and belong more properly to philosophers and theologians. The issues that elicit this judicial frustration are those that require the application to border-line cases of such philosophically interesting concepts as acting, causing, and the one that especially interests me, harming.

I first became interested in the concept of harming in my work on the moral limits of the criminal law, where I had to come to terms with John Stuart Mill's famous “harm principle”–the principle that it is always a good reason in support of a criminal prohibition, indeed, the only legitimate reason, that it will prevent harm to persons other than the actor. I could not very well criticize that principle until I decided what the word “harm” must mean in its formulation. I gave what I took to be the requisite analysis of harm in my book Harm to Others. Here I wish to improve that analysis, examine its implications for civil as well as criminal liability, and test it on conceptually hard cases, especially cases of prenatal harming, that is, cases in which the wrongful causative conduct occurs before the victim's birth, and the harmed state that is its upshot consists in being born in an impaired condition.

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