Legal Theory

Research Article


Seana Valentine Shiffrina1*

a1 Department of Philosophy and School of Law, University of California, Los Angeles


Standard, familiar models portray harms and benefits as symmetrical. Usually, harm is portrayed as involving a worsening of one's situation, and benefits as involving an improvement. Yet morally, the aversion, prevention, and relief of harms seem, at least presumptively, to matter more than the provision, protection, and maintenance of comparable and often greater benefits. Standard models of harms and benefits have difficulty acknowledging this priority, much less explaining it. They also fail to identify harm accurately and reliably. In this paper, I develop these problems, argue that we should reconsider our commitment to the standard models, and then merely gesture at the direction in which we might locate a superior approach, one that better accounts for the moral significance of harm and its relation to autonomy rights.


* Largely, I wrote this paper more than a decade ago as an extension of some arguments made in Seana Valentine Shiffrin, Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm, 5 Legal Theory 117–148 (1999). I put it aside in dissatisfaction. I remain dissatisfied. Nonetheless, despite my lingering doubts, I have not found sufficient cause to reject its main ideas either. The manuscript has circulated a little over the years. Because some have cited (and criticized) it, Gregory Keating convinced me it might be useful if it were publicly available, despite its flaws. I publish it with hesitation, however. I wish it were better, clearer, and shorter. I am grateful to a number of people and audiences for patient, insightful help and critical encouragement. I owe particular thanks to Janet Broughton, Tyler Burge, Meir Dan-Cohen, Hannah Ginsborg, Matthew Hanser, Barbara Herman, Frances Kamm, Sanford Kadish, Gregory Keating, Herbert Morris, Michael Otsuka, Samuel Scheffler, Steven Shiffrin, Terry Stedman, Matthew Strawbridge, Judith Jarvis Thomson, J. David Velleman, Daniel Warren, and Stephen White.