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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


harmed. Asking this question, however, creates difficulties for a straightforward account
of posthumous harm. If the scientist still exists then, he exists only as a dead body, he
does not exist as something that can be harmed. He is beyond harm. 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. A dead body is a lump of
inanimate matter just like a table. Although a dead body used to be a living, breathing
human being it no longer is. It is but so much dust (Pitcher, 1984). It would seem then
that if the dead can be harmed in this straightforward manner then, so can tables, chairs,
and all manner of inanimate objects that one does not think capable of being harmed.

So, the dead cannot be harmed in a straightforward manner. However, Pitcher (1984) has
argued that there is still a sense in which the dead can be harmed. I shall outline his view
before dealing with the problems it raises and showing that it is, ultimately, inadequate.
Pitcher begins his account by outlining a distinction that can be drawn when we talk
about the dead. 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. 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.
This distinction between ante-mortem persons and post-mortem persons is, for Pitcher,
integral to understanding posthumous harms. 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. Pitcher argues that they can. Since the ante-
mortem person is a living person we need an account of how a living person can be
harmed after their death.

At first glance, it would seem that the only way this could possibly happen is if there
was backwards causation. Imagine, someone dies and someone else starts spreading lies
about the deceased. In order for the ante-mortem person to be harmed he needs to be
placed in a harmed condition. However, the event that places him in this condition –
the harming event – takes place after his death. So an event that takes place at a later


time alters his condition at an earlier time. This would require an altering of the past,
something that does not seem possible. So backwards causation seems to be an obstacle
for the idea that an ante-mortem person can be harmed. However, 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, that is not what his account is. 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, 1984). He was harmed because the harming event was going to happen.
The post-mortem event is responsible for the ante-mortem harm. Seemingly, Pitcher has
managed to provide an account of posthumous harms that gets around the tricky problem
of who is harmed. However, his account is not without its problems. These problems
render his account unconvincing. I shall now deal with these problems.

One problem for Pitcher’s account is pinpointing when the subject is placed in a harmed
condition. 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. Presumably, at that point when
he develops the interest that will later be thwarted. Imagine, the case of the scientist
again. 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. His interest in not being slandered
could not be thwarted if he didn’t hold this interest. This is, however, an unsatisfactory
response. Consider the implications this has for normal harms. Suppose, Smith is walking
to work one day. Whilst he is on his way he is mugged and all his money is stolen. This
is a straightforward, uncontroversial case of harm. So, when was Smith harmed? Surely,
when he was mugged. On Pitcher’s account however, he was harmed when he acquired
an interest in not being mugged and keeping his money. The mugging merely makes true
that he was harmed. 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.

Now, consider the other side of this case. The mugger harms Smith – places him in a


harmed condition. The mugger is responsible for placing Smith in a harmed condition – he
is responsible for harming Smith. 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. Again, however, if Pitcher’s account is correct
the time at which the mugger becomes responsible differs from our ordinary conception
of harm and responsibility. On Pitcher’s account Smith is placed in a harmed condition
before the he is mugged. Seemingly, the mugger is responsible for placing Smith in a
harmed condition before he mugs Smith (Callahan, 1987). One might wonder, however,
whether this analysis of responsibility is correct. It could be said that the mugger is
responsible for mugging Smith but not for Smith’s being in a harmed condition. If this is
the case then, it is fair to ask who is responsible for Smith’s being in a harmed condition.

There appear to be two options, either no one is responsible or the mugger is. If no one
is responsible then, it appears Smith has suffered a mere misfortune. Consider a man
who is struck by a falling tree. He has been placed in a harmed condition yet no one was
responsible. This seems to be the hallmark of misfortune – someone was harmed but no
one was responsible. However, to say that Smith has suffered a misfortune is ridiculous.
It is not a mere misfortune that Smith will be mugged – someone will mug him. Because
Smith will be mugged he is in a harmed condition. 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. So, the mugger is responsible for the fact that Smith is in a
harmed condition. The mugger is responsible for harming Smith before he mugs him.
Such a radical departure from our ordinary understanding of harm is a high price to pay
for posthumous harms. 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. Both these problems appear because Pitcher places the harmed condition
before the harming event. It is not, however, the case that Smith, for instance, is in a
harmed condition before the mugging. Smith is doomed to be in a harmed condition in
the future but doomed is not the same as harmed. I am doomed to die but I am not now
in a harmed condition because of this fact.


The previous two objections put Pitcher’s account of posthumous harms on shaky ground
but there is a further, possibly stronger, objection to consider. For Pitcher’s account to
make sense it has to be the case that someone’s interests can be thwarted after his death.
It is this thwarting that makes it true that someone was in a harmed condition ante-
mortem. So, the question now is whether we can make sense of this idea. First, for an
interest to be fulfilled that which is desired needs to occur. For instance, to fulfil my
desire for ice cream I need to eat an ice cream. Likewise, 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. Pitcher’s account relies on this thwarting occurring after death. Whose interest
is thwarted? Surely not the corpse, corpses are incapable of having interests. Equally, not
the ante-mortem person for that person is no longer around to hold the interest. There is
no one to whom this interest belongs – no one that desires that which isn’t going to occur.
The only option left is that the interest itself is thwarted but this makes a mystery of
the whole thing. Interests are thwarted when that which is desired does not come about.
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.
They are interminably interlinked with the functioning of our brains. When we die our
brains cease to function and our interests cease to be. Can one even make sense of the
idea that interests exist without interest-bearers? It seems highly unlikely. Whilst, 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. To remove interest-bearers, is to remove the
reason these interests matter – they matter only in so much as they matter to someone
(Partridge, 1981).

In conclusion, I have argued that the dead, as the dead, cannot be harmed. The dead
are not proper subjects of harm. Pitcher agrees with this but holds that the dead can
be harmed as ante-mortem persons. I have argued that this requires us to revise our
ordinary accounts of harm and responsibility to a degree that is unacceptable. Not only
this, Pitcher’s account requires a mysterious account of interest survival. Consequently,


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



Callahan, J. (1987). On harming the dead. Ethics, 97, pp. 341–352.

Partridge, E. (1981). Posthumous interest and posthumous respect. Ethics, 91, pp.

Pitcher, G. (1984). The misfortunes of the dead. American Philosophical Quarterly,

21(2), pp. 183–188.