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A Defence of the Counterfactual Account of Harm

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In order to determine whether a particular course of conduct is ethically permissible it is important to have a concept of what it means to be harmed. The dominant theory of harm is the counterfactual account, most famously proposed by Joel Feinberg. This determines whether harm is caused by comparing what actually happened in a given situation with the ‘counterfacts’ i.e. what would have occurred had the putatively harmful conduct not taken place. If a person's interests are worse off than they otherwise would have been, then a person will be harmed. This definition has recently faced challenges from bioethicists such as John Harris, Guy Kahane and Julian Savulescu who, believing it to be severely flawed, have proposed their own alternative theories of the concept. In this article I will demonstrate that the shortcomings Harris, Kahane and Savulescu believe are present in Feinberg's theory are illusory and that it is their own accounts of harm that are fraught with logical errors. I maintain that the arguments presented to refute Feinberg's theory not only fail to achieve this goal and can be accommodated within the counterfactual account but that they actually undermine the theories presented by their respective authors. The final conclusion will be that these challenges are misconceived and fail to displace the counterfactual theory.
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Keywords: Guy Kahane; Joel Feinberg; John Harris; Julian Savulescu; counterfactual; harm

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2016

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