Monday, July 21, 2014

Physical versus Psychological Harm

The concept of harm plays a central role in moral and political theorizing.  We generally tend to believe that every person has the right to be free from harm inflicted by other.  But exactly counts as harm?  This is a tough concept to analyze.  I'm not going to pretend to give anything close to a complete analysis here.  I just want to think about it a little bit and maybe make a few sketches.

Okay, so let's think of life as dynamic.  Either things are moving forward, or things move in circles.  Life moves forward by growing, learning, adapting, achieving goals, etc.  Things move in circles via some kind of maintenance, like the nitrogen cycle, homeostasis, etc.  The idea is that there is some kind of action or movement, and the right kinds of movement are considered good.

So with that metaphor, we might consider harm to be either an impediment to this kind of movement, or movement in the wrong direction.  For example, oxygen deprivation is considered harmful because it impedes the respiratory and circulatory process in the body.  Degenerative diseases are harmful because it reverses the growth process.

So if we have the notion of harm as either impediment or regression, then we can make a further distinction.  For persons, harm can be either physical or psychological.  This distinction is pretty self-explanatory.  Physical harm is harm done to the body.  Psychological harm is harm done to the mind.

In most societies, we try to legislate against harm.  For instance, aggravated assault is a kind of physical harm, and it is illegal in most societies.  In general, we think that harm is morally bad.

What I want to note here is that psychological harm is worse than physical harm.  In fact it seems true that a lot of physical harm is bad only because it also inflicts psychological harm.  This seems particularly true when it comes to harm inflicted by another person.  For instance, two guys fighting in a boxing ring inflict harm on each other.  But we don't think that this kind of physical harm is morally bad.  However, two guys fighting in a parking lot is considered bad.  Why?  Because we think that there is also some psychological harm involved.  In this case it the exertion of dominance by one over the other.

So it seems that much physical harm, at least the physical harm inflicted by persons, reduces to psychological harm.  If we want to legislate against harm, then we should be legislating against psychological harm.  But note that there is not much in terms of laws against pure psychological harm, i.e. psychological harm without physical harm.  For instance, there are laws against child abuse, but this is child abuse primarily understood as physical abuse.  I'm not aware of very many cases where a child was taken from his/her parents solely because of what the parents said to the child, even though such words can deal irreparable psychological harm to the child.  Likewise, there are no criminal laws against adultery.  Adultery is another example of psychological harm that is not physical harm.

Why is this?  Well the easiest and most obvious answer is that it is difficult to enforce laws against pure psychological harm, especially when such harm is inflicted through speech.  If a child accuses her parents of psychological harm through emotionally damaging criticism, what evidences can she provide?

To further corroborate this point, we already do have some laws against pure psychological harm.  These are laws related to libel and slander.  More recently, states have passed laws against bullying and cyber-bullying in particular.  Libel, slander, and cyber-bullying are all instances of pure psychological harm.  These laws are considered enforceable because evidence can be mustered for this kind of harm.  This is the interesting about technology and psychological harm.  As technology advances more and more communication becomes of the type that can be preserved and documented.  We communicate via text, video chat, social media, email, etc.  All of these can be recorded and saved.  Thus evidence of psychological harm can be preserved, and laws prohibiting forms of psychological harm can be enforced.

So it'll be interesting to see how technology affects our legislation regarding psychological harm.  What will also be interesting to see is how this interacts with our concern for privacy.  Being able to access these forms of communication is often seen as an invasion of privacy, but it also enables society to control instances of psychological harm.

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