How do I know I’m not hurting anybody?

Philosopher's reply

Dear Ms Woods,

Thank you for your postcard and your question! You asked “How do I know I’m not hurting anybody?” I think this is an insightful question that comes from a good place. The trouble, of course, is that it is often quite difficult to know all the far-flung consequences of one’s actions! Moral theories that emphasise consequences famously run into trouble on this score.

I am reminded of a day when I read that a clothing company I used to shop from was directly implicated in a deadly factory fire in Bangladesh. It was shocking and disturbing to know that the people who made my clothes died due to a multinational company’s negligence. But am I in anyway responsible, even a little? After all, my money went to the same corporation.

I am inclined to say “no” but with an important qualification. In her book Responsibility for justice, the brilliant political philosophy Iris Marion Young argues that when our ordinary innocent activities are implicated in unjust social structures, we have a responsibility to promote justice. Even if we are not at fault for these kinds of harm, still there is something we must do.

To come back to your question: perhaps at this scale it doesn’t matter if you know you’re hurting anyone or not. What matters is how you act to improve the world.

Thank you for your question!

Yours sincerely, Trystan S. Goetze, PhD, Dalhousie University

Philosopher's profile

Trystan Goetze

Dalhousie University, Canada

I see Murdoch as a philosophical fellow traveler. For one, as a writer I also feel pulled in two directions—fiction and academic philosophy. But more substantively, her work helped me finish my Ph.D. I had been struggling to articulate the idea that it can be morally wrong to think about people using certain concepts or categories. I was delighted to find her expressing a similar idea through a vivid example: a woman who unfairly thinks badly of her son’s wife. This got my own thinking un-stuck.

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