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Saturday, November 05, 2016

Harm Versus Hurt

Recent events prompt the question of whether what we are seeing in the university setting—in terms of swift and strict sanctioning of certain speech and action—is a conflation of hurt and harm.  If so, would this be a departure from the university’s previous focus on harm?

Maybe it’s because I have con law on the brain after spending the day at the Loyola Chicago constitutional law colloquium, but I can immediately imagine the justifications for strict and immediate sanctions in response to harm, going back to Mill’s Harm Principle and fast forwarding to the justification of state intervention in an American family based on harm to a child.  I wonder what the analog framework is for strict and immediate sanctions in response to hurt, especially in lieu of an old-fashioned apology.  Admittedly, Mill preempts me here a bit by his discussion of “offense,” which I would call hurt.

I suppose the threshold question is whether hurt and harm are different.  I would say yes:  It is possible to hurt someone with a critique of her work, but ultimately to benefit her.  I do not see how it is possible to harm someone, but ultimately benefit her.  So then, should we sanction each differently? 

The problem for me, additionally, is how to draw the line between harm and hurt in the academic context in particular.  This question divides us, making strong university sanctions seem jarring to some folks, but not to others.  Until we reach more of a consensus, it seems like university responses to disapproved conduct and speech will have to be ad hoc and, thus, controversial.    

Posted by Margaret Ryznar on November 5, 2016 at 03:27 AM | Permalink


I'm glad I have never witnessed such a harm, and had not anticipated it could exist!

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Nov 6, 2016 4:20:05 AM

A person publicly critiques another's work in such devastating fashion that it harms their career in the short term. Ultimately, they become a better scholar as a result and enjoy a better career than they would have if not for the criticism. The criticism both harmed and benefited its subject.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Nov 5, 2016 2:15:12 PM

Thanks, both. I look forward to checking out the book.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Nov 5, 2016 1:08:41 PM

Art, while I think you have a point, I also think what you describe often takes the form of broad, ideologically-driven definitions of harm, thus making Margaret’s harm/hurt distinction very much of an issue, though, as you suggest, not the only issue. Power plays via aggressive weakness and moral entrepreneurship is also a major part of the problem.

I recommend Anthony Kronman’s book Education’s End for those who desire a good understanding of the root of the problem.

Posted by: Edward Cantu | Nov 5, 2016 11:42:13 AM

Neither hurts nor harms are at issue. The insistence of emotionally disordered students and conniving faculty and administration that no one may be playful with their pieties (or astringently critical of them) is what's at issue. We live in low and dishonest times and higher education is run by low and dishonest people.

Posted by: Art Deco | Nov 5, 2016 10:31:22 AM

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