Written and Narrated by
Deni Elliott, Ph.D., M.A.
Department of Journalism & Media Studies
College of Arts and Sciences
The University of South Florida at St. Petersburg
“How can I harm thee? Let me count the ways. Physically. Psychologically or emotionally. Financially. And, I can cause you reputational harm.
Harms rarely come isolated from one another. So, let’s review the categories:
Physical harm is the easiest. It can be short-term, like, oh, being shoved out of the way and into a mud puddle by someone hurrying down the street. Or it can be long-term, like being injured in a car accident by a drunken driver.
Psychological and emotional harm may not carry any visible scars. But, they are true harms. Emotional harm is the short-term version. When we feel offended or embarrassed or humiliated, it may be due to emotional harm.
Psychological harm makes us feel unsure of our worth or lose confidence in ourselves; it can result from a trauma and haunt us from that point on. The tentative child or the volatile, explosive adult may be acting from a place of psychological harm.
Financial harm is important too. If I take advantage of you being naive about investments and convince you to put your life savings into some get rich quick scheme that fails, I’ve caused you harm.
Last of all is reputational harm. This kind of harm has become more prevalent because of the wide reach of the Internet. Cyber-bullying has led teenagers to commit suicide; false or mean-spirited reviews have led to professional ruin for individuals and for businesses.
Now causing harm can be justified, but the harm-causing action must first meet one of the following conditions:
Number one: The person harmed gave consent. Think of someone who agrees to go through a painful surgery so that he will be healthy again. That’s consent to cause harm.
Number two: The harm caused was part of the harmer’s role-related responsibility. Sometimes causing justified harms is just part of the job. If a parent prevents her teenager from hanging out with friends until homework is done, she is fulfilling her role-related responsibility, no matter how much anguish she might cause her child at the moment.
Number three: A harm was caused to prevent an even greater harm to the community as a whole. For example, a government collects taxes, causing financial harm to some citizens, because without taxes the government could not provide services that benefit all citizens.
After meeting one of these conditions, an act of justified harm must also pass a publicity test. The publicity test means that we’re willing for the exception to the general rule, “cause no harm,” to be widely and publicly known, and applied in all similar situations. The harm-causer in this case must also be willing to acknowledge that she or he might be the one hurt in the future by the same exception.
So, maybe I can harm you in a variety of ways. But, being the ethical person that I strive to be, I won’t harm you without justification. And, I won’t harm you unless I am willing to explain to you and the public at large why I am doing so. And, I won’t harm you without believing that you and everyone else is equally justified in causing the same kind of harm, even to me.”