Feinberg's Theory of “Preposthumous” Harm Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • In his recent book, Harm to Others, Joel Feinberg addresses the question whether a person can be harmed after his or her own death, that is, whether posthumous harm is a logical possibility. There is a very strong tendency to suppose that harm to the dead is simply inconceivable. After all, there cannot be harm without a subject to be harmed, but when death occurs it appears to obliterate the subject thus excluding the possibility of harm. On the other hand, there is an inclination to believe that harmful events can indeed occur posthumously. As Aristotle observed, “a dead man is popularly believed to be capable of having both good and ill fortune—honour and dishonour and prosperity and the loss of it among his children and descendants generally—in exactly the same way as if he were alive but unaware or unobservant of what was happening”. Feinberg sides with Aristotle on this issue and develops an intriguing theory purporting to show how posthumous harms are possible. My intention in this paper is to argue that Feinberg's account meets with such serious difficulties that we must either develop an alternative theory or agree with those who claim that death logically excludes the possibility of harm. I shall begin in §2 with a brief sketch of Feinberg's provocative theory. This will be followed in §3 by my comments and criticisms. Section 4 will close with suggestions about where Feinberg's account goes wrong and how it might be repaired.

publication date

  • 1986