What Is Harm?

I was drafting a ‘Teshuva procedure’ (the traditional Jewish version of a ‘restorative justice process’) for my synagogue when I ran into a small problem. How could I define the situations the procedure was designed to address and the types it wasn’t. Easy to say ‘harm and harassment,’ but what is harm?

For all the discourse around harm reduction, restorative justice, etc., I realized that I’ve never seen anyone talking about this important question. What is harm?

How do we define it?

Many people in leftist spaces have defaulted to an ‘I know it when I see it’ view of harm. Which anyone familiar with history knows won’t work as a practical definition. It inevitably ends up as a silencing and oppression tactic. After all, if I know harm when I see it and I don’t recognize harm being done to people I see as ‘other’… at best, I don’t have power over them, and they will need to argue for recognition of the harm they have experienced. At worst, I have do power over them and can silence them directly.

Another popular approach (not just in leftist spaces) is to self-define harm. If someone says they are harmed, then they are harmed. This sounds like a fine system — until someone says that your existence makes them uncomfortable and you are harming them by existing. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like a very workable definition.

Other discussions are happening now, discussions that talk around the question ‘what is harm.’ This discussion on Tumblr, for instance, talks about the problems with equating ‘uncomfortable’ with ‘harm’. If you stare out of the corner of your eye, you can see the fuzzy edges of other definitions taking form.

But as an autistic person, I have been burned by these kinds of fuzzy, not-defined-but-understood social weirdnesses before. I really dislike this way of defining a thing.

I want to see actual discourse. What is harm? What does it mean when we say someone has been harmed? Is all harm the same?

What Is Harm?

I don’t think we’ll ever going to come up with a perfect definition of ‘harm.’ Language is not only ever-evolving but inherently imprecise. That doesn’t mean we can’t try for a good-enough definition.

No one person will be able to come up with a good-enough definition on their own. We need to see lots of discussion and debate to reach a comprehensive, widely applicable definition.

(Let me acknowledge here that I’m sure these discussions have been happening in scholarly circles. But those discussions and definitions haven’t filtered out into mainstream use, which is where they are needed.)

But I’ll put in my two bits and see if anyone wants to riff off them:

‘Harm’ is action that interferes with or prevents full access to personal autonomy or public spaces.

  1. If someone breaks my leg, then both my personal autonomy (ability to choose where to go and when, financial autonomy [paying for medical bills], etc) and my access to many public spaces are restricted. If the TSA takes away someone’s mobility device, their personal autonomy (ability to choose where to go and when etc) and access to public spaces are restricted. Both of these are harm – even if my leg will heal and the mobility device will (hopefully) be returned.
  2. Harm must be an action (including speech actions). It cannot be thought, idea, or intention. However, intention to harm can be an ethical violation in and of itself, even if no harm is caused.
  3. Harm can be accidental or even done without awareness of causing harm.
  4. Any entity can cause harm – who takes the action is not part of the definition and should not be.
  5. Preventing access to other people’s private spaces (without other consequences) is not harm. I do not harm you by blocking you from my blog or not letting you in my home.
  6. Harm is not always unethical. A dentist pulling my tooth is harming me (pain bad enough to interfere with daily life, restrictions on eating, potential long-term dental issues). But if my tooth is damaged enough then the harm of pulling it may be necessary to protect my long-term health. If someone attacks me and I punch them to defend myself, I have harmed them. But they would not have been harmed if they had not acted with intent to harm me first.
  7. Harm can be consented to. I can consent to having my tooth pulled, to ‘extreme’ sports, to kink without safe words, etc. This consent (like all consent) can be withdrawn.

What do you think?

How would you modify this definition?

Or what alternative definition would you propose?

This definition fails to address some broad-scale harms like cultural appropriation. I have no idea how to fix this, do you?

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