Over-determined Harms and Harmless Pluralities

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A popular strategy for meeting over-determination and pre-emption challenges to the comparative counterfactual conception of harm is Derek Parfit’s suggestion, more recently defended by Neil Feit, that a plurality of events harms A if and only if that plurality is the smallest plurality of events such that, if none of them had occurred, A would have been better off. This analysis of ‘harm’ rests on a simple but natural mistake about the relevant counterfactual comparison. Pluralities fulfilling these conditions make no difference to the worse for anyone in the over-determination cases that prompted the need for revising the comparative conception of harm to begin with. We may choose to call them harmful anyway, but then we must abandon the idea that making a difference to the worse for someone is essential to harming. I argue that we should hold on to the difference-making criterion and give up the plural harm principle. I offer an explanation of why Parfit’s and Feit’s plural harm approach seems attractive.

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