Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Discussion Question:

Person A injures person B

In the next day or two I'll be asking you to consider and discuss a question that you might want to think about ahead of time a bit. It's a big question, a really crucial one. In fact, much of Plato's Republic centers around this important question.

The question is what we would call an existential question, not just a theoretical or academic question. That is, it is a question that concerns the quality, direction and meaning of your personal existence, and is not just a theoretical question that you can answer one way or the other and have it not affect your life and existence.

Further, it is a question that we have all already answered for ourselves at some level, consciously or non-consciously. One of the important jobs that philosophers set for themselves is to raise to the level of conscious thought and discussion questions that we have all already thought about at some basic level. This question is one of those.

Here's the question:

Suppose that some person, we'll call him A, perpetrates some injury on person B. The details of the injury aren't really important to this question right now. Maybe A beats up B, or steals from B, or lies to B, or tortures B, or cheats on B, or kills B, or fires B, or anything that clearly is unjust and wrong, which B does not deserve, and which clearly hurts B. A knowingly perpetrates this injury on B, knowing that it will do harm to B -- maybe it will harm B physically or emotionally or socially or in any of the myriad ways that one person might injure another. In other words, A does some very bad thing to B.

The question we'll be considering is: Who is more personally damaged in that interaction, A who perpetrates the injury, or B who suffers the injury?

The question is not whether A or B is the more despicable person. The question is not who is the more morally reprehensible person. The question is not who is the worse or better person. The question is: who is more damaged by the interaction. Who is hurt more? Who will suffer more personal harm as a result of the interaction? Who is more damaged overall: A, who perpetrated the injury, or B, who suffered the injury? That's the question.

Now just to sharpen the focus of the question, let's further suppose (as Plato does in The Republic) that A completely gets away with it, never gets caught, and no one ever finds out that he or she is the one responsible for injuring B. So he is never punished for what he did.

B, however, is clearly damaged by the interaction. S/he has been beaten up, tortured, stolen from, had their reputation damaged, been fired, been killed, or whatever the injury was.

And the question again is: Who is more damaged overall by that interaction?

Just to sharpen the focus a bit more, let's imagine (as Plato does in The Republic) that person A doesn't even feel any guilt about what s/he has done to person B. So there are no feelings of remorse or regret or sorrow for committing the injury. And no one ever finds out about it, so person A doesn't feel bad at all.

I'd like you to think about this question a bit, namely, which of the two, A or B, is more damaged by that interaction. Who is more harmed? I'll be asking you to discuss this question in class in the next few days.

Now I suspect that someone in class might say: "Well I think person A is more damaged because A will be punished for this evil act in an afterlife."

This may very well be true. (Plato even suspects it probably is true, as you'll discover if you ever decide to read the unassigned parts of The Phaedo.) Person A might, after he dies, go to some hellish unsavory place of punishment, or may be reincarnated into some monstrously unpleasant life form, or whatever. But for purposes of this question and discussion, we will be temporarily setting aside that possibility. When Plato asks this question in The Republic, he too asks us to consider the question only in terms of *this* life here on earth, not in terms of any after life. So the question again is: In terms of this life on earth, which of the two persons in the interaction, A or B, is more damaged by that interaction. That is, who will suffer the greater losses?

I'll be interested to hear your answers to this question, and your reasons for those answers.