Recreational harm-ranking

What about the larger question of whether or not it’s any use to rank harms? Let’s consider that question.

Or maybe it will turn out that we don’t need to, because the answer is so obvious. Of course it is. Next question?

It’s bound to be part of our most basic equipment, isn’t it. It’s part of the basic equipment of most animals, isn’t it. You know the skittish way many animals drink at watering holes? That’s an animal ranking harms, isn’t it. “Thirsty as fuck; need to drink; but exposed here; maybe lions; keep alert, be ready to bolt.”

We humans, with our vastly sophisticated brains, get to use that for things like choosing between So You Think You Can Dance and Last Tango in Halifax. Is the harm of missing the first greater than the harm of missing the second, or is it the other way around?

In other words, we rank harms and benefits, bads and goods, all the time. We do it of necessity and we use the equipment provided to do it recreationally.

And we do it with regard to moral issues, which gets us closer to what we’ve been talking about. We do that all the time too. If a co-worker forgets to do something one time and that creates a nuisance for you, that’s one thing, while a co-worker who routinely forgets to do things and apparently just can’t be bothered to remember or create a system for reminders – that’s another thing.

We have to rank harms all the time, in order to know what to do about them. We need to know when to shrug off a harm and when to make an issue of it.

It’s a big part of child-rearing to teach children how to do this well, or at least competently. Humans probably never really do it well, because the dear self always magnifies harms done to the dear self while shrinking those done to strangers.

But then that’s a reason to be careful about Recreational Harm-ranking when the harms being ranked are ones that can’t be done to the dear self but can be done to other people. Notice I’m not saying never talk about it at all, I’m saying there’s a reason to be careful about it. It’s not a good look for gentiles, say, to minimize the harm of anti-Semitism. It’s easy to extrapolate from that example to others.

That’s an outline.


  1. Pliny the in Between says

    Harm ranking serves one useful cultural purpose. It exposes deep-seated biases, that might otherwise fester in isolation. For example, a lot of our legal heritage of shame toward crimes against women and children most likely stems from a time when women and children were viewed as the property of men. Ranking requires prioritization of value. Value is good to know.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    Part of the problem we have here in erstwhile Christendom is that, within Christian theology, there really is no ranking of sins. Telling someone, “No, that doesn’t make you look fat” is just as bad as kidnapping, torturing, murdering, and eating that person, because “original sin”, the “sin” of having been born human, is all it takes to damn you to hell from the get-go. Once you already know where you’re going, what difference does any of the rest make? There’s only one level of being damned.

    And if you think that all-important thought about accepting a “savior” anytime before you die, well, by gum, you’re off the hook for EVERYTHING, no matter how grisly, gruesome, or heinous! Hooray for the “Good News”!!

    As you can see, this makes an utter hash of morality and ethics. The “divine justice” described in the Christian scriptures is a travesty where whoever sucks up adequately to the “judge” not only gets off scot-free, but gets a reward, too!! A big FAT reward – talk about encouraging bad behavior! That’s no way to run a justice system.

    We still see all sorts of animosity directed toward non-Christians, and people claiming “Christian” as proof of innocence, virtue, and righteousness:

    “She’s innocent,” Anna Soto, one of Yanira Maldonado’s children, told CNN. “She’s an honest good woman — a Christian woman that would never do anything to jeopardize her freedom.” (On an Arizona woman who was arrested for carrying drugs last year upon crossing from Mexico back into the US.)

    So we’re basically starting from scratch with our justice system (which still extends more leniency and privilege to Christians) because so many consider that Christianity should be the basis for our collective morality when, in fact, it has already proven itself morally bankrupt and incapable of motivating proper behavior. Not just starting from scratch, in fact, but facing active opposition from Christians who believe they should have the sole right to decide who gets to have rights in our society.

    Where in the harm ranking system does indoctrinating small children into socially harmful religious belief fall?

  3. quixote says

    Your examples are of ranking harm to oneself or people so dear that they’re part of the self, like children.

    The problems come in when people start ranking harm done to others.

    Maybe what’s needed is not a ranking of harms (with the convenient side effect of telling others that they’re not really hurt). Maybe what’s needed is a cultural shift toward respect for other people’s experiences. (With, perhaps, a matching recognition that not everybody everywhere needs to hear about your experiences all the time? Especially The Dawk might want to think on that one?)

    Anyway, I can dream.

  4. says

    quixote, well I know, that was my point at the end – the shift from harms to the self (and, implicitly, to near-self others such as children) to harms to others especially strangers.

    I don’t know, about the idea of respect for experiences. There could easily be problems with that.

    I think a better first step is just keeping in mind the fact that others’ experiences are theirs. Keeping in mind that others have them just as we do, and they’re different, and we can’t assume that our feelings about kinds of experiences are a good heuristic for those of other people about theirs.

  5. Enkidum says

    Uh… this may be a lot more abstract wanking than people want about this, apologies if so and I’ll shut up if this bothers anyone.

    I think there is absolutely one way you can rank harms to others, but only on a collective scale. All large-scale regimes thus far in history (that I’m aware of, anyways) have engaged in horrific violations of individual rights, down to murdering their own citizens. But one can look at, say, the proportion of US civilians killed by their own government during the late 1970’s, and the same proportion for Cambodians, and argue (correctly, I think) that the US regime is objectively less harmful to its own people than the Khmer Rouge was. Which is a low bar to pass, obviously, but a very meaningful and important one. And one can argue (again, correctly) that the current Chinese government, for all its numerous horrors, is a vast, vast improvement over the Mao years.

    Now try telling that to a mother of Sean Bell, and you’re clearly being an asshole. One tragedy is infinite in its depth. But 100 infinitely deep tragedies is better (or at least less bad) than 100,000. Be those tragedies murder, rape, or what have you (again, sorry for treating such things as abstractions, but the point is that when you’re talking collectively you have to).

    Obviously, there are difficulties in quantifying these things when one gets down to details. But broad comparisons are possible (and, I would argue, vitally necessary). So the system of governance of “the West” is better in a very fundamental way than the system of governance of China. (At least for its own people – the effect of the “West” on the rest of the world is obviously a very different thing and much harder to defend.)

    This is, I thought, what Sam Harris was trying to get at in the first bit of The Moral Landscape, and is basically just utilitarianism with a slightly modern twist. Then I got to the bit where he explains why torture is great and I gave up on the book, but, well, you can’t have it all I guess.

  6. says

    Recreational is part of the problem.

    We do rank harms as part of our nature and that by itself is a moral neutral. But looking at how these situations have played out paints a picture, to me at least. The person ranking the harms MUST be responsive to the people with direct experience in the harms in question, even if they themselves have also experienced that sort of harm. The description of the harms and any sort of ranking has to be changeable by reality (which includes the perspectives of the harmed people first) IF that reality can give us a way to meaningfully sort the information. That last one is I think the critical problem here. Can we possibly make a meaningful harm scale? Does it do anything other than satisfy a curiosity? Have we seen the people trying to rank act responsively to people experiencing the harm in question (basically ignoring data, bad scientists, bad logicians).

    There is probably out there in the universe an objective picture of what the collection of biological systems, cultural contexts, individual experiences, and relevant effects looks like. But those are variables that I doubt we have the language to reasonably define. Maybe rape victims themselves could do something like that, and given the way that society obfuscates the reality of rape that might even be valuable in terms of getting information out there (or not, I’m open to being completely wrong on that). But outside of the effected individuals themselves I don’t know that I can trust what we are capable of on something like rape.

    Try ranking favorite flavors of ice cream first. Pleasure can be as subjective as pain, is at least as complicated and won’t have the effect of stepping on traumatic lived experience.

  7. Pen says

    Our systems of justice at the moment require us to rank harm because they have a punitive function, at least in part. It’s interesting how the courts go about assessing the amount of harm and how that can malfunction or evolve, the tension between the harm as perceived by the victim and the malice as intended by the perpetrator. At any rate the system requires them to do it, and map quantities of harm done (or intended) to amounts of time served (or fines paid).

  8. Blanche Quizno says

    The person ranking the harms MUST be responsive to the people with direct experience in the harms in question, even if they themselves have also experienced that sort of harm. The description of the harms and any sort of ranking has to be changeable by reality (which includes the perspectives of the harmed people first) IF that reality can give us a way to meaningfully sort the information.

    This! Thisthisthis! THIS!! For example, the sort of man who now declares that “stranger rape with a weapon” is objectively and necessarily worse than “rape by someone you trusted, who was supposed to protect you, whom everyone would believe over you (because position/reputation), thus leaving you in a situation where justice is completely out of reach for you” will WANT to hear from both sides to find out if that’s actually so before opening his big fat yap and declaring his opinion fact. That would be a huge step in the right direction.

    As far as the practical implications, we all saw and even experienced the hostility with which the “#YesAllWomen” campaign was greeted:

  9. latsot says

    Part of the problem is that we’re terrible at assessing things like risk and harm, even when applied to ourselves. We do things like inappropriately conflate harm with risk, judge risk poorly, gauge harm in a fluidly contextual way and are inconsistent throughout.

    This isn’t surprising and I’m not saying we should necessarily do things differently. I’m saying that harm is really hard to judge, highly dependent on context and highly variably over time. There are incidents in my past which caused me harm at the time but are now almost forgotten. There are others I shrugged off which I’ve found causing me problems in later life.

    We’re also bad at ranking. If you ask me to rank risk or harm or even bad things that have happened to me, my answer will surely vary depending on the context at the time of asking, even without considering the context at the time things happened.

    And this is me, trying to rank things that have happened or might happen to me in the context of my own life. And I’m terrible at it. We all are. The very idea that a person could set themself up as The Sole Arbiter of Harm is a ridiculous one. I know Dawkins isn’t claiming that title, but his confidence in ranking is certainly unjustified.

    We all do that too, of course. We’d probably tell our kids not to play with crocodiles, even if cats were statistically more dangerous (mine certainly is). We warn people more about bad things that have happened to us and less about bad things that haven’t. Even though we’re terrible at assessing that harm. We overestimate the risk of things that affect or scare us and underestimate the risk of things we have no experience of. Obviously and for (mostly) obvious reasons.

    So I understand Dawkins’ apparent confidence in his various rankings and his desire to tell everyone else that his rankings are the right ones. There’s one small problem with that, however; it is absolute bullshit.

  10. Tessa says

    I think the motivation for deciding to rank harms is also important. It’s not like a person is going about their business during the day and says “hey! I’m going to rank these two of rapes.” In the examples Ophelia gave, they all had specific motivations. The animal was thirsty, these things are on TV at the same time, and the coworker is an incompetent ass. But then she moved to recreational as if all recreational harm ranking springs from nothingness. Those all have motivations too, and those should be examined as much as the ranking themselves. And I’m especially leery of those who want to rank harms that are especially removed form themselves. What was the catalyst and what’s their goal.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ranking harms is not as bad as genocide or FGM, but worse than kicking puppies or (some) Celion Dion songs.

    How’m I doing? Better than Dawkins and worse than Dennett?

  12. johnthedrunkard says

    I can see just ONE way that ranking could be positive: if the proposed levels of harm are logically linked, the FACT of ‘harmfulness’ could be made visible where it wasn’t seen before.

    Thus, if you are made to see the connection, sexually exploiting a drunken woman cannot pass for ‘normal’ dating procedure. If you see the connection, religious, or pseudomedical mutilation of boys will be seen as ‘harmful’ by the logical connection to the more ‘obviously’ barbarous mutilation of girls.

    If you’re Richard Dawkins, you may come to see that your 30 second fondle is of the SAME KIND of ‘wrong’ as the rape of an altar boy.

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