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Can we be harmed after we die? Jimmy Savile vs. Lance Armstrong

October 24, 2012

In the last few weeks two news stories have been particularly prominent. The first concerns the revelations that erstwhile national treasure Jimmy Savile was actually a predatory paedophile who took advantage of his position as a prominent broadcaster and charity fundraiser to sexually abuse women and children, particularly the vulnerable.

The second concerns cycling legend and seven times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who has finally been exposed as orchestrating  “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program” in sport.

Both stories have traced the public fall from grace of two figures who not long ago were idolised. Both, in their different ways, are now widely despised.

There is one significant different between the two situations, however, and this is that Jimmy Savile died last year, while Lance Armstrong is still alive. The coincidence of their shamings brings into focus a tricky question concerning the nature of harm. There are many different accounts of what constitutes human well-being, but on many of them an individual must be alive in order for their life to go better or worse – once you are dead, nothing can harm you.

Such accounts rely on the seemingly unobjectionable thought that if an event in no way affects the experiences that the individual has, then it cannot plausibly harm them. Examples of such approaches include hedonistic theories of well-being that focus on experiences of pleasure and pain, theories that have, for example, underpinned well known theories of ethics such as Mill’s Utilitarianism.

On this account, Lance Armstrong has suffered significant (deserved) harm from the revelations about his behaviour, while Jimmy Savile has not. Another way of putting it would be that Savile ‘got away with’ his (alleged) crimes.

But is this entirely true? These two examples provide an interesting case study for what is known as the ‘posthumous harm thesis’, the idea that individuals can, in fact, be harmed after they are dead (for more on this, see section 3 here). One way to support this thesis would be to base well-being and harm in the extent to which an individual’s desires are satisfied, and further to claim that such desire satisfaction is still significant posthumously – it is perfectly possible, for example, for someone to desire when alive that they will be remembered fondly when dead.

There are of course objections to these claims, in particular the Epicurean challenge that, roughly, an event can only affect us causally but that we do not exist to be affected when we are dead, and an event cannot causally affect something in the past (us while we were alive).

This is a pretty compelling objection. Yet we can also make an argument that the value of a life for that individual should be assessed as a whole, standing back from any particular temporal position. And if we do that, then it is not clear that the event occurring after death is so irrelevant to how well their life has gone for them.

It is certainly tempting to think that, for Jimmy Savile, life has gone very badly over the last few weeks, even though he is dead. And therefore he did not, entirely, get away with it.

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