(Continued from here.)
According to Feinberg, A harms B when “A acts… with the intention of producing the consequences for B that follow, or similarly adverse ones, or with negligence or recklessness in respect to those consequences; A’s acting in that manner is morally indefensible, that is, neither excusable nor justifiable; and A’s action is the cause of a setback to B’s interests, which is also a violation of B’s right” (106). Thus, for A to harm B, A satisfy four conditions in addition to setting back B’s interests (for five total necessary conditions). A must act, A’s act must be done with the intention of setting back B’s interests (or be negligent with respect to B’s interests), A’s act must be morally indefensible, and A’s act must violate B’s right. It is these four conditions that make a setback of interests wrongful, and it is the combination of wrongfulness and a setback of interests that establishes a harm.
An act is morally indefensible when there is no justification or excuse for it. An excuse involves denying responsibility for conduct that is, without considering the context in which it was performed, bad. Though the act was bad, the person who carried it out shouldn’t be blamed for it. A justification for an action involves an argument for why the action was right, or at least permissible, considering the circumstances in which it was performed. Thus, in order to qualify as a harm, an act must be neither excusable nor justifiable (108).
Feinberg defines a right as “a valid claim which an individual can make in either or both of two directions. On the one hand, some of a person’s rights are claims he can make against specific individuals for assistance, repayment of debts, compensation for losses, and so on, or against all other individuals… to noninterference in his private affairs.” Rights can on the other hand be claims an individual makes “against the state, not only for specific services and promised repayments, and noninterference in his private affairs, but also claims to the legal enforcement of the valid claims he has against other private citizens” (109). A rights violation occurs when one of these valid claims is not met.
Of course, establishing what counts as a right and what does not is a philosophically formidable task. However, thanks to Feinberg, we at least have a framework which can guide us in establishing whether something counts as a harm.