Uppsala University Department of Philosophy
Death and Desire:
A Defense of The Posthumous Wrongs
Albin Östervall C-level Essay
1. Introduction 2
2. Posthumous Harms and Wrongs 3
3. Ott’s Objections 11
3.1. The Expiration Problem 11
3.2. The Crowding Problem 12
3.3. Boonin’s Responses 12
4. My Responses to Ott’s Objections 14
4.1. My Response to The Expiration Problem 15
4.2. My Response to The Crowding Problem 21
5. Conclusions 22
No one is born into an empty world. We are all living in relation to those that came before us. This fact permeates our lives and the moral questions we face. Questions about the moral standing of the dead can affect some of the most important and sacralized areas of life: our legacies, traditions, bodies, heritages, rites, memories, and due to new technologies, even procreation. The dead are undeniably important to the living, and many people seem to matter long after their death. Do they also matter morally? As in – can we harm or wrong those already dead? On the one hand, one might think that there is no one to be harmed. On the other hand, it seems wrong to for instance use the body of a dead person against the wishes they expressed while being alive.
In the recent book Dead Wrong: The Ethics of Posthumous Harm (2019), the philosopher David Boonin argues that we can both harm and wrong a person even if our actions take place after the person’s death. In this essay I will discuss Boonin’s main thesis, The Posthumous Wrongs Thesis, as well as The Posthumous Harms Thesis which according to Boonin is needed to support the former. More specifically, I will defend Boonin’s theses against two objections raised by the philosopher Walter Ott, called The Expiration Problem and The Crowding Problem.
The two objections share a similar structure. Ott believes that posthumous harms and wrongs generate unacceptable implications, and hence concludes that theses such as Boonin’s are false. In the case of the Expiration Problem, the problem Ott identifies is that the dead’s desires never “cancel-out”, meaning that they demand our moral attention indefinitely. The Crowding Problem arises because of the sheer number of (ever-increasing) dead people with morally relevant interests. According to Ott, this makes posthumous harms and wrongs very demanding of the living – too demanding for the thesis to be plausible.
The purpose of this essay is to defend the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis from Ott’s objections. In doing so, I aim to make a small contribution to how we can understand our relationship to the dead in a rational normative framework. The essay’s thesis is that Ott’s two objections are unconvincing, and I aim to illustrate this by arguing against them. I present two new arguments against the Expiration Problem. The first aligns with Boonin’s response to Ott. I argue that posthumous harms are less demanding than Ott makes them
seem, since the mere fact that a person have a desire is not enough for us to be obliged to try to fulfill it, or even to avoid frustrating it. I illustrate this by a thought experiment of my own, and by explicating different reasons for why it is not necessarily wrong to harm others by virtue of frustrating their desires.
My second argument is more novel. It is based on the idea that “ought implies can”, and the claim that most dead people’s desires are unknowable. I argue that since we cannot intentionally fulfill these desires, neither are we obliged to. If correct, this argument should diminish Ott’s worry about the degree to which posthumous harms and wrongs are
demanding, without necessarily appealing to a less demanding view of our general moral obligations. If my conclusions are true, they greatly diminish the worries generated by Ott’s Expiration Problem, and by extension also the Crowding Problem. I also present a new response to the Crowding Problem, related to the general question of what our obligations to other people are.
The essay begins with a presentation of Boonin’s Posthumous Harms and Posthumous Wrongs Thesis, which I explicate by examining the theses’ implications, and Boonin’s
arguments for them. In the subsequent section I present Ott’s two objections, as well as Boonin’s responses to them. This is followed by a section in which I present my own arguments against Ott’s objections. The essay ends with a section in which I summarize my conclusions.
2. Posthumous Harms and Wrongs
Is it possible to wrong the dead? Boonin believes it is. In his book Dead Wrong: The Ethics
of Posthumous Harms (2019) he defends the following theses:
Posthumous Harm Thesis = it is possible for an act to harm a person even if the act takes place after the person is dead (2019, p. 163).
Posthumous Wrongs Thesis = it is possible for an act to make things worse for a person, or to make that person’s life go less well for them, in a way that generates a moral reason against doing it even if the act takes place after the person is dead. (2019, p. 163)
In this section I will explore these theses. I begin by examining what is at stake – what are the practical implications of Boonin’s theses? Next I explicate Boonin’s arguments, as well as the nature of unfelt harms.
I first began thinking about posthumous harm while pondering grave desecrations. Intuitively, to desecrate a grave, for me and probably most people, seems clearly wrong. This intuition remains unchanged in me even when I imagine a clean case. That is, no mourning relatives, no one who has to clean up, etc. No one else is affected by or involved in the act, besides the vandal and, perhaps, the grave’s owner. At the same time, the intuition seemed hard to justify. After all, the grave’s owner is non-existent. So how can she have any interests that matter morally?
Boonin’s Posthumous Harms and Posthumous Wrongs Thesis presents a way to justify and explain these intuitions in a rational normative framework. According to the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis, there are moral reasons to not desecrate graves, beyond extrinsic reasons such as the emotions of living relatives. To desecrate a grave is to wrong the one who is buried. It can amount to harming her, by frustrating her desires or violating her rights.
The implications of Boonin’s theses are of course not only limited to graves, but far more reaching. According to Boonin, the Posthumous Harms Thesis and the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis can give us ethical insight in questions regarding for instance posthumous publications and the posthumous control of artistic work, the posthumous control of social media, the handling of organs and corpses, and also more general issues, such as benefits and punishments. How does this work?
Boonin’s arguments for his theses are premised on the welfare theory I will
hereinafter refer to as Desire theory (also known as Desire Satisfactionism or Preferentism). In short, it holds that it is good for us to have our desires fulfilled and bad for us to have our desires frustrated. If the Posthumous Harms Thesis is true, then it is possible to harm the dead by frustrating their desires.
While there are often reasons against frustrating desires, Boonin notes that this is not always the case. Philosophical views on punishment differ, but a lot of people hold that some persons morally deserve to be punished. If this is true, and the Posthumous Harms Thesis is true, it may follow that we sometimes ought to punish the dead by harming them. Our options of how to do this are of course limited, but not nonexistent. Boonin suggests that we for
instance could make use of organs of criminals, or confiscate their estates and distribute their wealth (instead of respecting their wills), or deny them of a marked grave. For example, American soldiers who were not honorably discharged are denied the right to be buried at the Arlington National Cemetery. According to Boonin, it seems plausible that at least part of the rationale for this is the belief that it would not be fitting for them to be buried there, since they do not deserve it. Similar examples can be found in cases were dead people have had their monuments removed or prizes revoked because of moral failures that we now know they committed while living (Boonin, 2019).Correspondingly, if we can harm the dead by
frustrating their desires, we can also benefit them by fulfilling their desires, since harm and benefit seem symmetrical. Boonin claims that if the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis is true, so is also what he calls the Posthumous Benefit Thesis: It is possible for an act to benefit a person even if the act takes place after the person is dead (2019, p. 164). And in the same way as the Posthumous Harm Thesis can generate the more moralized Posthumous Wrongs Thesis – we can wrong the dead because we can harm the dead, and harming can be wrong – Boonin suggests that the Posthumous Benefit Thesis can generate the Posthumous Rights Thesis. 1
This thesis may be significant by providing people with a reason to act in a certain way. The Posthumous Harms Thesis entails that we can harm the dead, but it offers no guidance on how to act per se. The Wrongs Thesis and the Rights Thesis on the other hand tell us that our actions toward the dead can be morally wrong or right. For instance, if Posthumous Rights Thesis is true, this does not necessarily mean that we are obliged to hold a funeral for a given person, but it may tell us (one of the reasons) why it may be the right thing to do. Boonin (2019) further suggests various examples of “righting” the dead, such as posthumous pardons (the United States alone have posthumously pardoned more than a hundred people who were found to be wrongfully convicted) and posthumous awards.
Aside from the areas mentioned by Boonin, I believe that the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis could be helpful in answering moral question in many other areas, e.g. questions regarding inheritances, memorials and commemoration, like the current debates in the United States about how to treat Confederate related statutes, or controversies surrounding Columbus
1Right in this context is to be understood as the opposite of wrong, as in to act right. Not a right, in the sense of
Day. Boonin’s theses may also be relevant for evaluations of rules, norms, and traditions 2
instituted by the dead, and how we ought to talk about the dead (slander, defamation, praise, etc). New technologies such as biotech, CGI, and deepfakes, are also making the line 3
between the living and the dead somewhat blurrier, and continual technological development may make moral issues involving the dead even more common in the future. The fact that 4
people now can procreate with the dead is one example of this. Think also of dead musicians (or their estates) releasing music in their name or performing as holograms. Recently it was announced that James Dean, who died more than six decades ago, will be starring in a new movie. This sparked an outcry, and many people seemed to intuitively feel that this was, in some way, wrong (Respers France, 2019). Thus, Boonin’s theses seem relevant for a lot of different issues. I will soon explain how the theses can be used by presenting what Boonin calls his “parallel cases”. But in order to properly set the stage, I will first explain Boonin’s arguments.
Boonin argues that the Posthumous Harm Thesis is true by crafting an argument with three premises: (1) it is possible for A to cause unfelt harm to B, (2) if it is possible for A to cause unfelt harm to B, then the Desire Satisfaction Principle is true, and (3) if the Desire Satisfaction Principle is true it is possible for A’s actions to harm B even if the actions take place after the death of B. According to Boonin, we should accept the Posthumous Harms Thesis if this argument holds true, and if the thesis does not generate any clearly unacceptable implications that proves it reasonable to reject the thesis out of hand (2019). Boonin
subsequently argues for the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis, which he describes as the more important of the two, and which is premised on the Posthumous Harms Thesis. If the Posthumous Harms Thesis is true, and if it is also true that if an act harms a person this generates at least some moral reasons against the act, then the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis follows from the Posthumous Harms Thesis. And if the thesis does not generate any clearly
2 It has been argued that Columbus Day should be replaced as a federal holiday in the USA by Indigenous People’s Day. At least a partial reason for why seems to be that it is seen as wrong to celebrate persons of the
past as immoral as Columbus (Hauck, 2019). Similar arguments had been made in favor of removing statues of
Columbus, as well as statues and memorials dedicated to the Confederacy.
3 According to Plutarch, Solon instituted a law in Athens that forbade speaking ill of the dead, since it was viewed as pious to deem the dead sacred (Plutarch).
4For instance, here are a few recent (2018 – 2020) headlines from the New York Times: “A Hologram Hits the
Runway”, “What a Hologram of Maria Callas Can Teach Us About Opera”, “Whitney Houston’s Estate Plans a Hologram Tour and a New Album”, “Parents of Dead West Point Cadet Can Use His Sperm, Judge Rules”.
unacceptable implications that undermines it, Boonin claims that we should accept it. We can formalize Boonin’s arguments in the following way: 5
P1. It is possible for A to cause unfelt harm to B.
P2. If it is possible for A to cause unfelt harm to B, then the Desire Satisfaction Principle is true.
P3. If the Desire Satisfaction Principle is true, then it is possible for A’s actions to harm B even if the actions take place after the death of B.
C1. It is possible for A’s actions to harm B even if the actions take place after the death of B (= The Posthumous Harms Thesis).
P4. If it is possible for A’s actions to harm B even if the actions take place after the death of B (C1), then it is possible for an act to make things worse for a person, or to make that person’s life go less well for them, in a way that generates a moral reason against doing it even if the act takes place after the person is dead.
C2. It is possible for an act to make things worse for a person, or to make that person’s life go less well for them, in a way that generates a moral reason against doing it even if the act takes place after the person is dead (= The Posthumous Wrongs Thesis).
The Desire Satisfaction Principle mentioned in P2 and P3 is the sufficient condition Boonin proposes for harm: “If A’s act frustrates B’s desire, then A’s act harms B” (2019, p. 11). This principle, and by extension Boonin’s argument, is based on Desire theory, which claims that our well-being is related to our desires. Something is good for us if it fulfills our desires, and because it fulfills our desires. Likewise, our lives goes badly if our desires are frustrated (Shafer-Landau, 2015).
Boonin spends large parts of Dead Wrong discussing objections to his arguments that object to the Desire Satisfaction Principle itself. This essay however, will not engage with the question of whether Desire theory is true. Instead, I will assume the truth of Desire theory in order to engage with other aspects of Boonin’s theses. My aim is not to mount a positive argument for posthumous harms and wrongs. Neither is it to examine Boonin’s argument, and to do so is not necessary for the essay’s aim: to examine Ott’s objection against Boonin’s
theses. This is because Ott does not object to Boonin’s argument above. Instead, he tries to undermine it by pointing out alleged implausible implications generated by the conclusion. Because of this, I will focus on the implications of the two theses, rather than the premises of Boonin’s arguments. However, I do believe it is worthwhile to dwell a little on so-called unfelt harms before moving on, since unfelt harms are central to the argument and if I did not believe there was a possibility of unfelt harms to exist I would reject Boonin’s theses out of hand, which would make the endeavor of examining Ott’s objections against them a rather pointless exercise.
In short, I find it somewhat plausible that A could cause unfelt harm to B, and that A’s actions could harm B, even if they take place after B’s death (at least given the truth of Desire theory). But how one evaluates P3 depends on one’s views on desires. Do our desires cease to exist when we die? Some desires will of course become irrelevant once we die since they will be impossible to fulfill (e.g. eating a certain dish), but some desire could possibly be fulfilled even without the “desirer” being able to directly experience them, e.g. my desire to be buried in a black coffin, or my desire that my children inherit my possessions once I am dead, etc.
One might of course wonder why, granted that they exist, the desires of the dead should matter? After all, in order to be harmed, a subject seems to require a level of
well-being that can be affected. This brings us into the territory of deep questions related to the nature of well-being and issues of time (when is something bad for someone?) that lay outside the scope of this essay. I do however think it is worthwhile to make the following point regarding unfelt harms and the well-being of those who cannot experience: If Desire theory is true, what matters for one’s well-being is ultimately not one’s experiences, but states of the world. Thomas Nagel captured this eloquently, writing that “a man’s life includes much that does not transpire within the boundaries of his body and his mind, and what happens to him can include much that does not take place within the boundaries of his life” (Nagel, 1970, p. 78). This idea is also captured, by extension, in Boonin’s account of harming (if A’s act frustrates B’s desire, then A’s act harms B) which implies that we may be harmed without knowing about it. Consider this example from Boonin (2019): Rob and Bob live identical lives, except that unbeknownst to Bob, his wife is cheating on him. Bob desires his marriage to be monogamous. From Bob’s perspective, he is living the same life as Rob. But according to Desire theory, Bob’s life is actually going worse. The news just has not
reached him yet, and they may never. I believe we could make this point even more salient by adding another character, Neob, who just like Bob believes himself to be living the life of Rob. But in fact, Neob finds himself in a world controlled by robots, who have plugged him into an experience machine. The machine makes Neob experience the life of Rob, while his body is slowly atrophying in a robotic incubator.
The Neob case is my Matrix influenced version of Robert Nozick’s famous Experience Machine (1974). It illustrates that many people have the intuition that it is not only first-person experiences that matter in determining how well someone’s life is going, but also truths about the world. Desire theory paints a picture of our welfare being under the influence of forces that might be unknown or unfelt, but that still permeates and affects how well our lives are going. Nagel used being deceived, despised, or betrayed as examples of such sometimes unknown harms. This in turn led him to ponder posthumous harms: “If this is correct, there is a simple account of what is wrong with breaking a deathbed promise. It is an injury to the dead man” (Nagel, 1970, p. 78). So, the fact that the dead lack conscious
experiences is not a problem for the thesis of posthumous harms in itself, if it is true in general that one can be harmed without knowing about it, which follows from Desire theory. 6
Now, while questions of welfare are interesting and relevant to the topic at hand, they are not the main focus of this essay. It is therefore time to return to Boonin’s Posthumous Wrongs Thesis. An important thing to note about this thesis is that, if true, it is not a metric for determining when an action or what kind of action, against the dead, is wrong. The Posthumous Wrongs Thesis is merely the claim that the dead can be wronged, and that they matter morally as ends in themselves. However, this does not mean that the thesis offers no 7
practical guidance. It can offer guidance when it is combined with other moral principles that tell us which actions that are wrong. Boonin illustrates this idea by comparing cases of posthumous harm with cases of equivalent harm inflicted on the living. These are the
aforementioned parallel cases. According to Boonin, they can help us make moral judgement
6 Another relevant question for P3 is the question of what the nature of desires are. Are a person’s desires connected to their lives or can desires be said exist independently of the mind or biology of the “desirer”? These questions lay outside my scope, but it may be interesting to note that several philosophers have proposed that humans can externalize their inner selves in various ways (see for instance Clark & Chalmer’s “The Extended
Mind” (1999) or McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (1964)).
7 This means that the dead can be wronged, morally, in the same way that a living subject may and that an object, say a chair, may not. Unlike a chair, the dead can posses intrinsic moral value.
in cases involving the dead. How this works will become clear in the next passage, in which I present an elucidating example from Boonin. Consider the following scenario:
A man named Dan is a member of a religious group. His faith is central to his
conception of the good life. In keeping with the group’s religious traditions, Dan believes that it would be wrong to have any of his organs removed. When Dan dies, a doctor takes his kidney, and transplant it to Judy, who thanks to this action survives. Did the doctor act wrongly? The Posthumous Wrongs Thesis gives us no answers, but it allows us to compare the case with a parallel case: Stan is a member of the same religious group as Dan. Stan share Dan’s interest in remaining physically “intact”, both in life and after death. Stan also has a weird body. He was born with three kidneys. The third kidney is not necessary for his bodily functions, but Stan desires to keep it. One night when Stan is asleep, the same doctor that took Dan’s kidney decides to perform a painless procedure on Stan, removing his third kidney and giving it to Judy, with the same result as in the Dan case. Stan later awakes without noticing anything, and goes on to live his life unknowing of the procedure. Did the doctor act wrongly? Different ethical theories may differ on this, but if the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis is true, and we wish to be coherent, our judgement of the doctor’s actions should be consistent over the two cases. If the doctor acted in the right way in regard to Dan, he also acted in the right way in regard to Stan, and vice versa.
Boonin offers several more examples of parallel cases. In one, called Using Gametes, a man named Rob decides to store sperm before undergoing a medical treatment that
threatens his fertility. He tells his wife Laura that he would like to start a family with her if the treatment should go well. Laura asks how Rob would feel about donating his sperm to their lesbian friends. Rob answers that he does not want to donate any sperm, whether he lives or dies, since he has a strong desire to not father any children he cannot raise himself. In a few months times, Rob passes away, and Laura donates his sperm to their lesbian friends who use it to create a healthy baby boy. Now consider the parallel case: Rob survives the cancer. He and Laura continues their lives together and have several children. But
unbeknownst to Rob, Laura has donated the sperm he froze to their friends. Rob will never be informed about this, and will live his life unknowing of the fact that he is the biological father of the boy. Did Laura act morally wrong? Boonin suspects that most people will feel that she did, especially in the second case. Questions about procreation are amongst the most
The contribution of the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis is that it illustrates the equivalency of the two cases. If the thesis is true, then Rob’s status – living or dead – is irrelevant for whether we should respect his desires, and hence Rob’s status should not affect our judgement of Laura. If it is wrong to inflict unfelt harm on Rob while he was alive, it is also wrong to inflict the same unfelt harm once he is dead.
3. Ott’s Objections
In this section I will present objections to posthumous harms found in Ott’s article “Are There Duties To The Dead?” (2012), in which Ott argues that the answer to the titular question is a resounding no. I begin by presenting Ott’s objections on their own, and then proceed to present Boonin’s responses. In the following section I present my own responses to Ott’s objections, and illustrate how they differ from Boonin’s and why that matters.
Ott argues against posthumous harms and wrongs by raising various objections against the concepts. Two of them, the Expiration Problem and the Crowding Problem, share a similar structure. Because of their similarities and connection, my responses to them are related. I have therefore chosen to examine both of the objections in this essay. The two objections are directed at the implications that Ott believes Boonin’s theses generate. Ott believes these implications are too ethically demanding, and hence unacceptable, and that this undermines theses such as Boonin’s.
3.1. The Expiration Problem
Ott illustrates the Expiration Problem with a thought experiment that I’ll hereinafter refer to as Mrs. White’s Laundromat. We’re asked to suppose that Ott is the best customer at White’s Laundry. Ott knows nothing about the owner, Mrs. White, but as it happens, she has a desire that her laundry company keeps on existing, even after her death. After Mrs. White’s death, a competitor opens up a new laundromat closer to Ott’s house. Ott starts using the new
laundromat instead of White’s Landry. Partly as a result of this, White’s Laundry goes out of business. Ott writes: “I have now harmed poor late Mrs White. Does this seem plausible?” (2012, p. 4). He then continues to raise a more general question: for how long does Mrs. White’s interest remain morally relevant? It seems hard to find a non-arbitrary limit, and if
there is no procedure to cancel-out Mrs. White’s interests, as Ott writes, it seems as if her desires can demand our moral attention indefinitely; “She can apparently torment us from beyond the grave with nearly never-ending demands that she not be harmed and her interests respected” (2012, p. 5).Ott finds this implication – indefinitely relevant desires – to be too ethically demanding, and because of this, he finds the idea of posthumous harms implausible.
3.2. The Crowding Problem
Ott’s next objection takes a similar form as the Expiration Problem. Once again he finds that the implications of posthumous harms are too demanding to be plausible, but this time what is making the implications too demanding is not the vastness of time but the vast quantity of subjects. Ott begs us to ponder the sheer number of dead people, believed to be over 100 billion (Kaneda & Haub, 2020). If we accept posthumous harms, it follows that we have an additional 100 billion + people (and growing) to care about morally, and whose interests will never cancel-out, at least if we cannot find a satisfying answer to the Expiration Problem. Ott claims that if this was the case, we would find ourselves unable to navigate through the world without frustrating some number of desires with every action we took. He quotes Jeremy Wisnewski, who have noted that this would mean that “centuries of obligations would fall upon the living” (Ott, 2012, p. 5). This does indeed seem very demanding. Too demanding to be true, according to Ott.
3.3. Boonin’s Responses
Boonin writes that Ott is right to point out that there are important differences between the living and the dead. We’re generally only alive for a number of decades, but once dead we stay that way forever. This could indeed make the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis demanding. However, Boonin does not find Ott’s objections compelling. Starting with the Expiration Problem, Boonin argues that lifetime does not seem relevant for someone’s moral status. He illustrates this with a thought experiment in which an ordinary man called Martin gets kicked in the shin. Boonin writes that the fact that this act harms Martin generates at least some moral reason against it. Now, imagine that Martin eats a pill that makes him immortal. Would that imply that it is now morally permissible to kick Martin in the shin, because it would simply be too demanding to accept that Martin’s interests continues to be morally relevant
indefinitely? Ott claims that indefinite moral interests are too demanding and thus
implausible, but Boonin argues that upon reflection, it seems that it is actually Ott’s view that is implausible. He concludes: “The mere fact that [Martin’s] interests extend indefinitely into the future does nothing to make them any less morally relevant than they were before” (Boonin, 2019, p. 170).
Boonin finds The Crowding Problem equally unconvincing, and responds to it by appealing to another thought experiment: We are presently living in a world were 7 billion people have a moral interest in not being kicked in their shins. Most of us agree that this makes it wrong to kick people, all 7 billion, in their shins. If we discovered life on another planet, with a population of 100 billion persons (all with an interest of not being kicked in their shins), would these alien’s sheer number make their interest morally irrelevant? For Boonin, the answer is no. Quantity alone does not seem like a relevant factor in determining whether it is wrong or not to harm people.
Boonin states that he objects to two aspects of the reasoning behind Ott’s Crowding Problem: (1) The fact that Posthumous Wrongs Thesis might be demanding is not a good argument against the thesis; (2) the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis is not as demanding as Ott makes it seem. As for (1), Boonin claims that many ethical theories are demanding, but that this feature does not make them untrue. For instance, the thesis that non-human animals are morally relevant would if true drastically increase the number of subjects whose well-being we ought to care for, and this would entail changing our lives and societies in ways that would indeed be demanding. But it seems implausible that the thesis itself would be untrue because of this. As for (2), Boonin argues that if an ethical theory demands that we strive to 8
maximize the total well-being of all, then an addition of more people whose moral interests are relevant does not seem to put any extra strain on us as individuals, it simply demands that all people’s well-being are accounted for in the total. If we on the other hand adopts an ethical theory in which we do not have any obligations to maximize the well-being of all, but only have obligations to benefit other individuals under special conditions, and with smaller sacrifices to ourselves, we reach the same conclusion: the mere addition in quantity of individuals does not seem to imply an increase in demands on our individual actions.
8 A version of this argument that generate perhaps even stronger intuitions could be made by swapping animal rights for human rights. E.g. it was very demanding for many societies, both socially and economically, to abolish human slavery. Still, we would find it absurd to argue that since the abolitionism is so demanding, it cannot be true, and that human slavery is thus not morally wrong.
Although I think (2) seems somewhat plausible, I also offer an argument that can answer the Expiration Problem, and hence mitigate the Crowding Problem, without an adherent of Ott’s view having to change their view on what our general obligations to others entail. I present it in the next section, in which I offer my own responses to Ott’s objections.
4. My Responses to Ott’s Objections
According to Ott, posthumous harms and posthumous wrongs are implausible because they are too ethically demanding. I believe Ott to be mistaken about this. I find it plausible that ethics demands a lot of us, at least if we by this mean that it might take a lot to be without moral fault. It may of course be that Ott agrees that an ethical theory might be demanding, but that he just finds Boonin’s theses too demanding. However, I do not think they are, and I think Ott is mistaken about what posthumous harms and wrongs necessarily imply. I believe that at least parts of his mistake stem from his failure to properly distinguish between harms and wrongs, which I believe leads him to assign too much moral significance to harm. Since this is relevant for the argument I am making, I will begin by properly explaining what I mean by this, thus setting the stage for the argument to come.
While discussing harm, Ott notes that he takes issue with George Pitcher’s “rough” overall definition of when a subject is harmed: “an event or state of affairs is a misfortune for someone (or harms someone) when it is contrary to one or more of his important desires or interests” (Ott, 2012, p. 3). Ott describes this definition as “[...] not so much ‘rough and ready’ as ‘false and useless’” (2012, p. 3). The reasons for this assessment is that according to Ott, Pitcher’s definition of harm would render it impossible to grade students fairly, or to break up with someone, without harming them. Here Ott seems to implicitly presuppose that harming implies wronging, as in: if Pitcher is correct, this would imply that is morally impermissible to break up with someone, since this would be to inflict harm upon them, and to do so is wrong. But, since it is not wrong to break up with someone, Pitcher’s view must be false. 9
However, I believe that is entirely sensible to claim that people can be harmed by breakups, or by receiving poor grades. To harm someone is generally understood as to make
9 This seems like the most sensible reading of Ott’s stance, since Pitcher’s view does not generate any counterintuitive results unless it is combined with a strong view on harm’s moral significance.
them worse-off, and it is easy to imagine someone made worse-off by a breakup. I share Ott’s inclination that a view that implies that it is wrong to break up with someone would be deeply misguided, but I do not think that is what Pitcher is claiming. It only seems so if one
presupposes that harming someone implies wronging them. This presuppositions may seem very intuitive, since it seems obvious that the less harm the better, ceteris paribus. However, some philosophers question such a straightforward connection between harming and
wronging. We can understand why by examining the following examples from Neil Feit:
Pat & Terry: Pat has strong feelings for Terry, but Terry chooses to begin a serious romantic relationship with somebody else. This causes Pat to undergo much suffering (Feit, 2019, p. 821)
Market Shares: The CEO of Company X makes such good decisions that X’s products dominate the market. As a result, many good, hard-working employees of Company Y lose their jobs, which causes them significant distress and hardship (Feit, 2019, p. 821).
I believe that most people share the intuition that neither Terry nor the CEO of Company X wronged anyone. However, it also seems very plausible that to say that Pat and the
employees of Company Y were harmed, and, as Feit writes, that any plausible theory of harm will imply that these are cases of harm. Yet, we do not view Terry’s actions as morally wrong. Perhaps this is because harming is not wrong per se (as Feit have argued), or, because harming in some cases may be justified – for instance when we exercise rights such as the right to choose our partner, or the right to free speech. Whatever the answer is, for now it is enough to conclude that there are cases in which inflicting harm is not morally wrong. With that in mind, let me now present my arguments against Ott’s objections.
4.1. My Response to The Expiration Problem
Ott claims that the existence of indefinite moral interests makes the theses of posthumous harms and wrongs too ethically demanding to be plausible. It is easy to appreciate the general reasoning this stems from. If an ethical theory is very demanding, this might be a reason to
question its plausibility. And if Ott’s description of what posthumous harms and wrongs imply is accurate, with centuries of obligations falling upon the living, making us unable to navigate through the world without wronging some number of dead people with every action we took, it would indeed seem like posthumous harms and wrongs would be very demanding.
I do however disagree with Ott that this is what posthumous harms imply. I will illustrate why by examining Ott’s particular question of when is it morally permissible to stop worry about Mrs. White’s desire, in order to then draw more general conclusions.
When is it morally permissible for Ott to stop worrying about Mrs. White and her desire? A possible answer could be that if was always permissible for Ott to not worry about Mrs. White’s desires. Given the Posthumous Harms Thesis, it is true that Ott’s decision to switch laundromat company harms Mrs. White, by frustrating her desires. However, as Feit’s cases illustrate, this does not necessarily imply that Ott has wronged Mrs. White. Ott’s Mrs. White’s Laundromat has a lot in common with Feit’s Market Shares, in which the CEO of Company X is so good at his job that this results in the workers of Company Y being laid off. As Feit points out, it seems reasonable to claim that the workers of Company Y are harmed by these events, but it seems implausible to claim that the actions of the CEO of Company X were morally wrong. It does not seem like a CEO is obliged to care about a competitor’s employees in such a way. In Ott’s case, he is not even analogous to the CEO of Company X. He is more like a customer of Company X, and one who is oblivious of the fate of Company Y’s workers at that (Ott explicitly writes that he is unaware of Mrs. White’s desire). If anything, Ott’s actions hence seem even further distanced from moral wrongness than those of the CEO. Thus, if it seems plausible that the CEO of Company X does not commit a wrong in Market Shares, it seems very plausible that Ott does not commit a wrong in Mrs White’s Laundromat.
Whether Ott was wrong to switch laundromat or not depends on the broader question of what our obligations to other people are. Are we as consumers obliged to keep businesses alive if that is what their owners desire? I do not think so. It seems more plausible claim that it is morally permissible, perhaps even that we have a right, in cases like this to choose which goods and services we want to consume, even if the choices we exercise with such a right sometimes frustrate the desires of specific people. In the same vein, we may have the rights to exercise freedom of speech or to choose our own partner, even though this sometimes harm others. Thus, the implausibility of Mrs. White’s Laundromat does not seem to emanate from
posthumous harms or wrongs, but from the idea that Ott would have a moral duty to keep a laundromat business alive just because this was what its owner (dead or alive) desired. This can be illustrated by constructing a Boonin-style parallel case. Here is mine, “Mrs. Black’s Laundromat”: Ott is the best customer at White’s Laundry. He knows nothing about the owner, Mrs. White, but as it happens, she has a desire that her laundry company keeps on existing. One day another laundromat company opens, run by Mrs. Black. Mrs. Black’s new laundromat is closer to Ott’s house, and he starts using their services instead of White’s Laundry. Partly as a result of this, White’s Laundry goes out of business. Did Ott act morally wrong? It seems plausible to say that Mrs. White was harmed by Ott’s choice, but this does not mean that he was morally wrong to act as he did. In fact, it seems like Ott is entirely justified to opt to be a customer of Mrs. Black.
My Mrs. Black’s Laundromat is simply the parallel case of Mrs. White’s Laundromat, and given that we ought to be consistent in our judgements, it seems like Ott did not do anything wrong by switching laundromat in Mrs. White’s Laundromat. Thus, we can see that the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis does not imply that Mrs. White’s desire will not “torment” Ott. He is not wrong to use a different laundromat company – regardless of if Mrs. White is alive or dead – unless one is actually obliged to keep businesses alive if their owners so desire, or if to inflict harm is always wrong, and both of these claims seem very implausible (in part because they are extremely demanding). The Posthumous Wrongs Thesis simply states that we can wrong the dead, and hence that they should be respected. It does not state that we have any extra obligations to the dead, or that they are more important than the living. The extension of what Boonin’s theses imply depends on the underlying extension of our general moral obligations, and I find it plausible to claim that using one’s energy to fulfill very particular desires or strangers, living or dead, is supererogatory – it is above and beyond what is morally required of us. The mere fact that a person have a desire does not imply that one is morally wrong to not help them fulfill said desire. Furthermore, apart from the limits of our general obligations, there are also plenty of other reasons for why we are not wrong to not fulfill certain desires. For instance, it is often the case that many, and sometimes conflicting, interests are at stake. Cremations are expensive and have negative effects on the environment. Cemeteries take up a lot of valuable land. These aspects affect both the living and those not yet born. Although it might be good for the person who wishes to be cremated or buried at a certain cemetery to have that desire fulfilled, this is not necessarily good for anyone else. Yet
another reason for why we are not obliged to try to fulfill all desires are that some desires would be morally neutral or even wrong to fulfill. Ott brings this up when he critiques Pitcher’s definition of harm for being too wide, since it implies that we can cause harm by frustrating neutral or even evil desires. While Ott is certainly right that there are desires that are neutral or wrong to fulfill, it still seems entirely plausible to me that we can harm by frustrating neutral or evil desires. If we just untangle harming from wronging, Pitcher’s definition becomes less confusing. For instance, it seems plausible to claim that we can harm a criminal by informing the police about his crimes. This may still be the right thing to do, since there are many more variables to take into account besides how the criminal himself is affected.
In general, there are of course many types of desires that can be either morally neutral or wrong to fulfill, posthumous or not. For instance absurd desires, like the desire that double tennis is never discontinued in the grand slam tournaments. Or undeserved desires; Caligula 10
apparently hated to be called Caligula, and desired that people refer to him as Emperor Gaius. Caligula was also a cruel tyrant who killed people for his own entertainment (Beard, 2018)
and because of this, I am not sure that Caligula’s deserves us respecting his desire. Or evil desires that are clearly morally wrong to fulfill; this hardly requires any explanation, but we can use Hitler’s desire for the Third Reich to last for millennia as an illustrative example. 12
What I wish to emphasize is that whether one believes that frustrating someone’s desires amounts to harming them or not, the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis does not imply that we are obliged to care about every desire of the deceased, just as we are not obliged to care about every desire of the living. Properly distinguishing between harms and wrongs makes this point clear.
Now, let us shift focus to my second argument against the Expiration Problem. There is a famous saying (I am unsure of its origins) that a man dies twice. Once when he dies, in the conventional meaning of the word, and once when he is forgotten. I believe this saying
10 Example from Ott (2012).
11 Caligula means “Little Boot”. This nickname was seen as demeaning and embarrassing (Beard, 2018).
12How to define absurd, undeserved, and evil desires is an interesting question, but one I won’t delve into. For the purpose of my argument, it is sufficient that these or related categories seem plausible.
holds an insight in why the dead will not torment us from the grave if we accept Boonin’s theses.
In Mrs. White’s Laundromat, Ott explicitly writes that he knows nothing of Mrs. White’s desires. It is often thought that “ought implies can”, meaning that in order for
someone to be morally required to do a certain action, it must be possible to do so. If Ott does not know about Mrs. White’s desires, he can neither frustrate nor fulfill them intentionally. If he were to frustrate her desire by accident, we would not say that he acted morally wrong. Neither would we say that he acted morally right if he accidentally fulfilled her desire. And to simply not do anything in regard to an unknown desire would be a non-event. Thus, if Ott 13
does not know anything about Mrs. White’s particular desires, it seems plausible to claim that he is not required to worry about them. A formal argument might look like this:
P1. If an act is impossible, then we are not obliged to do it.
P2. To intentionally fulfill unknown or unknowable desires is impossible.
C1. We are not obliged to intentionally fulfill unknown or unknowable desires.
P3. Most desires held by the dead are unknown and unknowable.
C2. We are not obliged to intentionally fulfill most desires held by the dead. P1 is the claim that “ought implies can”, which seems very intuitive. P2 seems very solid as well; in order to intentionally fulfill a desire, we need to know about it. P3 is an empirical assumption on my part, but a very commonsensical assumption given that it is estimated that over 100 billion humans have lived and died. It is safe to assume that out of this number, only a slight fraction of people are currently remembered. Hence, the argument seems sound, and we can conclude that, even if the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis is true, we are not obliged to fulfil most desires held by the dead.
But if one, say Ott, cannot fulfill desires that are unknown to him, should he not at least try to attain knowledge about them? The Posthumous Wrongs Thesis does entail that Mrs. White and other dead people’s desires are morally relevant, after all. My answer to this
13 In the philosophical discussion about harm, it is often thought that an infliction of harm is connected to a harmful event. Hence, non-events cannot be harmful. Kai Draper has given the following example of a non-event: not finding Aladdin’s lamp when one is not looking for it (Feit, 2019).
would be that oftentimes the desires of the dead will in fact be unknowable, meaning that they are truly impossible to ascertain. This is especially true for those who have been dead for a long time. If this is not the case, I believe that it once against depends on what our 14
obligations to dead person in question are. Personally, I do not believe that we are morally obliged to try to acquire knowledge about or fulfill highly particular desires of strangers. However, it seems plausible that we might be when it comes to people with whom we share a special relationship. For instance, it seems like we ought to look for our parents’ wills in order to arrange things according to their wishes. It should also be noted that it is often the case that we do not know whether a person has a specific desire, but that there are good reasons to believe they have some desires, e.g. most living people desire to avoid pain, therefore, we should not go around and kick people’s shins. This partially explains for instance why we should treat graves and memorial sites with respect (we can assume that most people desire to avoid grave desecration). However, such general desires (not experiencing pain, having one’s grave treated respectfully) are quite different from Mrs. White’s particular desire to have her business outlive her.
With these caveats in place, I think it is fair to claim that we do not have any duties to fulfill desires we cannot know about. When someone is forgotten, so are their desires. This is the function by which desires cancel-out. And since the vast majority of people who have ever lived are forgotten, centuries of obligations will not befall the living, for this reason alone, even if the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis is true.
So, to summarize: The Posthumous Wrongs Thesis does not necessarily imply that we ought to fulfill given desires of the dead, or that we are never allowed to harm the dead. It merely states that we can wrong the dead, which means that their moral interests should be taken into account in our moral considerations when relevant. By properly distinguishing harming from wronging, this becomes clearer, and the Expiration Problem becomes a lot less problematic. I have also argued that the Expiration Problems is further diminished by the fact that most desires of the dead are unknowable, and that if “ought implies can”, this means that we cannot be “tormented” by the unknown desires of history. Hence, posthumous harms are
14 It also seems likely to be empirically true that most people do not have many posthumous desires, which would further diminish the degree to which posthumous wrongs are demanding. Although this is impossible to know with certainty, I find it very likely that most people’s desires primarily concern areas related to their own lives and not future states of the world. It is of course common to write wills or to express preferences about one’s memorial service, but these desires cancel-out in temporal proximity to one’s passing. It seems more rare for people to have strong desires regarding states of the world in the distant future.
much less demanding than they might have seen at first. Now, let us examine Ott’s next objection – the Crowding Problem.
4.2. My Response to The Crowding Problem
If we were to accept Boonin’s theses, this would potentially lead to a situation in which we have an additional 100 billion + (and growing) number of subjects whose interest matter morally. According to Ott, this is simply too demanding to be true. However, the Crowding Problem is in large parts a problem only if the Expiration Problem is a problem, which means that if the arguments I raised against the Expiration Problem are true, they also make the Crowding Problem drastically less problematic. Nevertheless, I will also present another reason to reject the Crowding Problem.
Boonin claims that quantity alone does not seem like a relevant factor in determining whether we should take a given subject’s (or group of subjects’) moral interests into account. He illustrates this with a thought experiment in which we suddenly discover life on another planet. If these alien were like us, it would not matter if there were 100 billion of them, we would still have an ethical obligation to take their interest into account.
I agree with Boonin’s claim. There may be dissensus over how moral status should be demarcated, but lifetime or quantity seems to be the wrong metrics. However, I believe that Boonin overlooks a more down-to-earth objection to Ott’s reasoning. If we accept the claim that a given type of subjects cannot be morally relevant because of their sheer quantity, this begs the question: How many lives are too many? The world’s population is approaching 8 billion people. This is already an unfathomable number. If 100 billion is too demanding, why not 8 billion? If we apply the standard of obligations Ott uses in the Mrs. White’s
Laundromat case (one ought to try to fulfill very personal desires of a company owner they know nothing about), then caring for 8 billion people is already extremely demanding. Unless there is some satisfactory way to explain why it is too demanding to care about 100 billion people in this way but not 8 billion, it seems tempting to simply claim that 8 billion people is in fact too demanding as well. But the obvious problem with this position is that it implies that it is unacceptably demanding to care about all currently living humans.
Such a position seems very implausible. A more reasonable move would be to weaken what we mean by caring, and to argue that our obligations to strangers are weaker than what
Ott seems to suggest in his thought experiment. This view seems more plausible, since it does not lead to a situation in which additional human lives becomes such a moral burden. We could for instance adopt the view that we have some stronger obligations to people we share a special relationship with, and some weaker less demanding obligations to strangers. This makes the number of subjects whose interest matter much less relevant. For instance, when I was born, there was 5.5 billion people in the world. It was wrong for me to kick anyone of them in their shins. Today, there are soon to be 8 billion people, who I ought not to kick in their shins. The number of people could increase indefinitely, and it would still seem reasonable to claim that I ought not to kick anyone of all these people in their shins. Since this negative obligation is weak enough, the number of people who matter can increase without the demands on me increasing as a result. Thus, the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis does not increase our moral demands in any unreasonable way in itself. It only does so if it is combined with a very demanding view of our general obligation, and such a view have problems of its own that renders it implausible.
The thesis of this essay is that Ott’s objections, The Expiration Problem and the Crowding Problem, are unconvincing; they do not provide good reasons for us to abandon the
Posthumous Wrongs Thesis. I have explored this issue by explicating Boonin’s theses, Ott’s objections, and Boonin’s responses. I have also presented my own arguments.
Since the Crowding Problem in large parts follow from the Expiration Problem (if the dead’s desires can cancel-out, the crowding becomes much less problematic) I have opted to spend more time on the latter. Influenced by Feit, I argued that the mere fact someone is harmed by our actions is not enough to deem our actions as morally wrong. I also gave examples of other reasons for why it is not necessarily wrong to not try to fulfill other people’s desires. Hence, I concluded that posthumous harms and wrongs are less demanding than what Ott seems to believe. I illustrated this by creating a Boonin inspired parallel case, Mrs. Black’s Laundromat, showing that the implausibility of Mrs. White’s Laundromat does not lie in the existence of posthumous harm but in Ott’s implicit premise that one would be wrong to harm their local laundromat owner by not keeping her business alive. This argument aligns well with Boonin’s response to Ott, which is to argue that when combined with a
plausible view of our obligations to others, posthumous harms and wrongs does not generate any unacceptably demanding implications.
My second argument against the Expiration Problem is more novel. I argued that if it is true that “ought implies can”, this means that we are not obliged to care about unknown or at least unknowable desires. I also claimed that most of the dead’s desires are unknown or unknowable, which means that we do not have to worry about them. Centuries of obligations do not fall onto the living. If true, this argument greatly reduces the demands that posthumous harms and wrongs may seem to generate, without appealing to any specific view of what our general obligations are.
Lastly, I offered a response to the Crowding Problem. I noted that Ott’s claim that an ethical theory can be unacceptably demanding because of the number of subjects to whom it grants moral relevancy seems to have implausible implications. I gave the example that it seems very demanding to care about the almost 8 billion currently living human beings in the way Ott seems to describe our obligations. Yet, it would seem implausible to claim that any ethical theory that implies that we ought to care about every living human is wrong. I suggested that this issue is best addressed by adopting a less demanding view of what our obligations to others are, instead of reducing the number of subjects whom we care about.
The purpose of this essay was to defend the Posthumous Wrongs Thesis from Ott’s objections. If the arguments I have made are convincing, I believe this has been achieved. I have also offered a new way of responding to the Expiration Problem. Unlike Boonin’s response to this objection, my “ought implies can” argument does not require an adherent of Ott’s view to change their conception on what our obligations to others are in order for the demands of posthumous harms and wrongs to be diminished. Therefore, if the argument is convincing, I believe it is fair to say that the essay fulfills its purpose, and makes a small contribution to how we can understand our normative relationship with the dead.
1. Beard, M. (2015). SPQR: Historien om det antika Rom. (M. Weilguni, Trans.). Stockholm, Sweden: Norstedts.
2. Boonin, D. (2019). Dead Wrong: The Ethics of Posthumous Harm. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198842101.001.0001 3. Clark, A. & Chalmers, D. (1998). The Extended Mind. Analysis 58, 7-19.
4. Feit, N. (2019). Harming by Failing to Benefit. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 22, 809-823. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-017-9838-6
5. Hauck, G. (2019, December 15). Columbus Day: Celebrating cultural heritage, or the colonization of Native Americans?. USA Today. Retrieved from:
6. Kaneda, T. & Haub, C. (2020, January 23). How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth?. Population Reference Bureau. Retrieved from:
7. McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Oxford, U.K.: Routledge.
8. Nagel, T. (1970). Death. Noûs, 4(1), 73-80. https://doi.org/10.2307/2214297 9. Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York, NY: Basic Books. 10. Ott, W. (2012). Are There Duties To The Dead?. Philosophy Now, 89. Retrieved
from: https://philosophynow.org/issues/89/Are_There_Duties_To_The_Dead 11. Plutarch. (1914). Lives Vol 1: Theseus and Romulus Lycurgus and Numa Solon and
Publicola. (B, Perrin, Trans.), Mass.: Harvard University Press.
12. Respers France, L. (2019, November 7). Chris Evans and others sound off against CGI casting of James Dean. CNN. Retrieved from:
13. Shafer-Landau, R. (2015). The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.