Preventing a Harm by Doing a Harm

Consider a couple, Sam and Tracy.  Sam and Tracy have been together for a long time.  We could even imagine them being married if you’d like.  Lately, however, their relationship has been rocky and has slowly become unstable.  Whatever the details may be, Tracy is taking the initiative and trying to break the relationship.  Sam, however, has a history of depression and has had suicidal tendencies.  Sam tells Tracy that if the relationship ends, “I don’t know if I could move on.  I would seriously kill myself.”  Sam seems to be genuine in this proclamation.  I should note that Sam is not saying this as a threat or as a way to coerce Tracy to stay in this relationship.  Sam really would commit suicide if the relationship were to end.  Of course, Sam is getting help either through therapy or through medicinal means, but it is a slow recovery and the relationship is taking a huge toll on Tracy.  In fact, it is affecting Tracy’s health overall and Tracy cannot wait for Sam to be mentally stable.  Yet, Tracy does care for Sam as a person.  Tracy does not want to Sam to commit suicide or cause serious harm.  Thus, Tracy is torn.  On the one hand, staying in this relationship is not healthy and it is going to cause a strain to both of them individually and the relationship between them could get worse.  On the other hand, if Tracy initiates the relationship, then Sam would be so devastated that Sam would cause self-harm or even suicide.  Thus Tracy decides not to end the relationship. However, the relationship is taking a toll and Tracy wants to end the relationship. So if Tracy won’t end it, perhaps Sam will? Tracy decides that the best route is to somehow make it so that Sam would initiate ending the relationship.  But how?

One way is to convince Sam that the relationship is going to make everyone involved worse off.  This, however, is tricky because the information cannot come from Tracy directly.  After all, if Sam were to hear from Tracy that this is not a healthy relationship, Sam would interpret this as Tracy ending the relationship, which gets back to our initial problem.  Perhaps if Tracy could convince one of Sam’s friends or one of Sam’s relatives that this isn’t healthy.  However, unless somehow one of Sam’s friend or Sam’s relatives is so in tune to the relationship, the friend or relative may interpret this message as Tracy wanting to end the relationship.  In which case, the friend or relative could give the message to Sam that Tracy is wanting to end the relationship and Sam may be even more agitated because the message did not directly come from Sam.  So unless the friend or relative is in tune with Sam’s health, this plan may not fully work.

The other plan is make Sam not enjoy the relationship by either seeing many problems with the relationship itself, or seeing that being with Tracy is not a good option.  And so Tracy does certain actions that would be interpreted as not investing into the relationship. Tracy would also ghost, ice, or simmer away from the relationship. In other words, Tracy neglects Sam and does not put any investment into the relationship.  As time goes on, Sam feels that Tracy is drifting away and not putting much into this relationship. Of course, Tracy’s strategy is slow going, but eventually Sam would start to see that this relationship may be taken for granted and not enjoyable.  Eventually, Sam starts to see that this relationship is no longer enjoyable and ends the relationship.

Are Tracy’s actions ethical?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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1 Response to Preventing a Harm by Doing a Harm

  1. Sunish says:

    This has happened (almost exactly) to me. I was Sam. I can’t blame Tracy.

    I may not be the correct person to comment about the ethics part of it because I still have conflicted feelings about it, but I’ll still give it a try. Though some years have passed, you can say I haven’t gotten over it fully yet, I guess. In the beginning, I felt more intensely about being ‘rejected’ in a round about way. But now, I feel that perhaps she was right.

    Tracy did what was good for her, but I can’t yet say it was good for me. Even then, I feel now that ethically, what she did was more right than wrong. Ethics is not an exact science no matter whether you use consequentialism, deontology, or virtue ethics. Right and wrong will always remain matters of degree, rather than of kind.

    You may try to avoid eating meat, but you would squash a mosquito on your arm without even thinking about it. Then you have to give complex arguments about higher and lower organisms etc. Or you may oppose abortion, but somehow justify bombing of children in Iraq. Killing in the name of a flag or an imaginary line (a border).

    Once my mother was despairing watching on TV a deer being killed by a tiger. But the tiger would die if it doesn’t kill and eat that deer. Only humans would kill for an idea.

    Of course, we can believe contradictory things, as said in a blog linked on your blog. I am an enthusiast of the view that Graham Priest’s work on Nagarjuna saying that “there are true contradictions” is indeed a great progress in philosophy.

    That way, even if what Tracy did was 51% right and 49% wrong, she would pass the muster. Though I certainly would rank her much more than 51% right, though not 100% right, ethically.

    PS: Thanks for that post. It did bring a tear to my eyes. Emotions! That thing David Hume said about reason being slave of passions, you know.

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