One of the more useful thought experiments I’ve encountered in philosophy, because it seems to apply to so many situations, is Derek Parfit’s “Harmless Torturers,” from his celebrated book Reasons and Persons:
The Harmless Torturers. In the Bad Old Days, each torturer inflicted severe pain on one victim. Things have now changed. Each of the thousand torturers presses a button, thereby turning the switch once on each of the thousand instruments. The victims suffer the same severe pain. But none of the torturers makes any victim’s pain perceptibly worse.
Parfit asks us to imagine two scenarios. In the first, a thousand victims are strapped to a thousand electrical torture devices, and each of a thousand torturers turns a switch on the device, inflicting extreme agony on the individual victim strapped to that machine. In the second scenario, each torturer’s dial increases the current flowing through all thousand torture machines by a tiny increment, so small as to be imperceptible to any individual victim, but collectively inflicting the same amount of pain. Parfit’s point is that we should regard the torturers in the second scenario as acting no less wrongly than those in the first scenario, even though there is a sense in which each individual’s action is “harmless.” It is not enough, Parfit argues, to ask whether one’s actions cause harm when considered in isolation; rather, we should also consider whether our actions are part of a system or pattern of similar conduct that in the aggregate causes harm, even if no individual’s action makes a perceptible difference to the outcome. We don’t need to read Parfit (or Kant) to recognize the principle of course: The typical answer to a child wondering why he must follow some rule that seems to be violable without obvious harm is “but imagine if everyone did that.” The slightly subtler corollary to this point is that often an action can be wrong, not because of its intrinsic effects or qualities, but because of what other people are doing. Many confused and indignant objections to people pointing out racism or sexism seem to me to be rooted in a failure to properly appreciate and apply this idea.
A viral video capturing the staggering quantity of harassment experienced by a woman walking the streets of New York provides probably the clearest example. Plenty of what the filmmakers captured involves conduct that would be crass or menacing even taken purely in isolation: following the woman, making lewd comments about parts of her body, and so on. But some viewers—mostly male, but a few women as well—object that the video unfairly lumps these together with “friendly greetings” or innocuous compliments: “How are you, miss?” or “You’re looking lovely today.” And in a very narrow sense, they have a point: When a stranger says something nice about my appearance, as happens maybe once a month, that brightens my day a bit, because I’m not constantly inundated by a stream of comments ranging from innocuous to menacing. The mistake the “friendly” men make is failing to imagine how the context of a hundred other “friendly” (and some markedly less friendly) remarks may make their own far less welcome than it would be in isolation.
Or consider Anita Sarkeesian’s popular “Tropes vs. Women” series, which notoriously drives some young male gamers to mouth-foaming apoplexy. One of the less unhinged objections you sometimes see is that some of Sarkeesian’s examples of sexist portrayals of women in games may be individually defensible as narratively or contextually appropriate: Isn’t it only natural or “realistic” for a game about mob enforcers or Old West gunslingers to feature scantily clad women as part of a strip club or bordello backdrop? Sarkeesian’s point, of course, isn’t that such depictions shouldn’t exist at all, but that an ugly cultural message is conveyed when these are the dominant representation of women—when it’s the primary way they’re depicted in one blockbuster game after another.
Finally, consider a much-mocked image recently making the rounds of a young white girl made up in blackface for a Nicki Minaj Halloween costume, coupled with her inevitable objection “for the record” that she’s “not racist” for wearing it. Now, if we want to be very charitable, we can grant that it’s possible she’s merely strikingly obtuse—ignorant of the cultural context and the history of minstrelsy that makes wearing black makeup to dress as Nicki radically different from donning a blonde wig to dress as Marilyn Monroe—rather than “racist” in the sense of being motivated by a subjective intent to mock or demean black people. Some readers may recall “Tokyo Breakfast,” an early viral video that played this sort of cultural confusion for laughs by presenting an ersatz sitcom in which an upbeat Japanese family infatuated with hip-hop culture gleefully toss around the N-word, seemingly innocent of how offensive what they’re saying is.
Here, George Carlin’s famous “Only Words” routine got it half right: Carlin says that “offensive” words, such as ethnic slurs, are harmless in themselves; it’s “context” and “intention” that make them offensive. He’s right about context: A string of letters or phonemes becomes a “slur” only by dint of a cultural and historical context in which it is frequently used pejoratively. But he’s wrong about “intent,” because language is a collective enterprise. If I were to make a personal decision to use the phrase “fuck you” to mean “thank you ever so much,” I should not be surprised when people nevertheless take offense despite my subjective intention, and I would at the very least be culpably obtuse in failing to anticipate the predictable reaction of my listeners.
One reason public discourse about racism and sexism tends to be so acrimonious—though certainly not the only one—may be that we don’t explicitly enough distinguish “harmless torturers” cases from the “bad old days” variety. Sophisticated critics, of course, routinely stress that misogyny and racism are fundamentally structural problems that can be perpetuated by actions that don’t necessarily require the individuals perpetuating them to harbor any malicious intentions or vulgar attitudes. But that’s still what we most automatically associate with the claim that something is “racist” or “sexist”—leading people to take umbrage (often in bad faith, but presumably at least sometimes sincerely) when a particular utterance or action is called out.
More precisely, there are two distinctions we may want to make. One is between intention and effect, the other between individual and collective or aggregate harms. These are, unsurprisingly, related: It’s hard to plausibly claim you didn’t mean any harm by punching someone in the face, because that action is so obviously harmful regardless of what anyone else does. (To paraphrase Kant, when the consequences of an action are clearly foreseeable, we regard them as “intended” even if they’re not part of the actor’s core aim.) It’s much easier to say you didn’t mean your “friendly” compliment to harass or intimidate someone when the harassment or intimidation are a cumulative effect that depends on a dozen other remarks you didn’t observe.
Any pairing of intended/unintended and individual/aggregate is logically possible, but unintended/aggregate harms are the trickiest ones to address, because they require people to recognize as culpable conduct that not only wasn’t meant to cause harm, but often wouldn’t be harmful taken in isolation. What’s especially thorny here is that we consider conduct blameworthy only when an actor knows or reasonably ought to know that it is causing harm, either individually or in the aggregate. A foreign visitor who, like the “Tokyo Breakfast” family, uses an offensive term without realizing that it is offensive is not necessarily a bad person—but is blameworthy if he keeps using it after being told. When a harm is less obvious, because cumulative or systematic, people may resist changing their conduct because they think it means accepting a negative judgment of their character based on what they did in ignorance.
Changing people’s conduct, in these cases, is rendered more difficult because it may require us to thread a tricky rhetorical needle: On the one hand, we want people to regard certain behavior as blameworthy if they keep doing it once they understand its aggregate effects, which may not have been obvious to them. On the other hand, we risk provoking unnecessary psychological resistance if people think that acknowledging those effects requires them to accept a kind of retroactive indictment of their character based on how they behaved when they didn’t know better. (One thinks of the old joke about the missionary bringing the gospel to an isolated tribe: Were my ancestors damned for not accepting Jesus when they had never heard of him? No, they wouldn’t be damned if they didn’t know. THEN WHY DID YOU TELL ME?)
The tricky balancing act, then, is getting people to see how their conduct may be harmful, or rather, part of a pattern of conduct that is harmful in the aggregate—without requiring them to condemn themselves for not having acknowledged the harm sooner, since that will often make them resist acknowledging it. Unsurprisingly, those who’ve seen the harm tend to get tired of this kind of emotional coddling of people who seem to be in denial about what’s all too apparent to those on the receiving end—especially when addressing groups comprising a mix of those who don’t know any better and straight-up assholes who know but don’t care. It would take more chutzpah than I can muster to counsel infinite patience, but addressing the Harmless Torturers as a distinct group may be the best way to help prevent them from joining the ranks of the assholes.