Can a good person be harmed?

Can a good person be harmed? Socrates, speaking through Plato, argues that it would be impossible for a good person to ever suffer any harm. For Socrates describing someone as a good person is equivalent to describing someone as a virtuous person. So one could rephrase the question, is it possible for a virtuous person to be harmed? As just stated, Socrates answers no to this question on the grounds that virtue is sufficient for all happiness. If being virtuous means being happy. Harm, according to Socrates, is a deprivation of happiness. Here it is important not to over simplify Socrates’ definition of happiness and instead think of happiness as flourishing. One might say that according to Socrates, harm is deprivation of flourishing. Thus keeping a person from flourishing or reducing their flourishing in any way is and should be considered harming them. But notice here the clever trap Socrates has set, a virtuous (or good) person is one that enjoys full flourishing. Consequently no matter what might be done to that person, so long as they remain good or virtuous, they cannot be harmed. Socrates’ system means that if a person is virtuous, than they are happy and live with full human flourishing. Because harming someone is reducing human flourishing, it is impossible to harm someone who is virtuous. Being that human flourishing is by definition being virtuous. Socrates’ system looks appealing at first glance and indeed has redeemable qualities, greatest of which is perhaps the weight placed upon being virtuous. However a closer examination is needed before making a definite decision. In particular a closer examination of Socrates’ definition of terms and how those correspond to actual uses of the same terms.

The immediate problem is that Socrates’ has simply defined terms in such a way that his premises cannot but lead to his conclusion. In particular Socrates states that “harm” is, generally speaking, hindering human flourishing. This is a definition that most will readily accept. But then Socrates states that virtue is all that is necessary for human flourishing, which he refers to as happiness. Such a statement hardly seems true. Although most will agree that harm is a hindering of human flourishing, many will also agree that if person X where to cut off person Y’s hand, he would most certainly be hindering person Y’s flourishing and or happiness. But notice that in cutting off person Y’s hand person X has done nothing to hinder person Y’s ability to be virtuous. Indeed perhaps the contrary is true, and person Y has just been provided an excellent opportunity to be virtuous. Of course this kind of statement is preposterous. Person X has harmed person Y. Now Socrates might argue that person X has not truly harmed person Y, but than it seems that he has simply decided to use the words “harm”, “virtue” and “flourishing” in a different fashion than anyone else. While this would not necessarily defeat Socrates’ argument it would drastically weaken it. Socrates may offer slightly new definitions but to so fundamentally change the meaning of the word “harm” hints at simply creating a new word.

Socrates’ argument is appealing and quite interesting. Despite what I have just said I would agree with Socrates that there is a degree to which a good or virtuous person cannot be harmed. This statement needs some qualification however for the reasons expressed above. Namely that there are some events where people do not lose the ability to be virtuous but certainly seem to have been harmed. It is possible to come up with a definition of “harm” where said people have not actually experienced harm, but this seems to be inventing a new word particularly because this is not how we speak of being harmed. Rather than openly invent a new word, I propose we simply draw a distinction between types of harm, or as I have said earlier, qualify Socrates’ statement.

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