I’ve always been puzzled by the standard account of posthumous harm that we find in the literature. The standard account of posthumous harm—the one expounded by Brandt (1979, 330), Feinberg (1984, 87), Griffin (1986, 23), Kavka (1986, 41), Parfit (1984, 495), and others—goes as follows. Acts such as those that betray, destroy one’s reputation, or undermine one’s achievements can harm a person while she is alive even if they never affect her experiences. For instance, it seems that the slandering of my reputation can be harmful to me even if I never become aware of it, even if I never experience any change in how others act around me, even if I never feel any less respected as result of the defamation—the reason being that I care not only about feeling respected, but also about being respected. In other words, it’s important to me that my desire for esteem is actually fulfilled, and not just that I think that it is. Since I desire to be respected not only while alive but also after my death, the slandering of my reputation, even after my death, harms me. For if it isn’t necessary that I learn of the slander or experience any ill effects as a result of it in order for it to be harmful to me, then why do I need to be alive at the time of the slander in order for it to constitute a harm? My death makes it only all the more certain that I will never learn of, or be experientially affected by, the slander. But “if we think it irrelevant that I never know about the non-fulfillment of my desires, we cannot defensibly claim that death makes any difference” (Parfit 1984, 495).
There are, as I see it, two problems with the standard account. First, it is only the non-fulfillment of certain desires, those that are about one’s own life, that negatively affect a person’s welfare; the non-fulfillment of other desires has no effect on a person’s welfare. For instance, the non-fulfillment of a person’s desire that a distant star should have a certain chemical composition would not, normally, count as a detriment to his or her welfare (Scanlon 1998, 120). Unfortunately, I know of no suitable account of what desires do and don’t count as being about one’s own life, and this is something we need to know before we can accept the standard account, for it may turn out that those desires that concern what will take place after one’s death don’t count as desires that are about one’s own life.
Second, it seems that even if we restrict ourselves to desires that pertain to one’s own life, the non-fulfillment of a desire is harmful only if the desire-thwarting state of affairs obtains at a time when the person still has that desire, and, of course, this means that the non-fulfillment of a past desire (a desire that one once had but has no longer) is of no harm at all. Take, for instance, one of Parfit famous examples: it seems that despite his having had the desire to become a poet when he was young, Parfit does not harm himself now by thwarting his past desire to become a poet in pursing his current desire to be a philosopher. This spells trouble for the standard account of posthumous harm, for it would seem that it must hold that posthumous events harm people by thwarting their past desires—after all, the deceased have no present desires, but only past desires.
I would be interested in hearing whether others share my worries about the standard account or whether others think that these potential problems can be adequately addressed.