Usually discussions of practical/applied ethics (which this site really needs a tag for, by the way) discuss matters in which a person's actions will have an effect on others. However, is there ever a case where a person can act unethically towards themselves? Alternatively, is there ever a case where something can be unethical despite not being harmful to any person at all?

An example of the former would be causing pain to oneself I guess, or similar self-harming (though perhaps not painful) actions, though there may be reasons why one could justify that (ethically). I can't think of a better example though. I don't think anyone would go to the extreme and say that eating unhealthily is unethical because it is self-harming, but perhaps more extreme cases would be.

One place that the latter question comes up is in discussions of bestiality. Some have objected to the practice of bestiality (disregarding any effects to the animal in question) on the grounds that it violates 'human dignity'. While I can certainly see human dignity playing a factor in applied ethics (such as a case where prisoner is denied his/her basic dignity, etc.), should this be a consideration in cases such as bestiality, where the question of 'human dignity' isn't one afflicting another or the like?

  • added practical-ethics tag – Mozibur Ullah Jul 3 '14 at 4:36
  • @MoziburUllah Awesome! thanks! I have to edit a few questions now – This lad Jul 3 '14 at 4:37
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    possibly anoxeria, bulimia, self-harming and other self-harming behaviours. – Mozibur Ullah Jul 3 '14 at 4:46
  • @MoziburUllah You gave examples of self-harm. Is suicide unethical? Sometimes? Always? Ever? Never? – user4894 Jul 3 '14 at 5:51
  • @user4894: I said possibly; suicide for example is unethical in Islamic ethics as it is in in Catholicism; Camus rejected religion but in the Myth of Sisyphus he gave an argument in the existentialist world-view to give it a name that also implied its unethical. – Mozibur Ullah Jul 3 '14 at 6:37

I cannot answer for all ethical theories, but for Kant, the answer is most definitely yes.

Specifically in the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue or Doctrine of Virtue (Both are names for the Tugendlehre), Kant identifies both suicide and lying as wrong not because of anything they do directly to others but as failings in one's moral duty to oneself.

Working from memory (though I spent a few pages on in my dissertation), the basic argument for suicide being a wrong is that the self is a rational creature and it is the duty of every rational creature to always consider rationality to be of worth and not price (non-relative value). To kill yourself is to act against the rationality in yourself and thus immoral for Kant. The suicide case is followed by casuistical questions that look at whether certain acts constitute a violation of this duty. Here, he mentions borderline cases like knowingly sacrificing yourself in a war or killing yourself because you have "hydrophilia" (= rabies).

For the second example, Kant's argument that lying is a failure in duty to oneself is a bit more interesting and ingenious. It follows along similar lines but explains that lying is an insult to the sort of being you. It's the reduction of rationality which depends on the truth to contingency for the sake of convenience. Again, this is followed casuistical questions about what constitutes "lying" or not. For Kant, idle banter at a party is not lying even if it is not per se true.

I am not familiar enough to know a passage in any utilitarian or consequentialist works on this point, but my suspicion is that the answer here would also be yes unless the thing to be maximized is "autonomy." If it is autonomy understood as pure expressions of freedom, then no such wrong is possible. But if it is suffering, then there's no reason to imagine that you are not committing a wrong against yourself when you act in such a way that increases your suffering.

If we take Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics to be the origin of virtue ethics (a claim that involves a certain sort of historical anachronism), then there's good reason to think that many wrongs are wrongs ultimately against the self for virtue theorists. I'll explain a little bit about. Aristotle's theory is built on the function argument (Book 1 section 7) which argues that a thing is best when it is fulfilling its function. Moreover, when it fulfill this function then it experiences eudaimonia (not to be confused with say the fun of a drug high -- seek book 2) and exhibits arete (excellence) in its actions.

The primary way in which something is wrong on a pure virtue theory approach is that it undermines the self's commitment to excellence. There's nothing in the nature of the self that is best fulfilled by being a lying scoundrel or by committing actions which will help to make oneself into that. Similarly with your bestiality example, human sexuality is not most fulfilled by having sex with animals.

I'll stick with lying however to show the point. Developing a skill for lying will incorporate lying into your character, but that's not what we're meant for. As you lie more, your ideas of what is pleasurable for you to do will warp towards lying, and this will move you away from eudaimonia.

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    Upvoted (I should have mentioned that I wan't looking for a Kantian perspective, as I was aware of his concept of moral duty to oneself). However, I'm not aware of any virtue theorists who present moral wrongs as violations against the self, and that doesn't really fit with how I understand most of them. Can you provide a source or more fleshed out argument, please? – This lad Jul 6 '14 at 6:48
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    @Matt edited to add more on that topic for ya. – virmaior Jul 6 '14 at 9:30

You asked:

However, is there ever a case where a person can act unethically towards themselves?

I think the best existing moral theory, created by Ayn Rand, would say yes:


You ought to do what is in your rational self interest. Some people disagree with this idea but I am not aware of any objection that stands up to serious critical argument. For an example see:


So if you act in a way that doesn't harm other people but does harm you that may be unethical. For example, if you spend your time taking heroin because you feel unsatisfied with your life then you are ignoring a problem. The heroin just renders you unaware of the problkem for a while or dulls the sensations you associate with feeling unhappy. It doesn't solve your problem so you are just putting off doing something that would actually improve your life. This may also cover the bestiality issue.

Alternatively, is there ever a case where something can be unethical despite not being harmful to any person at all?

No. If an action doesn't harm anybody at all that means it doesn't get in the way of solving any problem at all, so it is not immoral.

  • I have edited the post to indicate that some people disagree with Rand. – alanf Jul 4 '14 at 10:20
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    Okay, that's a bit fairer. Here's a collection of more weighty criticisms than a random blog bost: objectivity-archive.com/volume2_number5.html#67 – Rex Kerr Jul 4 '14 at 10:43
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    You consider the best existing moral theory the one created by Rand? You are joking, right? – user132181 Jul 4 '14 at 11:10
  • Because Rand's philosophy tends to be treated as a joke by anyone who doesn't follow it. – alfred Jul 14 '14 at 14:04
  • So some people don't like Objectivism. Since people make mistakes that's not an argument against adopting Objectivism. – alanf Jul 14 '14 at 15:24

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