Imagine someone wants to steal money, and the pockets of whoever they want to steal from are empty. There's potential for theft. But the pockets are empty and it's impossible for the theft to happen. No harm is done, so why is that immoral?

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    The answer will depend on what moral framework is considered. You mention the fact that no harm is done, which points to consequentialism (no bad consequences). But obviously under virtue ethics, failing to do theft is just as bad as theft itself: the wannabe thief has demonstrated their lack of virtue by their attempt (if respect for private property is considered a virtue, of course). Under a form of social contract ethics, one would certainly be justified in losing trust into someone who demonstrated their lack of concern for others' property rights.
    – armand
    Jan 2, 2022 at 7:43
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    If you're asking why a desire that happens to be harmless is still wrong, the concept of moral luck is worth a read. Because if the scenario you describe weren't immoral, that would be an example of moral luck, which is a very controversial prospect.
    – J.G.
    Jan 2, 2022 at 8:58
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    Why do you think harm has to do with the definition of MORAL? How do you define HARM? Do you strictly mean physical harm as in pain? Do you believe in psychological harm as real? Imagine I break onto your home at 3 a.m. every morning to watch cable television. Suppose I somehow managed to copy your key because you dropped it outside your home for 20 minutes and you could not find them for that time. I go copy the key and place them around where you dropped them. You find them. This morning I am found watching TV eating popcorn at your place. I caused no harm. Is it okay for me to do the act?
    – Logikal
    Jan 2, 2022 at 16:25
  • Related: philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/14271/3733
    – Dave
    Jan 4, 2022 at 16:22
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    in para. 1 you give an example where the action just happens to not have a negative impact. in para. 2 you switch to "if no harm /can/ be done"; these are very different cases to consider.
    – Dave
    Jan 4, 2022 at 16:25

4 Answers 4


Sometimes something has the potential to harm, if you do it in excess. Then it can be considered immoral to do at all. For instance, overeating one day won't make you obese but it is frowned upon.


I think the answer is that it is appropriate to judge the morality/immorality of the action from the point of view of the knowledge/intention of the actor. This is why we use the concept of mens rea in criminal law, and why we generally treat accidents that cause harm as not being immoral (so long as the person was not grossly negligent). Similarly, it also explains why we adopt a lower standard in judging the morality of actions from children or people who are mentally deficient in some way. In each such case, we recognise that there is an important distinction between the knowledge/intention of the actor and what actually happens in reality.

The situations you raise in your question are cases where the actor has an intention to do some activity that would (inn general) cause harm to another person, but they are thwarted by an exogenous circumstance for that specific case that they are unaware of. This would include various kinds of inchoate crimes and other thwarted actions that would cause harm if not for exogenous circumstances. In these cases there might still be a minor harm by virtue of the anticipation of the victim that the actor intended to cause them harm. In any case, we judge such actions as immoral (notwithstanding minimal/no harm) on the basis of the types of results that are intended to accrue, and would usually accrue, from those actions.

Of course, all this somewhat begs the question: why is it appropriate to judge the morality/immorality of the action from the point of view of the knowledge/intention of the actor, and having regard to the usual consequence that accrues from the action? To answer this part you really need to delve into specific ethical theories, but let me posit a common thread. Since ethical theories are concerned with prescribing modes of behaviour that will lead to "good" outcomes they will tend to operate at the level of evaluating/discouraging/encouraging certain classes of action at a level that can be judged by the person adopting the ethical theory. It is no good telling people "do no harm" if you adopt a standard of ethical judgment that ignores their actual ability to determine whether or not their actions will cause harm. Ethics operates as a system to assist people to make good decisions, so it is appropriate for that system to operate at a level that has regard to knowledge, context, intention, etc.

As a final note, it is worth observing that the cases you use here are more than mere potentialities --- the person is actually formulating and executing a plan to do something that would cause harm if not for an exogenous circumstance that they are unaware of. This is quite distinct from the potentiality in the fact that a person might decide to do something bad a week from now, or a month from now.


In law, something is an "attempted crime" if it would have been a crime if everything had happened as planned. The thief planned to take the victims money, and if everything had gone to plan (money in the victims pockets) it would have been a crime. Things like trying to buy cocaine but the dealer just sells you a bit of powder sugar are "attempted crimes".

Crimes + immoral behaviour go close together. Attempting to commit a crime (without a very unusual excuse that makes it moral) is immoral.


An account of obligation that only talks about "harm" is impoverished, in a similar way to a society that only allows for ethics (not aesthetics or a meaningful community). One version of the Hippocratic oath includes "first do not harm", which allows us to withhold life saving treatment that they may or may not have a right to; it is clearly incomplete as a medical ethic. Likewise, justice and fairness don't reduce to 'harm'; I can treat someone unfairly by just not benefitting them enough, if I have agreed to or they have me (reciprocity). And so on.

It's not a bad starting point, but not what people mean by 'morality', and while "why be moral" is a difficult question, the same goes for the harm principle.

But the pockets are empty and it's impossible for the theft to happen.

Does this mean there's nothing wrong with a capitalist underpaying their employees?

He or she allows them to keep on living, and they invested nothing; their employer did not whip or verbally abuse them, merely exploited them with an unfair wage.

In conclusion: if you define 'harm' wide enough to include all viscousness, all immorality and wrongness in the world, then sure. The onus is on you that such a pursuit would not just be trivial.

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