If I physically hurt someone by punching them in the face, most would agree this is wrong and I should be charged with assault. If I verbally insulted someone and made them feel upset, most would say I haven’t harmed them because there was no physical contact (although technically you could say that emotions are a physical phenomenon because they are chemical processes the brain undergoes).

However, granting there’s a distinction, what about a scenario where some people are lighting fireworks, knowing the sound will trigger a PTSD sufferer who lives nearby to have a panic attack?

The answers to this vary. Some would say it is immoral because they are only lighting fireworks because they think it will harm someone, and if it weren’t for the anticipated harm, they wouldn’t be lighting them. This reason focuses on the intent of the people lighting the fireworks. If it is the intent that makes it moral/immoral, then what about the same scenario except there isn’t actually anyone with PTSD who lives nearby, and the people only mistakenly believe there is?

So now they’re just lighting fireworks for false reasons. Although if it were the case that there actually was someone with PTSD living nearby, and the people who lit the fireworks didn’t know this, most would have no problem saying the people aren’t at fault for triggering the panic attack due to not having the knowledge it would.

But, now this gets tricky. What about a case where someone knows there’s a person with PTSD living nearby, but they light the fireworks anyway even though they don’t intend for the person to hear (meaning even if there was nobody with PTSD around, they still would’ve lit the fireworks). If you’re relying on intent, you would have to say this isn’t wrong, unless you want to take the position that knowing there’s a chance something will cause harm is all it takes to make it immoral.

But, the problem with this argument is that it renders every decision immoral. Through the butterfly effect, even innocuous things like giving someone an apple can result in harm (like, say, if they choke on it). And if we go back to basing it on intent, to what extent would this be applicable? For instance, say a person gives someone an apple, intending for them to choke it (even though there’s no way to guarantee this), and the person actually chokes and dies.

So is it wrong to, either unintentionally/unknowingly or knowingly, but passively, expose someone to a certain stimuli (visual, auditory, etc.) if it triggers a negative response from them? Like, if a person is disgusted by the color yellow and vomits and passes out every time they see it, am I wrong for wearing yellow and walking in their vicinity (not to make them sick on purpose, but because I have to get somewhere and know they will fall ill as a byproduct).

Another example would be if a person had a condition that made them hear everything as ear-piercingly loud, even at a very low volume. So if you’re in your house, listening to music at the lowest possible volume, all while knowing the person in the house across the street will be in excruciating discomfort (almost like a dog having to hear several dog whistles being blown at once), are you morally responsible for causing harm to the other person?

So basically, should people just expect for there to be external stimuli they find upsetting/disturbing and not expect everyone to accommodate their mental “algorithm“ or should it be considered wrong to do things that could potentially cause someone watching to experience an intense negative reaction (even things like humming, whistling, kissing, holding hands, wearing a provocative T-shirt design, etc.)?

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    The problem is created by reducing everything to a binary, where grades are appropriate, and lumping together vastly different situations as a result. "There’s a chance" is too loose a term. How much of a chance? The butterfly effect, etc., is too low probability to matter, but if one can reasonably foresee that their actions will definitely trigger somebody's catatonic state they are acting immorally even if their intent is just to have fun or something else innocuous. The cutoff line between the two cannot be drawn exactly, but borderline cases are hardly novelty in ethics.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 0:35
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    For a while I thought that your question would turn on the distinction between intent and mere foresight, the so-called Doctrine of Double Effect, but in your examples that subtlety does not even come into play.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 0:39
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    It depends on your moral philosophy, if you hold stringent moral cognitivism with life style closer to the standard or ethic code of various kinds of asceticism then you should be strictly mindful and strive to be no harm. If you hold some form of secular views, then it more or less depends on the common sense degree/severity of the actual impact from your speech and actions... Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 3:23
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    The main question here seems to be: What moral duty have we to mind others' fragility? Related questions discuss climate change, forest fires, and the virus. The decision comes back to values and expectations. If the fragile person or thing is valuable, then perhaps we ought to care. But then the question of expectation arises: Is protecting this asset possible or futile? Moreover: What about long term fitness or survival of the system? The issue may be tricky indeed.
    – Michael
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 5:26
  • We would soon encounter difficulties if we considered only what caused people offence/harm. There might even be a case to suggest that if we did so, tolerance for offence or harm would diminish, and so we would restrict our behaviour further and further until a near-paralysis occurred. But of course, harm caused by an action must always be weighed against the potential benefits of the action; and not just in relation to one event, but in relation to - as Michael puts it - the long term fitness or survival (or happiness/contentment?) of the system. Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 8:28

1 Answer 1


Morality is based on intent. This includes being careless or neglectful and thus causing discomfort or danger. It does not include causing discomfort in unpredictable ways, nor discomfort due to unreasonable requests.

In general society will define what potentially disturbing stimuli are too be reasonably avoided in given public spaces, such as forbidding nudity except in designated nudist areas. Society will also define certain freedoms that can be used reasonably without concern for what others might feel about it.

It is often useful to be diplomatic and tread extra careful not to cause offense, in that peers will be more inclined to be cooperative later. Compared to life in public spaces, in professional contexts there may also be stronger expectations for good manners and avoiding certain triggering behaviors.

But those concerns are not related to philosophical ethics, but rather to cultural norms and psychological strategies for success.

A useful scenario to consider here are actions of civil disobedience that disturb the public order, such as black people entering spaces reserved for white people during racist segregation. Morality can promote certain behaviors that cause discomfort in others when done to support higher value moral goals.

Acting towards others in ways that can not be expected to do harm even when secretly hoping it will do harm is not immoral. Just hoping something bad will happen to anyone is not immoral. So feel free to gift me a sportscar hoping i will die horribly in a car crash in it, i will still happily accept it.

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