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Harm/Beneficence Test

The Harm Test highlights an essential component of the utilitarian ethical approach, the goal of minimizing harm and maximizing benefit. In contemplating an action, we do our best to envision its consequences, especially those likely to take place and those whose occurrence would produce severe harm. We then compare different courses of action in terms of the benefit to harm ratio they are likely to produce. We attempt to maximize this ratio.

Steps in Applying the Harm/Beneficence Test

  1. Identify those who will be affected by your action.
  2. Identify the impact your action will have on these people.
  3. Determine whether this impact is harmful (Does it produce physical or mental suffering, impose financial or non-financial costs, deprive others of important or essential goods?) or beneficial (does it increase safety, quality of life, health, security, etc.)
  4. Repeat these steps for the best available alternatives and compare them in terms of the benefit to harm ratio they produce.
  5. Conclude by answering this question: Which alternative produces the best ratio of benefit to harm?

Problems with the Harm Test

Problem: Students may be tempted to either stop too soon or go too far in their drawing out the consequences of an action. Too much enquiry will produce a "paralysis of analysis" for the student and discourage him or her. Too little may be an issue of a lack of moral imagination, lack of motivation, or a desire to support a predetermined decision.

Solution: One approach is to emphasize the reasonable person standard (or perhaps reasonable computer scientist or reasonable software engineer). But it is possible that students lack the moral imagination to be creative about the possible outcomes for various stakeholders. Some structuring of the process can help here. Ask students to consult the ImpactCS framework to help them get their list of stakeholders complete and to help them think of additional dimensions along which harm or benefit might occur. Ask them to list the elements of the socio-technical system to find additional stakeholders.