Denying harm is a type of excuse whereby an agent denies culpability by denying that his action caused harm to others.
Desirism holds that desires are the primary object of moral evaluation. An excuse is a claim that blocks the inference from what looks at first glance to be a state that a person with good desires would not create to the desires of the agent. They aim to show that such a state could have come into existence even if (or in some bases, because) the agent has good desires.
Some types of excuse admit that the state of affairs created was one that the person with good desires would have avoided. They assert that something else interfered to bring about that state. The accident excuse says that the laws of nature were such that the agent could not have avoided the realization if that state. The false beliefs excuse says that a false (but responsibly acquired) belief got into the path between good desires and results.
Another type of excuse denies the assumption that the state of affairs created was one that a person with good desires would have avoided.
Denial of harm fits into this category.
For an example consider the case of a kid who has sprayed graffiti on his neighbor's car. This is something that a person with good desires would not do. However, when accosted, the kid reveals that the spray paint comes off with soap and water. He points to the bucket of soapy water and announces that, after playing this trick on his neighbor, he intends to wash his neighbor's car. No harm done. The act is excused.
In effect, the kid is saying, "I am not creating a state that a person with good desires would be averse to creating. It may look like that to somebody who does not have all of the facts. However, the truth of the matter is that this first glance estimate is wrong."
Technically, the term "denying harm" is misleading. A person can commit wrongs without doing harm. A person can lie or break a promise and assert and do no harm. The "no harm" argument in this case would not be a claim that the agent did not actually lie or, "I didn't actually promise." These instances recognize that a person with good desires not only has an aversion to doing harm, she has an aversion to lying or breaking promises as well.
Also, "denying harm" must be understood as denying the risk of harm. The drunk driver who gets home tells his wife, "But I didn't hurt anybody." No harm was done. However, a person with good desires would have had an aversion to creating this threat to the well-being of others. The driver still did not act as a person with good desires would have acted. In this case, we are talking about a denial of risk, not a denial of actual harm.
Denying harm is used in a lot of cases in which it is not legitimate. A rapist may try to claim that, "Women like this kind of treatment. They want it. They may act like they don't, but all women secretly long to be raped." This person is denying that rape does harm or, like lying or breaking promises, is a wrong even when it happens not to cause harm. It represents a violation of autonomy to which a person with good desires would be averse even where no harm is done.
Another way to deny harm is to minimize harm. A person guilty of insurance fraud may claim in his defense, "The insurance company makes loads of money. My fraud was not even enough for them to notice." In saying this, he is saying that he did no harm or, more precisely, too little harm to be concerned about.
However, the agent engaged in insurance fraud still lacked an aversion that people generally have many and strong reasons for promoting. Millions of small harms add up. A substantial portion if the insurance that all of us pays goes to cover countless instances of people doing harm that is "too small to notice." This is not a legitimate defense from condemnation that people generally have many and strong reasons to deliver.
We often see bullies use this technique of denying harm. They will shove, belittle, insult, and ridicule their victim then, when condemned for their behavior, claim, “We were only having a little fun. Can’t anybody take a joke around here?”
The claim of “just having a little fun” requires the prediction that the victim will, in the end, approve of the action. The neighbor who ultimately laughs at the graffiti painted on his car and who is then grateful to have his car cleaned has the capacity to excuse the practical joke. The student whose books are knocked out of his arms or who has a sign stuck to his back cannot reasonably be thought of as endorsing the behavior after the fact. Conceiving of this behavior as “a game” is a rationalization of cruelty. The claim of "no harm or wrong done" does not change the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn this cruelty.
Yet another way of denying harm is through the cliché, “What he does not know does not hurt him.” A person lies to her friends about what a classmate did. The classmate is expected never to find out about this and never to realize that this lie was told. A few people stop and point and laugh, but the victim of this slander does not discover that she is being laughed at. Consequently, when the liar is confronted with her lie, she responds, “I did no harm.”
Actually, harm can be done to a person without their knowing about it. If Person A gives Person B $1000 to give to Person C, and Person B pockets the money, Person C has been harmed even though he never learns that he would have otherwise had $1000. He is still $1000 worse off than he would have been if Person B had acted as a person with good desires would have acted. Person A has been harmed as well. He sought to create a state in which Person C had $1000, and his attempt to realize such a state has been thwarted.
People generally have reason to condemn the type of behavior that Person B engaged in, so Person B cannot use the claim of “no harm done” as a defense. The claim is utterly false, and the claim does not remove the reasons that people have to condemn that type of behavior.
The same is true of people telling falsehoods about us behind our backs. We have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to that type of behavior. It is an aversion that would motivate people to refrain even independent of their belief that it is "harmless". Consequently, denying harm is not a legitimate defense from condemnation.
There are times in which we may appear to do harm, or to lie or to break a promise. It is reasonable to understand how somebody can look on our actions at first glance and see them as creating states that a person with good desires would avoid creating. One of the defenses against condemnation is to show that the appearance is deceiving. The act does not create the harm or the wrong the person thinks it does. This response applies the excuse, 'No harm (wrong) done." However, it is only valid when it removes the reasons that people generally have to promote an aversion to that type of behavior.