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Philsoc Away Day, Sunday 28th July 2019

Is self-harm ever justified?

The Gerrards Cross Memorial Centre, East Common,
Gerrards Cross, Bucks, SL9 7AD
Sunday 28th July, 10:30 AM to 16:30 PM

Our eighth annual away day is on Sunday 28th July and the topic is 'Is Self-Harm ever justified'. Four speakers will tackle some of the philosophical issues underlining self-harm and justification. There will be ample time for audience participation.

This promises to be an interesting day.

To reserve your place, please complete the on-line booking form. The cost for the day, including refreshments and a light lunch, is £19 for members / £25 for non-members. The booking deadline is 19th July. Places are limited so please book early to avoid disappointment.

Please note the venue has changed from Pigotts. Please see directions and a Google map at the bottom of this page.


10.15am Registration

10.30am Welcome and Introduction – Dan Remenyi

10.40am Is 'Self-Harm' a metaphor? - Brendan Hurley

This talk explores the sense and meaning of self-harm and of justification.

The notion of a sense of self as 'important' and 'must be preserved' will be challenged. Instead it will be suggested that 'self' is an embodied illusion with limited meaning, justification being a constructed value.

Drawing on Wittgenstein's Tractatus suggests 'self-harm' as a metaphor, perhaps for a feeling of distress in a human brain that another mammal is doing something I would not like to happen to me or that I would not do to myself.

It will be argued that justification is a retrospective luxury. A self-harming action does not need justification to be completed; the justification seems necessary for others, rationalising what is repugnant, seeking cause and agency to blame.

If so, then this explains why medical care does not resolve 'the problem': it defers it.

Brendan worked in general and specialist medical practice for 30 years. Tiring of that he read history at Leeds University and graduated BA (Hons) Local, Regional and General History (1995). He wrote a thesis for a PhD in history at the Institute of Irish Studies, which was submitted in 2004. Since 2007 he has read philosophy in a retired and leisurely way.

11.25am Refreshment break

11.45am Why a particular kind of self-harm is necessary for a good lifeFauzia Rahman-Greasley

This talk develops Brendan's challenge to the orthodox view of 'self-harm' opposed to 'self-preservation'.

Iris Murdoch's metaphysics and her critique of Wittgenstein's language argument will be combined with examples from the theory and practice of boating in order to identify and distinguish between different kinds of: (1) self-harm; (2) knowledge; and (3) mental attitudes. It will be argued that some kinds of self-harm can, and ought to, be prevented but that there is a kind a self-harm that cannot, and ought not to, be prevented. The implications will influence how we understand our self, others and the rationality of self-harm.

Fauzia's interest in philosophy began when working as a medical doctor and wondering why some patients respond better to treatment than others. This puzzle led her to reflect on the concept and meaning of 'health' and to write her MA dissertation (2010) on Iris Murdoch's concept of Good. Fauzia is the editor of The Philosophical Society Review and course director of the Gerrards Cross Philosophy group.

12.30pm Lunch

1.45pm Egoism, Altruism and Self-HarmPeter Gibson

The talk will approach the philosophically interesting phenomenon of self-harm from a neutral viewpoint, by charting a range of examples and borderline cases. The main aim is to identify what is at stake in the problem, and to connect it with familiar issues in the philosophies of ethics, politics and action. It is hoped that this analytic approach will distinguish several separate basic dilemmas which are involved. It may even be that some opinions about appropriate conclusions will emerge towards the end of the analysis. In particular, we may arrive at a clearer understanding of the crucial boundary between egoism and altruism.

Peter Gibson was formerly a teacher of philosophy at the Royal Grammar School High Wycombe. He now has a PhD from Birkbeck, is Secretary of The Philosophical Society at the OUDCE, and is the author of A Degree in a Book: Philosophy. When he is not listening to music he compiles philosophical quotations for his website, mostly in the analytic tradition.

2.30pm Political self-harm – Alan Xuereb

"But there was no unity. There was no vision. The nations were pulled down one by one while the others gaped and chattered. One by one, each in his turn, they let themselves be caught. One after another they were felled by brutal violence or poisoned from within by subtle intrigue." Winston Churchill, June 16, 1941

If suicide – (perhaps the highest form of self-harm) – goes against the basic human value of life, then correspondingly "unreasonableness" goes against the basic human and irreducible value of "practical reasonableness", as developed by the Oxford scholar John Finnis.

According to this view, practical reasonableness is the type of reasoning that we use to make decisions about how to act and how to order our lives. Also according to this view the other basic values are pursued with the help of this "reasonableness". There are nine requirements of practical reasonableness that will be briefly tackled during the talk.

It will be argued that activities like wars, terrorism, racism, separatism, may well appear as benefitting one individual group (say, a nation) over another and thus appear reasonably practical; however, in the short, medium and long term all these activities have serious intrinsic consequences on the perpetrator and obviously on the target, making the whole national and international community unstable. It is in other words, a self-harm situation.

Alan will mainly tackle two of these requirements, namely: the seventh requirement which states that one should never commit an act that directly harms a basic value, even if it will indirectly benefit a different basic value; and the eighth requirement which states that one should look after the common good of the community. Alan will discuss why the aforementioned activities are acts of self-harm, besides of general harm, and why they go against practical reason, making them "practically unreasonable".

Alan holds a doctorate in Law awarded by the University of Malta (1996) and an M.Phil. in Philosophy of Law (2004) by the same university. He is currently working as a lawyer-linguist at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Though Alan's field is that of philosophy of law, he has a constant fascination with political philosophy in general and the common good in particular. and with philosophy of physics, particularly all issues related to time. This is his third PhilSoc talk.

3.15pm Refreshment break

3.30pm Questions to panel, and discussion – Chaired by Dan Remenyi

4.25pm Closing remarks Dan Remenyi

4.30pm End

Some background to the topic.

Writing in the Lancet Keren Skegg said, "The term self-harm is commonly used to describe a wide range of behaviours and intentions including attempted hanging, impulsive self-poisoning, and superficial cutting in response to intolerable tension". This overview does not take into account the much wider range of self-harm practices which can be observed in society today. To begin with there is the taking of narcotic drugs and other toxic substances, volunteering for experimental medical interventions, engaging in ultra-high-risk activates such as climbing mountains or exploring jungles without adequate preparation or protection.

And self-harm is not reserved to only individuals. On an organisational level, accepting too high a level of risk causing the enterprise to fail financially causing a considerable amount of harm to both staff and investors.

On a national level, activities such as Brexit or the declaration of war (the United Kingdom declaration of war on Germany in 1914 resulted in nearly one million deaths or serious injuries to its own citizens and costing an incalculable expenditure of National treasure, not to mention the loss of an empire). The act of the Social Democrats joining a Parliamentary coalition with the Tory Party has been seen by many as being a classic example of an act of self-harm.

Therefore, can self-harm be defined satisfactorily? How do we delimit the notion of the "self"? Does Trump's import duties on goods from China, many of which are bought through Walmart by working class Americans constitute an act of self-harm? What sense can we make of the word justification in the context of this question? And last but not least, of course, is the question of who should decide whether an act of self-harm is justifiable?

Some suggested readings

  1. A Philosophical Analysis Into The Causes And Prevention Of Deliberate Self Harm
  2. Self Harm: The Philosophical, Ethical & Policy Issues
  3. A History of Self-Harm in Britain: A Genealogy of Cutting and Overdosing.
  4. Suicide
  5. Multiple meanings of self harm: A critical review Margaret McAllister, School of Nursing, Griffith University, Nathan Campus, Kessels Road, Nathan, Qld, 4111, Australia.
  6. Cultural self-harm
  7. Social harm future(s): exploring the potential of the social harm approach
  8. The truth about self-harm
  9. Harmless
  10. Organisational Control and the Self: Critiques and Normative

Venue Location and Directions

The Gerrards Cross Memorial Centre, East Common, Gerrards Cross, Bucks, SL9 7AD.

BY CAR: c. 40 minutes from Central London / 50 minutes from Oxford. The venue is close to the A40. There is ample on-site parking - £1 for the day.

BY TRAIN: The centre is 10 minutes walk from Gerrards Cross Station (Chiltern Line) – c. 30 minutes by train from Marylebone London / 55 minutes from Oxford Parkway.

There are a number of hotels and guest-houses nearby for those wishing to stay over.