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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Harm and moral conduct

Philosophy professor selected for prestigious fellowship at Princeton University

Oct. 27, 2011, by Rob Enslin

Ben Bradley (right) in his office working with a graduate student.
Ben Bradley (right) in his office working with a graduate student.
Ben Bradley slouches back in his chair, crosses his legs, and lets go a deep sigh. “I’ll be gone almost a year—until May or something like that,” he deadpans, glancing at a calendar in his cramped Hall of Languages office. “I still can’t believe it.”

Amid piles of books, papers, and used coffee cups, Bradley, an associate professor of philosophy, discussed, last summer, his highly coveted Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellowship at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values for the 2011-12 academic year. The center fosters ongoing inquiry into important ethical issues in private and public life, and supports teaching, research, and discussion of ethics and human values across the Princeton curriculum.

“Ben brings a clarity and rigor to the analysis of ethical arguments that is unsurpassed,” says colleague Samuel Gorovitz, professor of philosophy. “His invitation from Princeton is an honor for him and us.”

Bradley, an expert on ethics and the philosophy of death, should feel right at home on the New Jersey campus. When not reading, writing, or offering an
occasional lecture, he anticipates many late nights among the stacks in Princeton’s 240-year-old Firestone Library.

“There are several projects I’ll be working on,” Bradley says. One of them involves the study of harm as it relates to statements of moral conduct, such as the Hippocratic Oath (i.e., “First, do no harm”) and the Harm Principle of 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill (i.e., “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised … is to prevent harm to others”). “The questions I hope to answer are ‘What is harm?’ and ‘What does it mean to harm somebody?’” Bradley says, running his hands through lank, brown hair. He illustrates his point by example: A person is denied access to an airplane, perhaps for racial or religious reasons, and then witnesses the plane go-down in flames. “It still seems like that person was harmed in some way, but he or she was better off for not having been allowed aboard,” he points out. Other projects on Bradley’s mind include a proposed book on well-being and a paper on environmental ethics.

Princeton professor Elizabeth Harman, a fellow ethicist, eagerly anticipated Bradley’s visit. “I’m particularly excited to have Ben at Princeton because his writings on ethics—about the significance of death and about the nature of desires—have shaped my own thinking about these topics,” she says.