The Political Philosophy of Harm Reduction

Convenor: Daniel Weins




An important task for political philosophy is to identify principles, modes of
reasoning, and institutional forms that can contribute in normatively acceptable ways to
minimizing the harms associated with non-ideal aspects of social and political life. It
would be better, for example, if there were no wars, but international legal instruments
such as the Geneva Convention seek to regulate the conduct of war so as to bar its most
morally egregious potential consequences. Within the domain of public health,
interventions that seek to mitigate harmful effects rather than lowering the prevalence of
underlying controversial behaviours are often termed “Harm Reduction.” Our workshop
aims to investigate the grounds, the scope, and the limits of harm reduction policies.

Harm Reduction first emerged in the 1980s as a grassroots movement aimed both
at improving downstream conditions (in particular, susceptibility to HIV/AIDS) for
vulnerable communities of drug users and (in many cases) advocating for upstream social
and political reform. Since then, harm reduction has been adopted as a policy framework
by politicians, courts, and public health officials in order to address policy challenges that
have heretofore more traditionally been addressed through the criminal law. Similar
modes of reasoning, and of policy development based on such reasoning, have emerged
in a number of policy areas involving behavior that is widely seen as problematic, but
which is difficult to eradicate through prohibitionist policies, or about which reasonable
disagreement exists within a pluralistic society. Thus, three decades after its emergence,
Harm Reduction is now applied in domains ranging from drug policy and policy related
to sex work, to the constitutional regulation of secessionist politics, and many others
besides, including FGM, polygamy, and abortion.

We invite contributions from researchers working both on theoretical aspects of
Harm Reduction theory, and on the application of the theory to specific policy domains.
Among the questions which we would like to address during the workshop:
■ How should we define the extension of the concept of “harm” at work in the
theory and practice of Harm Reduction?
■ How can the concept of harm be enriched by reflection upon specific
instantiations of Harm Reduction policies?
■ How is Harm Reduction as a mode of reasoning to be distinguished from other
modes of reasoning prevalent in “non-ideal” contexts, such as cost-benefit
analysis, straightforward consequentialism and proportionality reasoning?
■ What are the concerns that arise when Harm Reduction discourse and practice are
extracted from the grassroots contexts in which they originally emerged, and
transformed into a tool of state regulation?
■ Does Harm Reduction hold the promise of serving as a conceptual terrain upon
which compromises might be articulated among agents and groups with very
different moral perspectives, who might otherwise be at loggerheads when their
policy disputes are pitched at the level of abstract principle?
■ What are the limits of Harm Reduction? How should we identify the
deontological constraints that might make Harm Reduction morally unattractive
for the regulation of certain kinds of behavior?