If I had to figure out the greatest harm I'd ever caused in my life, my initial thought would be from my first 23 years of life when I ate meat every single day. Cumulatively, this likely caused the direct suffering of several animals.
But I get strange looks for saying so. "Eric," my well-meaning adjudicator may say, "the animal is already dead by the time you eat it. How can buying one hamburger have any causal effect on how many cows die?"
It's true that it is unlikely that my purchasing a single hamburger from a restaurant will cause more animals to die. But that chance is not zero. Let's say that the restaurant buys hamburgers in lots of 100. Each week, they purchase as many lots as they expect to sell. This week, they purchased 10 lots, expecting to sell between 901 and 1000 hamburgers. They ended up selling 957; had I not eaten there that week, they would have instead sold 956. This is a clear example where my purchase affected nothing in terms of how many lots they buy each week.
But 1% of the time, I will be the purchase that goes over some threshold. In this naive example, let's say they sold 1000 burgers without me, and I was purchaser number 1001. In this case, in order to sell to me, they will need to purchase an additional lot of 100 hamburgers. In other words, 1 out of every 100 times that I buy a hamburger, it will cause the restaurant to purchase an additional lot of 100 hamburgers. On average, buying one hamburger causes one additional hamburger to be purchased by the store.
Of course, this simplified description isn't exactly what happens. Lots are bigger than this, and the threshold number of sales that causes them to purchase an additional lot is far less than the last hamburger they have for sale. Buying hamburger #957 may in fact be the trigger that causes them to keep 1100 hamburgers on hand rather than 1000. And we still have to consider who they're buying from; one additional lot may not necessarily cause the upstream company to then buy more meat -- you have to do a similar calculation there, and repeat up the chain until you get to the farmer who makes the choice of whether or not an additional cow should be raised and killed. And there's additional concerns of giving the restaurant some miniscule more buying power by making a small hamburger purchase, and elasticity also comes into play if you're really trying to figure out the truth. But, in the end, the math still works out the same. For every burger I eat, I cause approximately one burger worth of harm down the chain.
So, although it is unlikely that any individual meat purchase made on my behalf in my first 23 years caused any additional animals to die, it's probably the case that I was the threshold buyer at least a few times, causing many more lots to be purchased. In terms of expected value, I definitely caused a lot of harm.
That's a lot of suffering. But maybe not as much as I've caused from wasting energy. Sure, having the a/c on constantly doesn't seem like it could cause any great harm. But, in combination with every other wasteful American, the massive power waste has hastened us to a potential major climate change scenario. It's not likely that my actions caused any of what may potentially occur, but there is still a small chance that the overriding factor was me. To calculate expected value, I need to multiply this exceedingly small percentage by whatever harm comes about due to climate change. If it isn't more than moderately bad, then maybe this is not a big deal, since I'm multiplying by such a very, very small percentage. But if catastrophic climate change occurs, with massive amounts of suffering on par with the wildest predictions of video games or movies, then even my very small percentage will end up being the single largest contribution of harm that I've ever done in my life.
"But, Eric," my adjudicator exclaims, "how can you think of expected value calculations when you yourself have caused such direct harm so many times in your life!" If I'm judging the greatest harm I've caused in my life, then the adjudicator is correct: I shouldn't be too quick to dismiss direct harms.
As a young child, between ages 8 and 12, I would play games with my friends. In the course of physical play, I acted as a storyteller, allowing me to pause actions and rearrange conditions at will. So even though everyone used long thick staffs we found in the woods to hit each other as hard as we could, only I had the ability to escape injury by modifying the battle verbally. Those rocks that I threw as hard as I could: is there any word better suited to describe my actions than bully? It was consensual, but it was also direct physical harm to fellow children.
What about when I was mowing a yard, oblivious to my surroundings, only to suddenly see a squirt of blood -- a rabbit, dying in front of me, suffering due to my carelessness. Through the crying and terror I felt for making such a horrible mistake, I nevertheless was able enough to grab a shovel and end the poor creature's misery. Unintended harm is still harm, is it not?
In an early relationship at fifteen years old, feeling trapped, with anger for how I perceived my life to be ruined, I turned violent with my partner. What a stupid idiot I was back then for making such a choice. But I did. A part of me wants to clarify: it's nothing like what you see on tv. I never was violent enough to leave a mark. I never beat up, or slapped, or used some implement to cause harm. But I was emotionally abusive, and I used physical force to overpower. Just because abusers on tv appear worse does not make what I did okay. I was a stupid child.
In a few relationships after that, I was less harsh, but still not anywhere near being a nice guy. It took several years before I got over this terrible habit of my youth. Slowly, I learned to be better, but the learning came at the expense of those I dated between the ages of 15 and 23.
Later, as an adult, I learned how to have positive, happy relationships. Occasionally, I still caused harm, but not of a violent type. One partner's father died. She had always spoke of him negatively, without love. I took her at her word, so when I had an existing trip planned and he passed away, it did not occur to me that I should have canceled the trip to be there for her. Instead, I left her alone. Another partner told me in advance what was acceptable and what was not, and mentioned that she had low willpower, so I should only do what was acceptable, even if in the moment she said otherwise. Later, in the moment, she said otherwise, and my willpower broke just as surely as hers did. Afterward, she considered it a violation, because she had verbally set boundaries in advance that both of us had broken. Shared causation of harm doesn't negate the harm that is caused.
But, of all these harms, the greatest of all is due to a utility monster. Years ago, I had a partner who did not mesh well with me at all. The relationship was terrible, in the sense that what each of us wanted did not match at all with what each of us was willing to give. I've had partners that were worse matches, but those were short flings. For some reason this partner and I committed to one another for a period of two years even while neither of us really wanted to be with each other. At the time, it had been over a decade since I had last been violent with a partner. I was past that, I thought. But this relationship grated and pushed and irritated and escalated until, during four occasions throughout those two years, I overpowered my partner. It was especially bad because I knew better by then; I'd had plenty of good relationships since the last time this had happened. It was especially bad because it happened four times in total; I should have ended the relationship immediately upon it happening the first time. It was especially bad because the actual events were minor in comparison to the things I had done when I was much younger; each event, though undeniably a case of physical overpowering, was compared in my mind to the much worse events I committed before age 23, and so I wrongly excused them as not as big a deal.
But none of the above is why I now consider it my greatest harm. Instead, it is the fact that this particular person was especially affected by my actions. She ended up taking these events and magnifying them to the point where the harms negatively affected her life in major ways even ten years after they occurred. She has PTSD. She is unable to work. She has bouts of depression and has suicidal ideations stemming directly from the incidents that occurred ten years earlier with me. What seemed like a relatively minor example of overpowering to me was, to her, an event so intense that entire swaths of her current life revolve around memories of these abuses.
What I did to her was unacceptable. It was abusive and wrong. I should not have held her down in the way that I did, even though the alternative would have been to allow her to scratch me. I should not have stayed in a relationship with her for two years, knowing that this kind of thing was happening, even though it only came to a head every six months or so. I do not excuse any of it today, even though, at the time, I think I was trying to excuse it by contrasting how minor the events seemed compared to the actions I took when I was much younger.
In the end, it doesn't matter how 'terrible' what I did was, when judged by an outside observer. Rather, what matters is the level of suffering I inflicted by doing so. And in this particular case, the amount of suffering is overwhelming. Regardless of my intent, the harm suffered by her was (and still is) undeniably intense. Her everyday life is much, much worse than it would have been had she not been in a relationship with me. The only good to come out of it has been the lesson it taught me: to never allow any situation to even get close to a point where harm could occur again. I honestly believe that over the past decade, I've become a much better, kinder, and more fair person directly because of the experience I had with her.
Maybe it's just moral luck that the other people in my life that I harmed were strong enough to bounce back and lead happy lives. But when I evaluate the greatest harm I've caused in my life, I cannot help but to think of this one person, who suffers even today, ten years after the fact, from things I am now far removed from.
Expected value calculations just don't work in the face of utility monsters. My greatest harm is determined more by the person that was harmed than by the actions I used to cause the harm in the first place. This makes me feel conflicted, but, most of all, I just feel shitty.