Cornell Law Review Volume 96 Issue 3

Self-Altering Injury: The Hidden Harms of Hedonic Adaptation

Several scholars have recently suggested that under one plausible measure of harm-the happiness of the victim-severe disabilities cause little or no long-term harm.  This is because victims adapt and recover much, if not all, of their preinjury happiness.  Yet most people have a powerful and enduring intuition that severe injuries, like paraplegia, cause substantial harm.  Legal scholars have tried to salvage this intuitive notion of harm, and they have turned to a single philosophical tradition to do so: the capabilities approach.  Unfortunately, this approach is likely to introduce contested questions of value and can provide only an incomplete account of harm.  This Article offers an alternative defense that has substantial descriptive support in psychological studies and disability research.  The core of the argument is simple: the process of adapting to severe injuries increases happiness, but does so at a cost.  That cost is self-alteration.  Adaptation often requires substantial adjustments to the victim’s goals and ideals.  These goals and ideals are a central aspect of self-identity; in an important way, they constitute who we are.  What happiness research misses, then, is that the source of one’s happiness matters.  And it matters because some sources of happiness shape our self-identity in such a way that changing them changes us.


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