Self-Altering Injury

48 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2012

See all articles by Sean H. Williams

Sean H. Williams

University of Texas School of Law

Date Written: February 27, 2012


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 pre-injury 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.

Keywords: tort damages, happiness, hedonic adaptation, disability, parfit, identity

Suggested Citation

Williams, Sean H., Self-Altering Injury (February 27, 2012). Cornell Law Review, Vol. 96, 2011, Available at SSRN:

Sean H. Williams (Contact Author)

University of Texas School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics