Above all: do not harm

It’s the heartbeat of modern culture.

“Do not harm”

It’s the moral standard of the day.  Unfettered freedom until harm is caused.  We can get drunk (normally seen to be no harm to others) as long as we don’t get violent or harm anyone.  We can have sex galore (supposedly no harm), until there is not consent (harm).  We can have gay marriage (which culture would say is no harm) but not paedophilia (which does harm minors).

But how did we arrive here and why does our utopia involve as much freedom as possible, until harm is involved?

Although some point to documents like the Hippocratic Oath as things that had this principle in, it would appear that such principles read this into the oath more than it actually says.


John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” is a classic text to read.

I think current versions of age-old principles stem from influential political philosophers like John Stuart Mills and John Rawls who, although coming from supposedly different philosophical frameworks (one Kantian and the other utilitarian), have both spoken into
the common mindset of how most of us think on this topic.  Without reading them, I doubt we’ll understand how our moral compass is wired today and how we’ve largely bought them, hook, line and sinker.

One increasingly frequent push-back on this take on “harm” is summed up in this Guardian video which asks whether sitting back and not harming people is enough.  Should we not be campaigning on behalf of the harmed and shaping our edmund-burkelives round that?  Understandingly, given the implications for each of our lives, there’s quite some reaction to it in the comment section.  It reminds me of Edmund Burke’s famous saying (see left), that certainly comes closer to a Biblical definition of harm (that includes things we don’t do [sins of omission] as well as things we do [sins of commission]).

Is harm the be all and end all?  Well, in my mind it depends what you mean by harm.

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