Harm

In many ways, the developed world is becoming increasingly tolerant. We are more educated on mental health, more informed on social and global issues, more sensitive to other cultures and religions, and we even allow those of the same sex to marry. Supporters of a more progressive society continue to advocate for these causes, often summarizing their position with the following statement:

People should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.

When first heard, this seems like a modern, insightful and reasonable thing to say. In fact, this point of view is actually very old, and this statement has so many glaring flaws and omissions that it’s hardly worth uttering in this context. Let’s begin unraveling this hideous tapestry by exploring its history.

Popularized by John Stuart Mill in his 1859 book, On Liberty, this idea, known as the harm principle, is one of the foundational doctrines of Liberalism. Although Mill coined the phrase, a similar statement appears 70 years earlier in France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: ”Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else…”

This idea has carried on through the centuries and has recently become a maxim for progressive citizens. The modern form of the harm principle can be expressed in a number of ways, usually appearing as one of the following:

  • People should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.
  • People should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t affect others.
  • As long as everyone involved approves and it doesn’t affect anyone else, then people can do whatever they want.
  • Consenting adults can do whatever they want, as long as no one else gets hurt.

It’s important to note the small differences because this statement is extremely broad and has powerful, far-reaching implications. After all, the written word is the only thing that protects our most basic rights and freedoms, and as we’ve already discussed, the claims we make often support views that we don’t agree with. In addition, we usually aren’t even aware of the assumptions behind our claims. Let’s illustrate these issues using a relevant example.

In the recent push to legalize gay marriage in the United States, many came forward with pleas for tolerance, and many of them invoked some variation on the harm principle. Their views were frequently summarized in this way:

People should be allowed to marry anyone they want.

This seems like a perfectly reasonable opinion, but hold on a minute. Is that really what they mean? After all, they weren’t addressing the age of consent, and yet this statement implies that there should be no distinction between adults and minors.

The point here isn’t to say who should and shouldn’t be allowed to get married, just that we are often careless with the phrasing of our views and values, and we are often unaware of the implications that follow. After all, most of those who spoke in favor of gay marriage still support a number of the following marriage restrictions:

  • People should not be allowed to marry minors.
  • People should not be allowed to marry ideas, inanimate objects, artificial intelligences or animals.
  • People should not be allowed to marry either blood and adoptive relatives.
  • People should not be allowed to marry temporarily.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those who are already married.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those they don’t know or those who don’t know them.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those they don’t love or those who don’t love them.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those living in other countries.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those who are severely mentally impaired.

Some make the defense that the statement is not meant to address these other issues, but because of its phrasing it does exactly that. If a law was passed stating that anyone could marry anyone else, then all of these conditions, along with many others, would be perfectly legal.

Now we’ve seen how improper or incomplete phrasing can cause problems, so how does the harm principle square up? If we really want to enact a law stating that people should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, then there at least 205 important questions that need to be answered:

    1.  What does it mean to harm someone?
      1. Does it mean failing to help others?
        • Does it include refusing to donate blood and organs?
        • Does it include refusing to give to a panhandler?
        • Does it include refusing to foil a robbery?
        • Does it include refusing to volunteer?
        • Does it include refusing to donate to charity?
        • Does it include refusing to discourage unhealthy behavior?
        • Does it include refusing to comfort someone who is upset?
        • Does it include refusing to do business with those who can’t afford it?
        • Does it include refusing to share trade secrets?
      2. Does it mean providing unwanted help?
        • Does it include providing poor quality help?
        • Does it include providing untimely help?
      3. Does it mean intending to harm?
        • Does it include failing to cause harm?
        • Does it include helping by mistake?
      4. Does it mean failing to fulfill a responsibility?
        • Does it include failing to converse with acquaintances?
        • Does it include failing to spend time with friends and relatives?
        • Does it include failing to provide quality services and products?
        • Does it include failing to diagnose or assess a problem?
      5. Does it mean causing physical harm?
        1. Does it mean causing pain?
          • Does it include small amounts of pain?
          • Does it include very short duration of pain?
          • Does it include pain caused during medical procedures?
          • Does it include pain caused during sports?
        2. Does it mean causing unwanted contact?
          • Does it include pushing and shoving?
          • Does it include playing?
          • Does it include tickling?
          • Does it include hugging and kissing?
        3. Does it mean causing an injury?
          • Does it include small injuries
          • Does it include temporary injuries?
          • Does it include painless injuries?
        4. Does it include negatively affecting health?
          • Does it include spreading an illness or disease?
          • Does it include enabling unhealthy behavior?
          • Does it include tempting those with addictions?
          • Does it include serving unhealthy food?
      6. Does it mean causing emotional harm?
        1. Does it mean causing emotional discomfort?
          • Does it include saying something controversial?
          • Does it include confronting someone?
          • Does it include approaching a stranger?
        2. Does it mean causing emotional pain?
          • Does it include deceiving someone?
          • Does it include criticizing someone?
          • Does it include insulting someone?
          • Does it include mocking someone?
          • Does it include disappointing fans, friends and family?
          • Does it include disciplining children?
          • Does it include cheating on a lover?
          • Does it include ending a relationship?
        3. Does it mean causing offense?
          • Does it include using crude language or gestures?
          • Does it include showing irreverence toward a religion?
          • Does it include being insensitive to those who have suffered traumatic experiences?
          • Does it include living a controversial lifestyle?
      7. Does it mean causing financial harm?
        1. Does it include disrupting finances?
          • Does it include spreading false information about a person, product or organization?
          • Does it include spreading accurate but controversial information about a person, product or organization?
          • Does it include spreading positive information about a harmful person, product or organization?
          • Does it include refusing to do business with a person or organization?
          • Does it include protesting or boycotting a product or organization?
          • Does it include automating or oursourcing jobs?
          • Does it include putting a competing company out of business?
        2. Does it include failing to properly raise children?
          • Does it include failing to provide life skills?
          • Does it include failing to pay for college?
          • Does it include refusing to buy toys?
          • Does it include refusing to go on vacations?
          • Does it include failing to properly educate students?
        3. Does it include exploitation?
      8. Does it mean causing harm unintentionally or as a consequence?
      9. Does it mean causing risk of harm?
        • Does it include driving above the speed limit?
        • Does it include engaging in dangerous sports or activities?
        • Does it include leaving hazards about?
        • Does it include failing to wash one’s hands?
      10. Does it mean causing indirect or ambiguous harm?
        • Does it include condoning or enabling harmful behavior?
        • Does it include failing to discourage harmful behavior?
        • Does it include supporting exploitative organizations?
        • Does it include hurting someone by affecting those they care about?
        • Does it include supplying substances to an addict?
        • Does it include gossiping or spreading rumors?
        • Does it include using language that some might consider offensive?
        • Does it include illegally copying music, movies and software?
        • Does it include cheating on a test?
        • Does it include buying illicit drugs?
        • Does it include hurting someone without their knowledge?
        • Does it include hurting someone who accepts or invites harm?
    2. Who are the people participating in the behavior?
      1. Does this mean people of all types?
        • Does this include minors?
        • Does this include the elderly?
        • Does this include the mentally disabled?
        • Does this include the mentally ill?
        • Does this include the drug addicted?
        • Does this include convicted or suspected criminals?
        • Does this include businesses, governments and institutions?
        • Does this include the homeless?
        • Does this include illegal immigrants?
        • Does this include politicians and public figures?
        • Does this include people in other countries?
      2. Does this mean people of all beliefs?
    3. Who are those affected by the behavior?
      1. Does this mean all life?
        • Does this include animals?
        • Does this include plants?
        • Does this include microscopic organisms?
      2. Does this mean all people?
        • Does this include the participants?
        • Does this include friends and family?
        • Does this include people from other places in the world?
        • Does this include people who don’t yet exist?
      3. Does this mean the collective?
        1. Does this mean burdening society?
          • Does this include getting a divorce?
          • Does this include engaging in sexual promiscuity?
          • Does this include eating unhealthy food?
          • Does this include failing to exercise?
          • Does this include smoking, using drugs or drinking alcohol?
          • Does this include being homeless?
        2. Does this mean taxing collective or government resources?
          • Does this include overusing parks and public facilities?
          • Does this include misusing emergency services?
          • Does this include having numerous children?
          • Does this include suing insurance companies?
          • Does this include living with a disability?
        3. Does this mean failing to fulfill social responsibilities?
          • Does this include failing to recycle or pick up trash?
          • Does this include failing to be informed on social issues?
          • Does this include failing to hold the government accountable?
          • Does this include refusing to vote?
          • Does this include refusing to procreate?
          • Does this include failing to maintain employment?
          • Does this include refusing to engage in consumerism?
          • Does this include failing to manage personal finances?
    4. What does it mean for a person to want something?
      1. Does this mean people with addictions?
        • Does this include people who are addicted to substances like tobacco, drugs or alcohol?
        • Does this include people who are addicted to activities like lying, stealing or having sex?
      2. Does this mean people with mental health issues?
        • Does this include people who are insane?
        • Does this include people with depression?
        • Does this include people with dementia?
      3. Does this mean people with a dire need for attention or approval?
        • Does this include pressuring peers?
        • Does this include hazing initiates?
      4. Does this mean people who are very poor?
        1. Does this mean allowing any work terms?
          • Does this include voluntary slavery?
          • Does this include unsafe working conditions?
        2. Does this mean allowing any depraved or harmful acts in exchange for money?
          • Does this include paying for permission to humiliate?
          • Does this include paying for permission to rape?
          • Does this include paying for permission to torture or mutilate?
          • Does this include paying for permission to murder?
          • Does this include paying people to fight, even to the death?
          • Does this include paying people for their blood, organs or body parts?
      5. Does this mean people with extreme, demented or violent interests?
        • Does this include engaging in self mutilation?
        • Does this include committing suicide or making suicide pacts?
        • Does this include cannibalism?
        • Does this include incest?
    5. How do we demonstrate whether or not behavior is harmful?
      1. Who is responsible for demonstrating whether or not behavior is harmful?
        • Does this mean the government?
        • Does this mean the people participating in the behavior?
        • Does this mean the people who are affected by the behavior?
      2. What kinds of arguments are acceptable?
        • Does this include surveys and studies?
        • Does this include philosophical speculations?
        • Does this include anecdotal evidence?
      3. How much harm is required for behavior to be considered harmful?
        • Does this mean that a certain number of people must be harmed?
        • Does this mean that a certain degree of harm must be inflicted?
    6. What should be done when behavior is determined to be harmful?
      1. Does this mean that all acts that are harmful should be discouraged?
        • Does this include using government advertisements?
        • Does this include using public schools?
        • Does this include banning dangerous activities?
        • Does this include banning offensive words?
      2. Does this mean that all acts that are harmful should be illegal?
        • Does this mean that it’s okay to harm those who harm others?
        • Does this mean that it’s okay to cause harm in order to prevent harm?
      3. Does this mean that those who accept or invite harm should be protected?
        • Does this include those who welcome harm in the name of a belief?
        • Does this include those who instigate harmful behavior?
        • Does this include those who are indifferent to harm?

The issue isn’t that the harm principle has no value, it’s that those who use it to argue a position usually haven’t considered the many ramifications of such a belief. This is true of many other popular sayings. Take a look at the following statements and try to identify any potential problems:

  • We should not implement socialist programs.
  • The government should not regulate the economy.
  • People should be allowed to own weapons.
  • Parents should not indoctrinate their children.
  • The government should not censor anything.
  • Parents should be allowed to raise their children however they choose.
  • People should not force their beliefs on others.
  • The government should stay out of the bedroom.
  • We should do whatever it takes to stop terrorists.

The world is an incredibly complicated place, and a great deal of thought and discussion that goes into making important decisions. Pretending that the our problems can be solved by such simple rules hardly improves the conversation, and making declarations that we don’t fully understand is foolish and irresponsible.