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Reflections on Ethics 83
Do No Harm

by: Paul W. Sharkey

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It is commonly believed that the principle: “First, do no harm!”[1] originated with the physician’s oath and is circumscript with the practice of medicine. It did not and it is not.[2] As a moral principle, refraining from doing harm is both much more fundamental and much more universal than that. It forms the very foundation of the moral teachings of the founders of at least two of the world’s major religions[3] and was so central to the life and teachings of Socrates that he literally chose to die rather than transgress it.[4] Fully understanding, appreciating and following this principle is, I believe, key to following a life which is at once, fully human, fully alive, and fully virtuous.

Many, perhaps most, people might think that the reason one ought not to do harm is because of some supposed altruistic duty to be unselfishly concerned with the welfare of others, even when it may not be beneficial – or is perhaps even harmful – to one’s self. Nothing could be further from the truth. The lesson from Socrates (and others)[5] is that it is simply not possible to harm others without harming one’s self and therefore “Do no harm” is at least as much and more fundamentally a principle of self interest as of altruism. In other words, anyone who has any care or concern whatsoever for themselves will take great care not to harm themselves by doing harm. Or even shorter still: To do harm is to be harmed!

How and why do we do harm? Either because we are ignorant about the consequences of our beliefs and behaviors or because we are motivated by some misguided emotion to do so, such as anger, fear, greed, jealousy, pride.... In other words, we might do harm unintentionally because we are ignorant of the harmful consequences of our beliefs or behaviors or we might attempt to do so intentionally by wishing or willing to do so, whether we could actually do so or not.[6] The first is a case of ignorance, the second of evil – and most importantly to ourselves.

To the degree that we accept responsibility for the consequences of our beliefs and behaviors and are willing to learn from them, we can improve the odds of our not doing harm unintentionally. As Socrates pointed out, if we harm others out of ignorance but are of innocent intent, then what we require is education.[7] If however we do so out of malice, what we reap is punishment, not the least of which is the punishment of our own evil intent. It is worth noting, I think, that none of this requires the existence or even approbation of any god or gods. In fact, the principle involved here applies to rather than comes from any such supposed god or gods. If the gods be good, then they too are subject to this law no less so than anyone else.

This brings us to a fundamental issue about the relation between religion and morality (ethics).[8] Those who are unwilling to accept responsibility for themselves, their beliefs, behaviors and their consequences, frequently do so by attempting to hand it all over to some professed belief in some supernatural power who will reward or punish them for their “sacrifices” and “transgressions” so that they need not pay any real attention to the consequences of what they think, say and do or even to their very selves which they have literally given away to those beliefs.[9] The responsible person, on the other hand – whether there be or whether they believe in a god or gods or not – is constantly paying attention to the consequences of what they believe, say, and do – including their religious beliefs and behaviors – in order to avoid doing harm, either to themselves or to others. In short, religion is not the source of ethics, it is subject to it and if there be any god or gods, so are they.

Among the very few things Socrates claimed to know is that “no harm can come to a good person in this life or any other.”[10] This was not a matter of faith for him but rather of knowledge. How can one know this? Because it is as true – and for the same reason – as “two plus two equals four” or any other truth of logic or reason:

What is a good person? – One who is innocent; that is, one who has done no harm.[11]
What is the only way a person (one’s self, soul, or character) can be harmed? – By doing harm.
Consequently – and by definition – no harm can come to a good (innocent) person “in this life or any other.”

This, together with the recognition of the equally logically true realization that either we survive death or we don’t – and whether we do or we don’t, no harm can come to us in any case if we “do no harm” – that gave Socrates – and should give us – the courage to be fully responsible and therefore fully human, fully alive, and fully virtuous.[12]

Notes:

  1. In Latin the phrase is: “Primum non nocere.” where nocere means harm. See note 11 below.
  2. No such principle explicitly occurs in the Hippocratic Oath. The only explicit reference to such a principle in the Hippocratic teachings is in the volume on Epidemics which advises physicians “to help, or at least do no harm.”
  3. Siddhartha and Jesus. See for example the “no harm” principle inherent in each step of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism and such teachings of Jesus to “turn the other cheek,” “Do not judge lest you be judged,” etc.
  4. See Plato’s dialogue: Crito
  5. I take this to be the central teaching of Siddhartha, Jesus, Gandhi and many others who have recognized this essential and unavoidable moral truth.
  6. Just because we might intend to do harm does not mean that we will actually succeed in doing so any more than our mere intention not to do so guarantees that we won’t. Without paying responsible attention to the relation between our intentions and their consequences, we can have no hope of succeeding in either case.
  7. See Plato’s dialogue: Apology
  8. Though some try to make a big deal about some supposed fundamental distinction between ethics and morality both terms are derived from words meaning exactly the same thing, ethics being derived from the Greek word ethos and morality from the Latin word mores both meaning: habits, customs and behaviors.
  9. In a fundamental existential sense, they have thereby literally “lost” themselves. How ironic it is that they are precisely those who because of their blind “devotion” to such beliefs, believe themselves to be “saved.” But one cannot be saved from being responsible, only try to ignore it.
  10. See Plato’s dialogues: Apology, Crito, Phaedo
  11. The word innocent is derived from the Latin nocere (see note 1 above) and literally means: “having done no harm.”
  12. In the classical sense, a thing’s virtue is its essence or reason-for-being. Therefore to be virtuous in the classical sense means to pursue and fulfill the essence of being human which, according to Aristotle and others, is to desire knowledge and to be responsible.