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Thursday, October 04, 2012

No Harm Done

If you ask most people today, "What determines morality?", they would answer "Huh?" Okay, maybe that's not fair. But a large number of people don't think about it. The question is simply subject to their gut reaction. Does it feel wrong? "Eww! Two men kissing? Yuck!" And, therefore, it's wrong.

Others have spent a bit more time thinking it through. The most common view today by far is the "Harm Principle". (Probably not the best name I could come up with. That actually refers to the rightful exercise of government -- preventing harm to citizens. So please just bear with me.) The idea is that morality is determined by that which harms (or helps). If something is harmful, it's immoral. If something is helpful, it's moral. Everything else is amoral -- outside the question of morality. Is it harmful to enjoy a nice chicken salad at lunch? Probably not even a reasonable question. See?

Of course, the difficulty of this principle as the basis for morality is that, while we've managed to "define" moral and immoral, we're still stuck with defining "harm". Take, for instance, the subject of divorce. Forty years ago states were jumping on the "no fault divorce" bandwagon to make divorce less messy and easier to get because, after all, "What's the harm in divorce?" In so many of these cases, staying together is more harmful. People who divorce are glad to get out of that mess (and isn't that helpful?). So divorce was not immoral and was, actually moral because it was not harmful and was actually helpful. Woohoo! Except as time has gone by we've been discovering that divorce is not "harmless". The damage it does to the children of divorce seems to last a lifetime. The damage to the institution of marriage is incalculable (as seen by the absolute obscurity today of understanding what marriage actually means). The emotional and financial outcomes are never painless. Conversely, unhappy couples who remained together have almost universally discovered that going through the toughest of times and remaining a unit have made them stronger and closer. As it turns out, divorce is not harmless or helpful. But it took decades to figure that out. In this case, the "do no harm" ethic failed because we didn't comprehend the harm being done. (I should also point out that, even though studies have clearly and repeatedly shown that divorce is harmful and not helpful, our society hasn't changed its moral opinion of the practice. So even though something is known to cause harm, we aren't using that information on the question, are we?)

There is another factor in the question. It is almost without exclusion that God is excluded from the question. That is, even if we go with "harm" and "help" as the key issues, how often does anyone include the question of "harm" and "help" for God? Now, I admit that it might be a little difficult to suggest that something might "harm God" and, in fact, that we could "help God". But there is still the concern. There are things that can be done that would, say, harm God's reputation, and that would be harm to God. God has always been all about His glory, and anything that would take away from His glory would be harm, wouldn't it? And if God says, "I hate that particular activity", wouldn't it be harmful in some sense to God if we ignored what He hates and go ahead and do it? Does anyone consider those things in the question of what is or isn't moral?

Harm seems like a really good place to go to define morality. Unfortunately, we are finite and often don't really comprehend what is actually harmful. Beyond that, since God is the Ultimate Lawgiver, but is Himself typically excluded from our moral considerations, perhaps "harm" and "help" are not the best criteria for determining "moral". Shouldn't we be able to come up with a more reliable one? (That's an intentionally leading question, my answer to which I'm sure you already know.)


Marshall Art said...

I've always tried to go with this principle:

What pleases God is moral.
What displeases God is immoral.

God determines what is moral and what isn't. Harm is only a small piece of it.

Stan said...

Well, sure, there is that approach. Of course, that won't make you popular with the popular culture, will it?

Of course, doing that which displeases God could be viewed as harmful.

David said...

This "Harm Principle" is also rather fickle in its scope. Nobody in their right minds would say smoking isn't harmful, to the smoker and those around them, but smoking isn't considered immoral, stupid, but not immoral. So there must be something more than harmful and helpful, but it seems arbitrary.

Stan said...

Yes, arbitrary and ambiguous. Take, for instance, the concept of the "victimless crime". We (most of us) consider prostitution immoral and it is illegal, but is there harm? That all depends on how you define harm, doesn't it?

Dan Trabue said...

Smoking and causing harm/illness to others around you is not considered immoral?

It is in any rational world I know about.

Harming others is always a safe measure for what is immoral.

The problem with "I THINK that Jesus thinks that THIS behavior is immoral" is the whimsical subjectivity of it all. Who gets to decide what Jesus thinks is immoral?

Oh, that's easy, I know. You all get to decide...

For the rest of us, "harm" is a much easier, less subjective/whimsical measure. I think I'll stick with that, thanks.

Otherwise, you might have people making the rather unusual claim that causing harm to others with your cigarette smoke isn't immoral.

Stan said...

Then you'd outlaw that immoral activity of smoking, eh? No, I don't think so.

No, Dan, we know. Your standard is clear. "If it causes harm by the means that I am willing to allow, it's immoral." Interestingly, your view makes lots of the laws that God passed down immoral. Now that's an interesting stand to take from someone who claims to love God and honor the Bible.

Marshall Art said...

For Dan T, what anyone even recites from Scripture regarding what God/Jesus reveals as immoral or sinful is no better than whimsical guessing. Yet, that is all that I've ever done unless a specific issue was raised seeking an opinion on what I might "think" God/Jesus would say or do or how He might judge. That's distinctly different. Scripture is quite clear as to what pleases God, even more so as to what displeases Him.

Craig said...

When Dan suggests that his definition of harm is sufficient, I can't help be recall that he has advanced the proposition that things like pornography and drug use cause little or no harm.