Notes on “I should be able to do whatever I want, so long as I don’t hurt anyone”

– If “hurt” means “what you have committed whenever someone vehemently asserts that you are causing them some hurt” or even “what you have committed whenever someone has a large number of very reasonable arguments proving that you have harmed them”, then is it possible or even desirable to seek not to harm others? But if this isn’t what we mean by harm, then what can we mean except that we claim to know what really harms others in spite of what they might think?

– The premise permits us to harm ourselves, even to hate ourselves. This puts a very large asterisk next to any claim that we cannot harm a human being.

– While it goes too far to say that every moral axiom is vacuous, something like this is true since they cannot decide moral questions. Orwell said more than he knew when he had the animals start with “no animal will kill another”, and then had it later change to “no animal will kill another without a reason”. There is more going on then just the corruption of the law – such axioms themselves do not suffice to ensure justice, and we eventually have to put some qualification on them that makes them of little value in any actual moral judgment. “Harm no one” has to come to mean “harm no one unjustly”.  But then all our axiom amounts to is “do the right thing and don’t be unjust”. This is an axiom too, of course, but not one that we would ever think we could use to decide a moral question.


1 Comment

  1. John said,

    May 10, 2011 at 5:54 am

    I had a wonderful holiday in Sri Lanka many years ago and was able to hire a minibus for a week. The driver was a kind, peaceful man with a contemplative air. At every holy place he stopped the minibus and prayed. Towards the end of the week he told me he had been a soldier, I asked him about the student unrest in the sixties/seventies, I asked him how many he had killed “perhaps a hundred” he replied, “it was their karma”. In his Buddhist analysis it was the intentions of the students that led them to be reborn prematurely..

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