Ethics and “Harm None”

You know, when it comes to ethics, I’ve never liked the whole concept of “harm none.” Personally, it’s always bugged me that so many Neo-Wiccans have held the phrase up as the definitive word on ethics. But it wasn’t until I got thinking about it this morning that I really was able to express my beef.

Now, there are a number of reasons to have a beef with “harm none” as the ultimate guideline. For example, it’s easiest to point out that when you get right down to it, 100% harmlessness is rarely possible, if not downright impossible. In fact, this is the one that I see get tossed up a couple times a year in Pagan chatrooms. And while it’s a valid point, it misses one of the more fundamental problems with this idea. In fact, it’s the same fundamental problem that haunts other systems of morality that are based on a series of prohibitions. And that’s the problem that it’s trying to define ethical considerations solely in terms of negative guidance.

Ethics are meant to guide activity. A person tries to determine what course in a given choice through his ethics. And an ethical system that only tells you what not to do or what results to avoid is severely limited. After all, once you weed out all the things you shouldn’t do, you’re still left with the question of what to do.

Consider for a moment this analogy. One should always drive safely. One can safely say that driving safely boils down to driving in such a way where one does not cause or become involved in accidents. In fact, an accident-free driving record is one of the two major factors insurance companies use to determine whether a given driver should qualify for a “safe driver discount.” And yet, if you attended a driving safety course, you would expect the instruction of that course to include more than “don’t get into any accidents.” While the advice is perfectly valid and a commendable goal, it gives no indication on how to achieve it. It’s a dictum based on negative action and not very helpful when applying it to the positive actions you must take. For that, you need positive advice, such as “always obey the speed limit” and “check your mirrors and blind spots regularly.”

The same is true of ethics. Positive action must be taken. One cannot simply “not harm anyone,” but must find guidelines for acting in a way that will bring about the goal (insofar as that goal is desirable, but that’s another issue for another entry). In effect, the ethical system must be expanded offer positive guidelines that can be applied when considering positive action.

However, unlike my analogy, I don’t think that “harming none” is a sufficient goal for ethics. Because we are creatures of positive action rather than negative action (it is more natural to “do something” than it is to spend much time “not doing something”), our ethics should lead us in this. Ethics should lead us to not only avoid wrong behavior, but to lead and even goad us into right behavior, which should be expressed in terms.

“Harm none” does not give us this. It keeps us in that half-ethical state of telling us to avoid wrong — without actually giving practical advice on how to do so — without leading us into action that we know is right. This is why I personally prefer to base my ethics on a set of values, those things that I see as right, honorable, and worthy of being upheld. In this sense, I think that people like Asatru with their Nine Noble Virtues (though I’m not entirely on board with them, either, though I still have yet to put my finger on why) are more on the right track when it comes to a matter of ethics.

One thought on “Ethics and “Harm None””

  1. I could write an essay on the subject. However I am an animal activist so beating even a DEAD horse goes against my “harm none” philosophy.
    We are all instilled with an instinctual sense of right and wrong. However, I also believe that social growth and opportunity help mold that sense of right and wrong.
    I have know some Wiccans who take “harm none” to the extreme, in my opinion.
    “Oh no! I didn’t take that promotion because I know ‘Sally’ has 3 mouths to feed, her husband died and is really in debt and needs that promotion to make ends meet”
    I’m sorry…that does not jive with me. That in my opinion is taking it a to the extreme. Too others that is how far they take “harm none” to.
    When I grew up we were dirt poor. So it was my social growth and opportunity that money was something we were always in need of in order to survive and live. Any chance of promotion would mean another day of living in today’s society. Unlike my ‘rich’ friends who never wanted for anything and money was not an issue. So a promotion wasn’t that big of a deal. They could afford it.
    So defining ‘harm’ like you said comes down to intent. But I am taking it one step further and saying that social growth and opportunity as well have to come into play there somewhere.

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