Saturday 9 January 2021

 Love and harm

Trevor Watkins 9/1/2021

Everybody has an opinion.  Almost every opinion differs.  Are all opinions equally valid? Must we give everyone an opportunity to voice their opinion, no matter how devoid of sense and truth? How are we to decide which opinions are important and useful,  and which are simply frivolous. Is there some combination of words on which we can mostly agree,  rather like the Ten Commandments. Is there a magic sentence who's internal logic is so indisputable that all thinking person's must accept it, whose truths are self evident?  How would we persuade non-thinking persons to accept the truth of our magic statement?  Can such a concept be reduced to mere words?

Can we improve on “Love your neighbour”, as a rule for peaceful co-existence? The problem is that this is an active rule, it requires you to act in ways you may not choose. It is instruction, rather than advice. 

“Don't harm your neighbour”  is much better advice.  This is a passive rule.  It does not require you to do anything,  just to refrain from doing some things. 

I believe the gap between these two rules summarises the gap in western society between left and right,  between Democrats and Republicans,  between the kindly, caring,  sharing, socialists  and the individualistic, thinking, independent, self-reliant capitalists. Both sides passionately believe that their rule is the better one. Religions, governments, economic systems are based on one or the other approach, and sometimes an uneasy mix of the two.

Many would say that these two statements are perfectly compatible,  that you can love your neighbour and not harm him or her.  But this is to deny the meaning of these words.

 To love someone is to care  strongly for their best interests,  to put their well-being above your own,  to ensure their happiness and survival.  This is how we love our children, our parents and our spouses.  And we are now instructed to behave the same towards our neighbours, who are not our family, who may have completely different world views and cultures, who may wish us harm. We may end up betraying the interests of our own family for these strangers. This is not an instruction which most people can honestly fulfill.

To not harm someone is a much easier proposition. It requires no direct action, but rather calls for inaction. We go through life not harming the vast majority of those around us, our neighbours, our competitors, even our enemies. But, like love, the definition of harm can be difficult. Do we harm someone if we offend them? Is mental harm as bad as physical harm? If I fail to wear a mask in a pandemic, do I harm my neighbours? Does my mere existence harm the existence of others as we compete for scarce resources?

Do you have to choose? No. Most people spend their lives in a state of blissful cognitive dissonance. Go to church on Sunday. Ignore the needs of your neighbours the rest of the week. Believe in coercive, harmful policies like taxation, minimum wage, rent control on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays. Respect the gender and lifestyle choices of others for the rest of the week. Ever wonder why life seems so confusing all the time.

Think about and then actively choose the principles you aim to live by. Avoid compromising.  When faced with a difficult decision, revert to your principles, even when inconvenient. Respect the right of others to do the same.


Then there are the independent thinkers who are able to rise above their culture and able to recognize evil and escape its clutches. If one can think for oneself, if one can make the effort to think independently and evaluate things from an ethical standard, one can overcome the cultural biases that prevail. One can learn to recognize and reject evil. 

Marco den Ouden, The Jolly Libertarian.

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right... The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

John Stuart Mill

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