Thursday, 18 October 2007

Do No Harm

In my recent three-part mini series I was dealing with specific responses to being a victim of moral bigotry without responding in bigoted fashion. That is, if you are an atheist, the question of "how can you be moral without god?" can be construed as a bigoted view and needs to be counteracted and, I advocate, be done without applying bigotry in response.

There is the specific irony of that situation which can be generalised to many -but not all- who use the term 'moral', namely it is a rhetorical device used to devalue and dehumanise opposite views and, in doing so, show themselves to be far less moral than they claim. Before we can explore this further, we need to expand on what does it mean to be 'moral'.

I have argued previously that there are many and better moral, if still flawed, theories available to naturalists than are available to supernaturalists. I still want to avoid getting into tiresome moral theory debates, yet still, I have a particular stance reflected in and motivating this blog which, I feel, needs further articulation. This is an attempt to do so without getting bogged down in moral theory quagmires. We shall see.

Looking at the near universal Golden Rule (not the problematic christian prescriptive variant which I call the Fools Golden Rule, which I will discuss at another time) a version of which is "Do not do unto others what you do not want done to you", the key thing "I do not want done to me" can be summed up in the term 'harm'. Also the notion of 'you' can be expanded to include one's family, friends, other members of groups that one is a voluntary member of and also groups one is an involuntary member of - involuntary in the sense that 'others' may classify you as a member, regardless of your own views. This can all be summed up in the statement "Do No Harm to Others" or with an implicit 'other' as in "Do No Harm".

Importantly there are two dimensions to this statement, a descriptive one - 'harm' - and a prescriptive one - 'do no ...'. Let us investigate the term 'harm' first. On one level harm can be determined casuistically - that is on a case by case basis - and, indeed, for more problematic and challenging cases, that is probably the only way to proceed. Regardless, in any and all situations, the question of harm is an empirical question, one which can be answered realistically using evidence, reason and dialogue to achieve at least some degree of certainty, scope and clarity. Again more challenging situations, such as over global warming, may still have lower degrees of certainty, scope (i.e. who is being harmed and when) and clarity than other simpler ones, such as over the damage caused by a certain theft. Either way, the goal is to achieve the most realistic appraisal possible given the data and circumstance.

However there is a problem with a case by case approach, which is we very often have scant or no time to make such an appraisal and often lack the specific skills to do so too. It would be of benefit to have some short cuts or rules of thumb to guide us. Some means of generalising some of these case specific harms, certainly those which are near universally agreed upon as harms. Before we expand on this lets next look at the prescriptive component.

The prescriptive component says "Do No Harm". Now the point is, this is a prescription that has near universal agreement from a wide diversity of people and beliefs. That is, it can be used as an explicit general assumption in determining specific prescriptions. Given this, one can then determine a broad set of rules, as short cuts, to advocate how to act in specific yet common (some hopefully not typical, such as killing) situations, all applying the general conditional form of "if you do not want this harm to occur to you, do not do it to others".

So these near universal harms can be stated as guiding rules such as "do not kill", "do not use violence", "do not rape", "do not steal", "do not lie" and so on and so forth. It is important to note that these are not absolutes and that specific situations might involve a clash between two or more of these short cut guides, in which case some thought is required as to what to do or not do, the means of evaluation being to minimise the possible harms.

Clearly all this reflects an ethic of harm minimisation. I would not go so far as to call this Minimise Harm Utilitarianism and will discuss why in future posts. Nor it it meant to be a complete moral system rather it is a minimal and partial moral system but one if that was consistently applied would make the world a safer and therefore better place. I have deliberately not used 'moral speak' in the above, such as "good" ,"bad", "right","wrong", "ought"," ought not" and so on and so forth, the above can be easily translate into this, which I will do in a future posts as I tackle typical objections to such moral speak.

With respect to the idea of "No Double Standards" and "One Standard For All" I am arguing that a society that adopts this would be one that would lead to less harm than one that does not. Again this is not a be all and end all answer, rather it is an instrumental feature that is most everyone's interest -whether they realise it or not - in order to achieve a safer world for all to live in. It is because many, for various reasons, do not realise this and indeed have been misled into thinking otherwise, that has motivated me to focus on this particular feature for this blog.

And this leads to the final obvious question, assuming one agrees with the above, how does one to deal with people who do not care about minimising the harm their actions cause? This will be the topic of the next post.