Several years ago while sitting in a pub, sipping a Guinness and reading, a young woman struck up a conversation with me. Once she learned I was a minister she began to expound her personal belief system and the doctrine of “do no harm.” This seems to be the cardinal virtue of today’s modern and postmodern culture. That’s fine as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go far enough.

Morality is not limited to our interaction with our fellow humans (or even with fellow beings in general: nature, plants, animals etc.). There are three broad categories or aspects.

1. Inter-relational: how we get along with or treat other people (AKA: Social).
2. Intra-relational: how we treat or take care of ourself (AKA: Personal).
3. Directional: the reason we exist (AKA: Purpose).

Let’s use three analogies to understand these (two of which I’ve borrowed from C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity: A fleet of ships, an orchestra, a forest.

The Fleet
Imagine society as a fleet of ships. Obviously in a fleet of ships, it is important for each ship to maneuver well in relation to the other ships. Crashing into the other ships is a sure fire way of being sunk yourself. However, it is also imperative that each ship be individually sea worthy. If each crew does not care for its own ship and maintain it, then internal problems will result in relational problems (e.g. the rudder, having been neglected, jams and send your ship careening off into your neighbors). This is intra-relational morality. “Do no harm” applies not only horizontally between two different people. It also must be applied internally as well. Even if I shoot up heroine only on the weekends after locking myself in my apartment so that I do no harm to anyone else, what I do is immoral because I harm myself. Eventually, unless I quit and start cleaning up my ship, I will eventually crash into someone else or stop moving altogether. Which brings us to the third category. A fleet of ships has a destination. They don’t just sit out on the ocean, bobbing in the waves. And in order to get to their destination, they need to know where it is and the rout to take. The fleet does no good if it was meant to go to New York and instead ends up in Bangkok. Ships have builders and fleets serve a corporation or nation. We have a creator and society was ordered by a Grand Designer. It does not good to spout “Do no harm” when the whole fleet is heading in the wrong direction. Failing to fulfill one’s designed purpose is the harmful to ourselves and each other.

The Orchestra
Imagine society as an orchestra. Each instrument needs to be in tune with all the others and harmonize well (inter-relational). This cannot occur if each instrument is not in good repair (intra-personal). And no matter how good each instrument is or the skill of the musician, if each piece is playing its own song, the result will be chaos. Everyone must use the same sheet music and follow the conductor (directional).

The Forest
Because we live in a culture which is big on organic metaphors, again, let’s imagine society as a forest. Trees compete for resources. But if they compete too much, they all die and no forest results. So they have to come to some sense of balance (inter-personal). In order to do so, however, each tree needs to be healthy. If a root-rot or bark-beetles set in (or any other disease or malady), the tree may fall over, crashing into other trees knocking over perfectly healthy trees, thus damaging the forest (intra-personal). Lastly, one of the primary purposes for trees individually and forests in collective is to convert CO2 into O2 in order to sustain animal life. They can no more break this Law of Nature than you have of breaking the Law of Gravity after having been pushed off the Empire State Building. And that’s where everything goes sidewise.

Humans can, and do, opt to break their own internal natural law (the small voice that says we ought to tell the cashier that she gave us too much change - AKA: honesty & fairness). We insist on playing our own tune and sailing wherever we blinkin’ well please. We damage ourselves until we couldn’t follow the conductor or sail a straight line if we wanted to.

“Do No Harm” only works if we apply it to all three areas of morality.

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Comment by David Tindell on December 19, 2009 at 2:37pm
I like the analogy of the fleet, but it goes only so far. Society, as some of you have pointed out, is not necessarily going in the right direction. A fleet at sea is under the command of someone, such as the admiral on board the flagship, and the admiral is then under the command of someone on shore, and so forth. At the top of the chain is someone who decides what the fleet's mission is; in the Navy, that would of course be the president, whose policy that defines the mission is based on the will of the voters (in theory, anyway). If we apply the fleet analogy to society in general, we must consider that we no longer have an admiral on board a flagship; it used to be that the great majority of ships believed in the direction the admiral, God, was leading them, and the few that didn't believe went along with the rest because to resist meant getting cut off from the fleet and being at the mercy of predatory submarines. Now, most of the ships don't believe in the admiral anymore, or at least not as strongly as they used to, and in fact most of the sailors don't even want a captain on their own ship. Thus the fleet of American society is starting to just wander around aimlessly, joining the European fleet, while the Islamic fleet is under full sail and knows exactly what its mission is. And they're heading in our direction.
Comment by Jason P. Franklin on December 15, 2009 at 8:59am
Will, that is the intended implication/indictment against the fleet. Society is not acting morally. It's not just about not crashing into the other ships, not is it simply about maintaining one's own boat. The fleet needs to be sailing in the correct direction, and is not.
Comment by Will on December 15, 2009 at 6:18am
I'll have to think about this. I like the idea of noticing that well-being is not only inter-personal, and applying that to right and wrong.

I'll want the fleet in #1 to be a coalition of the willing, rather than society as a whole; I may not like where society decides to go!
Comment by Carl M on December 15, 2009 at 3:23am
I have to admit I learned this all the hard way. For me the biggest lesson is that I have to start with the personal and fixing/improving that area to be succesful in the other two. It is so easy to be on the outside looking in when it is others but looking in at one's self can be so difficult and even scary. Unforunately it took significant "emotional events" for me to change my way of thinking. I now try to prescribe to the philosophy that a smart man learns from his mistakes and a wise man learns from the mistakes of others. I find it easier and more comfortable to stick with doing the right thing in all 3 areas.
Comment by Herb Munson on December 14, 2009 at 4:37pm
Your thoughts that morality applies to my interactions with my own self were well timed. Thank you. I needed to be reminded of that.
Comment by Jason P. Franklin on December 14, 2009 at 3:18pm
I'm just shooting from the hip here, grabbing some time between subjects. Furthermore, I do not pretend to be a philosopher or a person of any great intellect. I am, however, one who constantly seeks to sharpen his mind. The post is primarily my attempt to work through the things I read in In C.S. Lewis' work "Mere Christianity".

In that work, before he even begins to discuss the issue of morality, he argues for the necessity of a Creator. Any such Creator would have a purpose in mind for His creation just as I did when I built my wife a chicken coop. He does not yet deal with who that Creator is or what purpose He has in mind.

After searching, examining and testing I have come to accept the Christian view of that Creator and the Bible as His divinely inspired Word. With that understanding, scripture reveals that most broadly humanity's purpose (both individually and collectively) is to glorify God. His revealed word also lays down which sorts of things bring Him glory and which don't.

That's as far as I can go with it now due to time constraints. My efforts are, I'm sure, weak and I recommend reading other's works rather than my own. As mentioned above, this post was precipitated by my reading through Mere Christianity. I can also recommend "Don't Waste Your Life" and "Desiring God" both by John Piper as excellent resources. That being said, feeble as my efforts are, I will continue to post my reactions and ruminations on this topic.
Comment by Brad Reed on December 14, 2009 at 2:15pm
Great post. I never thought of it that way. I think a lot of people do believe that morality does just apply to interactions with other people (myself included) I never thought that it applies to the self as well; same as the directional part.

How do you find your direction though? The sailor has his direction because the captain orders him. In the orchestra you have a conductor. But what if you’re not in a band or a part of a crew? I know the examples are just metaphors, but the third category is challenging as life does not hand you a direction.

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