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.
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.
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).
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.