"Do No Harm" Not Enough

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"Do No Harm" Not Enough

Reverend Cameron Fraser weighs in on the topic of religious belief:

"It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you're not hurting anyone."

I think we should set the bar higher. How about:

"Whatever your beliefs, do they lead you to participate in reducing suffering in the world?" 

Poverty. White supremacy. Human trafficking and displacement. Homophobia and transphobia. Violence through words, actions and systems. Environmental degradation. Greed and apathy. 


Rabbi Sharon Brous, leader of IKAR, an innovative Jewish Community in Los Angeles, preached her Rosh Hashanah sermon this past September.

Brous, who is well known for her TED Talk It's Time to Reclaim Religion, and who appeared on a November cover of Time Magazine, reflected that when she and some friends began IKAR more than a decade ago their guiding question was, "What Treasures are in our Jewish Tradition that we'd like to claim for ourselves?" — but that now, in 2018, their guiding question is, "What does our Jewish tradition demand of us in a time of moral crisis?"

What about the non-religious (emphasis mine)?

This is a question worthy of the moment in which we find ourselves. I believe this is a question that both religious and non-religious people should ask of themselves and their communities.

I believe that this rings true both in my tradition and in many others, but that there are many ways to be a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Sikh, an atheist, an agnostic, a secular humanist and so on. Some of these ways lead to action, others to apathy.

voice of the damned

Actually, Jesus' version of the Golden Rule DOES go beyond the do-no-harm ethos, as it enjoins us to actively do good things for others, rather than simply say we should avoid doing bad things to them.

However, Jean-Paul Sartre saw such imperatives as ultimately useless. He gave the example of a young Frenchman during World War II deciding whether to join the Resistance, or to stay with his elderly mother, who has already lost a son to the war and is on bad terms with her husband...

What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbour, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother? Which is the more useful aim, the general one of fighting in and for the whole community, or the precise aim of helping one particular person to live? Who can give an answer to that a priori? No one. Nor is it given in any ethical scripture. The Kantian ethic says, Never regard another as a means, but always as an end. Very well; if I remain with my mother, I shall be regarding her as the end and not as a means: but by the same token I am in danger of treating as means those who are fighting on my behalf; and the converse is also true, that if I go to the aid of the combatants I shall be treating them as the end at the risk of treating my mother as a means. If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts. That is what this young man tried to do; and when I saw him he said, “In the end, it is feeling that counts; the direction in which it is really pushing me is the one I ought to choose. If I feel that I love my mother enough to sacrifice everything else for her – my will to be avenged, all my longings for action and adventure then I stay with her. If, on the contrary, I feel that my love for her is not enough, I go.” But how does one estimate the strength of a feeling? The value of his feeling for his mother was determined precisely by the fact that he was standing by her. I may say that I love a certain friend enough to sacrifice such or such a sum of money for him, but I cannot prove that unless I have done it. I may say, “I love my mother enough to remain with her,” if actually I have remained with her. I can only estimate the strength of this affection if I have performed an action by which it is defined and ratified. But if I then appeal to this affection to justify my action, I find myself drawn into a vicious circle.