Mondays are student letter days.


My friend defines his entire moral code by the statement, "As long as I am not directly hurting anyone other than me, then nothing that I do is wrong.”  What do you think?


C. S. Lewis remarked that the inventors of "new moralities" don’t really invent new moralities.  They merely accept the bits of the old morality that they like, and ignore the bits of the old morality that they don’t like.  For example, an extreme nationalist accepts the parts about our duty to kin but ignores the parts about all men being brothers, and an extreme socialist accepts the parts about our duty to relieve suffering but ignores the parts about justice and good faith.  Your friend is doing much the same thing, for the duty to avoid unnecessary harm to others is a genuine part of the moral law.  His problem isn’t that it’s wrong; his problem is that he ignores all the other parts.

The first problem with throwing out every duty but the avoidance of harm is that it will make him flat.  We were made to serve God, not just ourselves.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, we are “not our own beginning, not the masters of adversity, not our own last end.”  By casting aside our greatest duty, your friend is also casting aside our greatest joy and privilege.

The second problem with his way of life is that it will make him selfish.  What would he think of a man who had never lifted a finger to protect his wife, but bragged that he had never beaten her?  Of a man who failed to sound the fire alarm, but boasted that he hadn’t set the fire?  How about a teacher who had never taught his students a single truth, but preened himself on the fact that he had never taught them a lie?  Frankly, I don’t believe that your friend would admire such people any more than you would.  But by claiming that his only duty is to avoid unnecessary harm to others, he is training himself to be just like them.

The third problem with your friend’s narrow-mindedness is that it will make him stupid.  If the only duty he recognizes is not harming others, he won’t have the foggiest idea of what harming others means.  This is already happening in the way he limits harm to direct harm, then limits it further to "hurt," to physical harm.  Suppose that through reckless driving I were to get myself killed, leaving my wife a widow.  Would the fact that the harm of widowhood was indirect make it small? Suppose that I were to corrupt a young female student by seducing her.  Would the fact that the harm of corruption was nonphysical make it trivial?  We see that every moral duty depends on the other moral duties to flesh it out and complete its meaning.  By keeping one duty but throwing out the others, in the end your friend won’t even understand the one that he keeps.

The slogan "It can’t be wrong if it doesn’t hurt anyone" first became popular as a rationalization for sex outside marriage.  That was two generations ago. Now, after tens of millions of abortions, divorces, fatherless children, sterilization-inducing diseases and broken hearts, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the meaning of "hurt."  I don’t know what your friend hopes to justify, but you can be sure he is looking for a way to justify something he really knows is wrong.

Tomorrow:  Disbelieve in Me