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According to the so-called harm principle, most actions that cause no harm to others should be permitted by law. This may be true, if we don’t take it as a definition of morality. But even if it is only about the law, it settles fewer questions than one might think.
I pointed out in a previous post that the harm principle is ancient. Contrary to popular belief, it was not invented by John Stuart Mill. He invented only a particular brand of the principle, according to which almost nothing counts as harm.
In Mill’s view, harm to which a person consents is not harm; destroying one’s abilities to fulfill his duties to others is not harm; seduction to evil is not harm; and so on.
Today we see that those who are wrapped up in racial and sexual identity politics have their own brand of the Harm Principle, one according to which a great many things count as harm.
In their view, having their feelings hurt is harm; having their identities questioned is harm; having to take notice that others disagree with them is harm; and so on.
We might call Mill’s brand the “get out of my space” harm principle, and the identity politics brand “don’t tread on my snowflake” harm principle.
Sometimes people imagine that if only we follow the harm principle, we don’t need an agreed-upon standard of morality. Actually, without an agreed-upon standard of morality, we can’t agree about which brand of the harm principle to use either. The brand we deploy becomes a stalking horse for deeper moral views – often not openly expressed -- which tell us what harm is.
This is why protests about the violation of free speech get so little traction in the public square. No matter how repressive one is, one can always define harm in such a way as to paint the other fellow as the true enemy of liberty. I’m not harming him. He’s harming me!
As you may have noticed, The Underground Thomist is undergoing some maintenance and repairs. Consequently, from time to time during the next few weeks, you may have trouble reaching it, or it may look a little odd (for example, an image may be missing, or a line of computer code may appear at the top of the screen). If this happens, just keep trying, and eventually the site will return to its normal condition.
All this will pass. I am grateful for your patience and your interest.
Some time ago, I debated my brother on the issue of reason. He argued that reason is not important. All that matters is that I do the things that I like and that I get good results, no matter the method. How do I even engage with people who deny the point of reason?
Related to that, for most of my young adulthood, I was tempted by my family to drive without a license. I found that immoral because it was disobeying a legitimate law, but my family kept arguing that many people drive without a license and do just fine. I couldn't really defend myself against this. In fact, they think that if a multitude of people do well without obeying the law, then it is okay, and they will defend this fallacy stating that what matters most is that it is effective.
How do I defend myself from these sorts of statements?
Your brother obviously wants to have a good life. That’s not bad, it’s good. The problem, to paraphrase the philosopher Mortimer Adler, is that he thinks having a good life is the same as having a good time. If it is put to them this way, most people can see that it isn't. We can do all the things we like and still be unhappy. For example, the drunkard is doing the thing that he likes – getting drunk – but he is ruining his life, not enhancing it. The unfaithful husband is doing the thing that he likes – sleeping with other women – but he is very likely to ruin not only his life but also his wife’s and children’s, and he isn’t doing those other women any favors either.
One way to get started on this sort of conversation is to ask which things it is good to like doing. Which ones add up to a good life, and which ones don’t? Your brother may say that reason is not important, but in saying that, he is already reasoning. He is giving you a reason to believe that there is no need to give reasons. The problem is that he is not reasoning very far.
By the way, if he did reason far enough, he would discover not only that there is a difference between having a good life and having a good time, but also that having a good life includes finding out what is really true -- what everything is really all about.
Now about driving without a license. Just as with your brother’s statement about doing what he likes, so with your family’s statements about driving, the issue isn’t reasoning, but reasoning badly. You recognize this yourself when you call your family’s argument a fallacy, because a fallacy is an error in reasoning.
However, I don’t think you will get very far just by saying to your family, “You have to get a license, because it’s the law.” It might work better to turn conversation to the purpose of law, which is to promote the common good. Now it may sometimes be right to disobey a law which seriously injures the common good, but plainly the law requiring driver licenses doesn’t injure it – it promotes, it, by keeping people who don’t know how to drive or read road signs off the street, so that they are less likely to hurt other people.
There is no need to deny your family’s point that many people who drive without a license do just fine. That’s quite true, but it’s not the point. The point is that a great many people don’t do just fine, and the requirement for a license helps weed them out.
I am sure that the members of your family know all this. They are making excuses for not doing what they know they ought to do, because they don’t want to go to the trouble of doing it. Perhaps each one tells himself, “Well, I’m a safe driver. I don’t need to be kept off the road.” And perhaps he is a safe driver, but that is not the question. Point out: Not everyone who thinks he is a safe driver is really a safe driver, yet most bad drivers think they are safe drivers. Now ask: Are we all better off letting each person decide for himself whether he is safe driver, or are we all better off requiring each person to prove it? Obviously, the latter.
Now about how to defend yourself from the sorts of things your family members say. You don’t have to. Don’t.
In obvious matters like driving without a license, when you say we should do the right thing, why do you come under attack? Because it embarrasses people who want to do the wrong thing. They already know you are right. And when you approach the discussion as a debate -- as you did with your brother -- it makes them dig in, because it seems like a contest. So rather than defending yourself or debating, calmly explain why you believe what you believe.
But choose your time. The time to speak is when the other person might actually listen. He is more likely to listen when just the two of you are talking -- brother to brother, perhaps. By contrast, when a lot of people are in the conversation, anyone who does listen loses face in front of the others. So that is a time to be pleasant and say, “I won’t argue with you, but I know this is right.” Sometimes, the most persuasive speech is silence.
For an old style car, first you refine hydrocarbons – say, oil. Then you transport the resulting gasoline into the car’s fuel tank. Then you burn it to make the car go.
For an electric car, first you refine that oil. Then you burn it in a power plant to make electricity. Then you transmit the electricity to a battery charging station. Then you use the electricity to charge the batteries. Then you use the batteries to make the car go.
Can someone tell me why a process involving five steps is more efficient than a process involving only three? I concede that it is not mathematically impossible – with the right relative conversion efficiencies, anything is possible -- but forgive me for nursing a doubt.
Again, both the three-step and the five-step processes release waste heat and waste gasses into the biosphere. But the five-step process releases not only these, but additional problematic substances including cobalt and cadmium.
This time can someone tell me why the five-step process is friendlier to the environment? I may be missing something here too, but it isn’t obvious what.
And we haven’t even compared the health risks of coal miners and gas and oilfield workers with those of coal miners, gas and oilfield workers, plus cobalt and cadmium miners.
I want a clean planet too, but the political enthusiasm for electric vehicles is fueled largely by payoffs, sometimes called subsidies, and unexamined assumptions. Thus far it seems to be much more about virtue signaling than about virtue.
This post began to spark correspondence the moment I posted it online. Thanks to those who have written!
Yes, I know that not all electricity comes from burning hydrocarbons, and I share the hopes some readers have expressed for better alternatives than we have. Solar power generation isn’t there yet. It may never be, and not just because it requires the right climate and lots of sunny days.
We speak as though what we do now has environmental risks and what we propose doing doesn’t. Has anyone tried to estimate the effect that devoting enormous acreage to solar collection would have on temperatures? Some authors have proposed putting the collectors out in space instead and beaming the energy back down via focused microwaves, but I would hate to be in the way if the aiming software failed. Zzzt.
Fission is not on the table; we all know why. Fusion would be great, but we don’t know whether we can get it to work. For the foreseeable future, the other alternatives, such as tidal and geothermal electric power generation, seem more plausible as supplements to the conventional methods of power generation than as replacements.
Last point. When I said I might be missing something, I meant it. I don’t have the answers. What do I know? But sunny assumptions aren’t answers either.
Though never nurtured in the lap of luxury, yet I admonish you,
In the name of mercy, some recent theologians have suggested that there are elements of good in some objectively wrong acts and relationships. For example, friendship is good, and there certainly is an element of friendship in an illicit sexual relationship.
Or for that matter in the collusion of two thieves in a theft. Funny that we don’t apply the argument to theft.
We always stop with sex.
But why? There may be an element of intelligence in a well-planned fraud, an element of the love of kin in genocide, and an element of the love of beauty in the theft of a work of art. Friendship, intelligence, love of kin, and love of beauty are all good in themselves. But this is irrelevant to the question of whether these acts and relationships are wrong.
The question should not be whether there are elements of value in sins, but whether there is anything valuable about sinning.
Consider: No one can love evil for its own sake. The only thing it is possible to will for its own sake is good. Thus, the only way it is even possible to will an evil is that something about it seems good to us.
But something seems good to us in every evil, because evil cannot exist in itself. The only way to get an evil at all is to take something good and distort it.
The upshot is that the fact that evil contains disordered elements of good doesn’t mean it isn’t evil. What this fact shows is why evil can be attractive.
Now back to mercy. If I am hurting myself by what I am doing, if I am hurting others, if I am separating myself from God -- then I want my friends to love me enough to tell me. Lying to me in the name of “elements of good” does not help me. It is not mercy but indifference.
So although it is certainly possible to tell the truth without being merciful, it is impossible to be merciful without telling the truth.
Now and then I realize how much of my writing results from trying to make up for having answered someone’s good question badly.
Thomas Aquinas spends a good deal of time in the Summa discussing whether the detailed precepts of the Old Testament law are all the same kind of thing, or whether, instead, we should say that some of them are moral, some ceremonial, still others judicial – that is, some of them about how to live, some about how to worship, and still others about how to regulate the community.
This may seem like hairsplitting. One of my graduate students asked me recently what difference it makes whether we get the answer right. Here’s what I should have said.
Two things depend on getting the classification right, one of them practical, the other theoretical.
The first issue is whether any of those precepts could have been have been different than they were. Answer: Some couldn’t, some could; it depends on which kind of precept one has in mind. None of the moral precepts could have been different, because they reflect general precepts of natural law. Having created the good of creaturely life, for example, God will not now say “Go murder.” The wrong of murder is in the nature of the things that He made.
But the ceremonial and judicial precepts could have been different, because they are what are called “determinations” of the moral precepts: By divine authority, they pin down the precise way in which the moral precepts should be observed, in cases in which more than one possibility may have existed. Ceremonial precepts pin down the details of our duty to worship God Himself. Judicial precepts pin down the details of our duties of justice to man in God’s image.
Human law is like this too. The lawmakers cannot release us from the duty to take care for the safety of others. On the other hand, they can pin down whether we are to drive on the right or the left. In much the same way, not even God Himself can release us from the duty to worship Him and Him alone, for the rightness of worshipping Him inheres in Who He Is. Nor could he release us from the duty to do justice to our neighbors. On the other hand, some of the details of divine worship and executing doing justice might have been arranged differently than they were. This is why, for example, it was possible for Jesus to modify the Jewish Passover so that it became Holy Communion, and why we are no longer bound to punish adultery by stoning. There were good reasons for the old ceremonies and judicial regulations – but by divine authority, certain changes were possible.
By the way, by considering these good reasons for the old regulations, Christians can learn from the ceremonial and judicial precepts of Old Testament law too. The fact that we are not required to obey them does not mean that we should be indifferent to them. They were part of the divine pedagogy.
The second issue is why it matters whether we get any definition or classification right. Answer: Yes, because the mind uses these things to engage the shape of reality. Do we wish to understand how things really are, or don’t we? A dog is not a cat, nor a triangle a rhombus, nor a person, thank God, a thing. Contrary to the views of postmodernists and some Justices of the Supreme Court, we cannot change the basic structures of reality just by defining them perversely. At stake is the rational mind’s privilege and calling to know what is.
Now at the bottom of what is, we find Eternal Law: The pattern in the mind of God, by which He created and governs the universe. Although we cannot know it as His infinite intellect knows it, we can certainly know it through its reflections, by reason in natural law, by direct verbal proclamation in biblical law. This is how He imparts it to us.
Thus: Even if there were no practical reason to know how many kinds of
Old Testament precepts there are, it would be worthwhile to know the answer simply because knowing is our vocation. By doing what we are made for, we give homage to the Author of our minds.
When people say that the standard of virtue is declining, it is considered shrewd and knowing to reply “Every age thinks it was better in the old days.”
Perhaps every age does think it was better in the old days. But morally speaking, some ages really have been better, and some really have been worse. People in better days who say “It was better in the old days” are mistaken. And people in worse days who say “It was better in the old days” are right.
So maybe it was just as bad in the old days as in our days, but what makes us so sure? Perhaps we should work harder to avoid being smug, since the five most common ways to attain complacency seem unconvincing.
One is to consider the evidence selectively. After all, we no longer mistreat people in certain ways.
The second is to deny that our favorite vices are vices. How could anything we really want to do be misbehaving?
Third, and more radically, redefine vices as virtues. This is how the coarse and profane becomes frank and refreshing.
Conversely, redefine virtues as vices. Consider all the virtues at the mention of which sophisticates are supposed to smirk.
Fifth, simply deny the possibility of moral judgment. This is the most interesting, because it is the most irrational. Among other things, it implies that no one should even try to examine his own conscience.
For who is he to judge?