The Hippocratic Oath

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I confessed that haven’t been making any effort lately to “do good” in a formal sense.  What I meant by that is that I am not currently doing any volunteer work.  I am embarrassed to admit this, because I think volunteer work is important and I admire people who volunteer.

Although I have no good excuse, I do have an explanation of sorts.  You see, instead of focusing on doing good, I’ve recently been focusing on doing no harm.  This post is entitled “The Hippocratic Oath” because that is the oath that (some) doctors take, pledging not to do harm.  (Fun fact: the original version of the Hippocratic Oath contains all sorts of other ethical directives for doctors, including that they should not have sex with anyone at the houses they visit for medical purposes.  But of course, those aspects of the oath aren’t relevant to this discussion.)

I think doing good is great, but I also think it’s kind of pointless if you cancel out all your good deeds by doing equal or more harm.  The problem is that it is incredibly difficult to avoid doing harm.  Even when you think you’re doing good, your actions may involve some element of harm.  For example, it happens all the time that do-gooders go into some disadvantaged community to lend a helping hand, and in the process they undermine some aspect of the community’s functioning that was previously working just fine.

About two years ago, I started thinking about the harm I do in my daily life.  It wasn’t at all pleasant.  I realized that I unconsciously do quite a bit of harm just by living a normal American life.  For example, although I can’t be certain, it seems quite likely that the majority of my clothes were made in sweatshop-like factories by people who weren’t being paid a fair wage.  The t-shirt I am currently wearing was made in Haiti, and a quick Google search turned up several recent articles about how clothes made in Haiti for Americans are hurting the Haitian economy.  Ironically, I got this t-shirt at a fundraising event for a local hospital.

The harm I do doesn’t end there.  Every time I drive my car, turn on the lights, or take a hot shower, I’m polluting the environment.  If I purchase a movie or song that glorifies violence or objectifies women, I am essentially responsible for promoting those messages.  The production of most of the food I eat probably causes some sort of environmental harm, and certainly the packaging of that food is harmful, even if I faithfully recycle everything I can.

In fact, recycling is a great example of how “doing good” can totally backfire.  I do not know all the ins and outs of how various materials are recycled, but I do know that (1) recycling sometimes uses more energy than it saves, and (2) some of the materials we send out for recycling (especially electronics) end up being sent to third world countries where they are processed in dangerous and toxic ways.  (Please don’t misunderstand: I am not saying that we should stop recycling!  I am simply saying that our recycling system needs some improvement.)

It seems to me that there are only two groups of people who can completely avoid doing harm if they want to: ascetics and the rich.  Ascetics avoid doing harm by not using any resources in the first place.  The rich can (but often don’t) avoid doing harm by using their time and money to make sure the products they use are ethically and sustainably produced.  For example, a very rich person can afford to buy only organic, fair-trade food and clothes.  He or she can also afford to buy the most energy efficient home and car.  For this reason, I believe that the richer you are, the greater your responsibility is for doing no harm (which I realize may be a very unpopular point of view).

Unfortunately, I am not rich.  Although I would love to replace our ancient oil furnace with geothermal heating for this coming winter, getting that system installed would literally bankrupt us.  So we’ll be switching to natural gas instead, which is better than oil but still far from harmless.  As for other products, we really try to make minimally harmful purchases, but we regularly fail, both because we can’t afford the best option and because we often don’t have time to figure out what the best option is.  It’s very frustrating.

Living like an ascetic is a more realistic option for us, except that poor Jeff didn’t know he was signing on for that when he married me.  We’ve already taken quite a few steps to cut back on the harm we do, but I can’t expect him to suddenly give up every modern convenience.  Furthermore, I don’t think I’m ready for that.  I would like to continue to live a somewhat normal life.  I don’t mind being a little strange, but I’d rather not become a complete social misfit.

I look forward to the day when I can honestly say that I do no harm.  It would certainly help if our whole society shifted in that direction, because then individuals like me who want to live harmlessly wouldn’t be social misfits.  Thus I suppose this post is a plea for others to join me, so I won’t have to feel like such a weirdo striving for harmlessness on my own.

If you’re in the mood for a little soul-searching, you might think about what harm you do on a daily basis.  If you think you do no harm, you probably haven’t thought about it hard enough.  But if you truly do no harm, I applaud you, admire you, and hope to emulate you.  So please let me know how you’ve made it work.

That’s all for today.  Take care and happy learning!

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4 thoughts on “The Hippocratic Oath

  1. Yes… and now you will soon join me in thinking about Hippocratic Parenting! Every decision, from bedtime to meal choices to toys to cleaning products, seems fraught with harmful parenting pitfalls. I just decided to average my “Harm Score” over my kids’ lifetimes so if on certain days it spikes (I buy them McDonalds, or give them juice from a BPA container, or accidentally microwave their lunch in plastic, or let them stay up too late, or, or, or….), it will be counterbalanced by days on which I was Thoughtful Ascetic Mommy.

    • Ha! So if you are Thoughtful Ascetic Mommy on one side, what do you call the other kind of mommy? And who’s coming out on top as of right now? Knowing you, I’m sure Thoughtful Ascetic Mommy is way ahead!

  2. Taoist (not the mystical kind) believe in taking a “balanced” approach to volunteerism. This means helping anyone who comes across your path, but not necessarily going far out of your way to do so. I was a Taoist in my youth, and while I value this as an ideal, I have found some problems with this philosphy because, much like buddhism, it emphasizes deconstructing the ego and negating attachment to reduce suffering. Lately, I have adopted something more akin to the approach of this blog post in terms of minimizing my negative impact on others. My taoist side keeps me from “becoming gandhi” to do so, and yet my ego-feeding desire to help others does cause me to go out of my way on many occassions.

    I find one aspect of your post especially fascinating because if more people considered the hippocratic oath in their daily decisions, there might not be such a dire need for volunteerism. Certainly a degree of natural suffering is part of being human, but there is also disproportionate amount of man-made suffering that is measured by geography & social status, distributed by the increasingly globalized economy, and ultimately fueled by somewhat callous self interest. It seems like much of the work of volunteer organizations both domestic and international are tasked with addressing current and historical disparities that are in fact externalities and legacies of this same kind of reckless self interest. If volunteers were only coping with the unintended consequences of good intentions & of course “natural” suffering, we would be living in a very different world today. Call me a dreamer, but I wish the volunteer spirit in this country could be harnessed to minimize the causes of man-made suffering first and then focus on alleviating the symptoms. I think this can be taken too far however, where intelligent people of good conscience are paralyzed into inaction by considering every possible negative consequence of their actions.

    I would like to take special note that you responded to some comments about your recent lack of volunteerism with open introspection about your own blind spots. First, because your post made me realise this is the most compassionate way to answer to any criticism. Second, because your numerous cello youtube videos have already enriched the lives of music students around the world (granted, english speakers who can afford to play cello, but a wonderful gift none the less!) such that your volunteer resume would sparkle more than most. And lastly, because the blind spots concerning our negative impact on the world are a natural failing of the human condition, and therefore one that we all must deal with (or more precisely that others must thanklessly forgive us for) and in a perfect world, our common faults should temper our judgement of each other.

    Finally, it is my experience that volunteerism is important not necessarily as a badge of good citenzenship, but rather as an end unto itself. Something that enriches the life of the giver beyond any measure of accolades or cost, and may even exceed the benefit to the receiver. As such I dont think that a life can be weighed on a scale of good and evil deeds, because the suffering that we inflict on each other is not necessarily from selfishness, and many of the kindnesses we dole out actually benefit us more than anyone else. We also live on a finite planet, so simply by virtue of existing we are displacing resources that could benefit others. From a purely mathematically point of view, we will always have a “negative” impact on who or whatever gets displaced by our mere existence. (Eg when I was 11 and found out about the number if eggs in a woman’s ovaries, I had an existential crisis of sorts feeling guilt over my fallen brothers and sisters… silly kid that I was). This line of thought has led me to the conclusion that since we are merely renters of this life, and even the immortality of notable personal legacies is a fragile and fleeting thing (just ask Alexander of Macedonia), we can never truly own more than the Now. The moral question that keeps me up at night is this: “what did I do today to earn this air that I am breathing?” How a person answers a question like this will depend a great deal on their own central values. For me its as simple as playing cello, learning, using my knowledge and strength to help others, and making my loved ones feel loved and provided for. Everything else is gravy.

    • I so appreciate your thought-provoking comments Ben! You always point out things I hadn’t considered. For example, you are so right that “if more people considered the hippocratic oath in their daily decisions, there might not be such a dire need for volunteerism.” Anyhow, thanks for sharing your insights.

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