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!