Every contentious issue can be constructively approached only if the concept of harm is acknowledged and acted upon.
By Ted Mitchell
Published May 18, 2007
There is a great difference between these two cornerstones of our values. They are the core of what most violates our sense of decency.
Do we object to something on the basis that it is offensive? Offense is founded on social norms, a negative response to actions perceived to go against something we hold sacred. It is not an inborn sensitivity, but is based on something we have learned.
Or, do we object on the argument that actual harm is caused to us or to someone else? This concept of harm is simple, powerful, and separate from the factors of culture, religion, and time. However, putting this into practice is sometimes difficult; it takes thought, empathy, and being open to reconsideration.
The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. But one of them tends to dominate our thinking and actions.
Consider this story: Drunken young men make the mistake of thinking it would be entertaining to relieve themselves of all that beer on the National War Memorial. Canadians are outraged; talk radio and chat rooms respond with chilling indignation.
Let's say on the same weekend, another group of teens drink too much, and break their empty beer bottles in a park. The next day, nobody notices what they have done, except the dog that cuts its paw and the owner who incurs a $300 vet bill.
It is obvious which scenario is found more offensive to most people. But in which story is more harm involved? The second, there is no contest. Actually, I made up that story, but just about anything would count as doing more harm than dilute urine on marble. In fact, it is likely that rain chemically causes more harm to the monument.
Some might feel that marginalizing our war vets in favour of a dog is unforgivable. They miss my point. They are offended what the young men's actions represent. Perhaps they did not represent anything other than drunkenness. Clearly though, there is no harm done.
When you read the paper, some stories get your goat. Why? Is somebody being harmed, or are you offended? It certainly is not easy to wade through partisan messages, biased journalism, omitted information, and all the other conscious and unconscious tools people use to aid their ideologies.
How do you know which way is up? Well, one path is to dissect an issue until you know how much harm is caused and how much offends you.
Possibly the only tool to use in building a set of ethical guidelines for life is the principle of harm. If I do something, what are the consequences? Who might be harmed? What is the nature of that harm? Is it objective or subjective? Is it real harm or just offense masquerading as harm?
Offense is in my view, arbitrary and illegitimate. It serves to enrage and derail us from things that actually matter to us and our communities. Perhaps even worse, it can move us to cause harm to others.
The concept of harm is capable of attacking very important problems, and there is no larger challenge than applying it to religion.
I view organized religion as having three parts: belief, symbolism, and meaning. These concepts have very different consequences. External interference with belief and symbolism gives many opportunities for offense. The emotional reaction to offense can include causing harm to others.
Conversely, the general meaning of the religious message is entirely compatible with the concept of minimizing harm and only conjures offense when concrete interpretations have ignorantly been made.
Often you will see talks at universities with a title like "Does God Exist?" Let me say that there is no more ridiculous question that has been posed in the history of mankind. It is a question that clearly does not have an answer. There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of God. Even scientists like Isaac Newton have wasted away much of their great intellect pursuing this question without coming to that obvious conclusion.
Belief in God is a question of faith. It is a personal decision. If it stops there, there is no problem. A believer may be offended by non-believers or by those who subscribe to other gods. But they are not harmed. If there is any strength to their belief, criticism will do them no damage.
When belief starts to be a clique, there is a potential problem. Humans are programmed to be tribal like birds are programmed to fly. We like to belong to groups. The problem with this is that it becomes easy to depersonalize those who belong to other groups, such as believers and non-believers (other examples: rich and poor, white and black, right and left, English and French). This can erode over time to the point where we can cause harm to each other and justify it in the name of our belief. This has happened numerous times in history. Are those actions compatible with the underling content of religious teaching?
Every religion has their symbols: sacred days, manners of dress, and material things that add to the uniqueness of each faith. I think the purpose of these is clear; it identifies you as part of a group and strengthens the bonds of inclusion in that group. At the same time, symbols strengthen the differences that serve to divide societies along religious lines. Division is the thin edge of the wedge of real harm.
Do those symbolic items of clothing or material possessions really matter? Is the emotional offense that questioning their presence generates legitimate or useful? Are you prepared to cause harm to others for the purpose of defending or restricting those essentially arbitrary traditional symbols?
Compared to the weight of meaning in religious teaching, symbols do not really matter. Symbolism becomes incompatible with underling religious teachings which exemplify minimizing harm to others.
I maintain, without delving into lengthy quotations, that the core teachings of western faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) are fundamentally similar and compatible. They differ only in details, which are generally unimportant, and in symbolism, which is worse than unimportant, it can be divisive.
The major error in interpreting the meaning of religious writings is to take an overly concrete interpretation. Internal inconsistencies make it all too easy to seize on something you want to hear and ignore everything that contradicts that message. Remember that the writing is ancient, the language either dead or unrecognizably altered over the millennia, the cultural context likely beyond your imagination. This is still true for those who believe that these words came form God's hand. That was then, this is now, and a whole bunch of mortal translators have intervened.
Given those facts, concrete interpretation is exceedingly dangerous: it can easily lead to doing harm and providing a divine justification for doing so. Most of the ideology of the evangelical religious right falls into this category. It is cherry picking to fit a predetermined bias and it often does real harm to people with whom the evangelicals have no moral justification to interfere and restrict their freedom. There is never any moral or ethical reason to restrict individual freedom unless it stems from an honest and exhaustive analysis of reducing societal harm.
This is not to say that religious texts are irrelevant today, far from it. But the only honest and sensible path is to learn the underlying themes behind all those writings: love, tolerance, respect, humility, and the avoidance of causing harm to others. There is no incompatibility between faiths in that conclusion. There is even no incompatibility with ethical atheists.
Although not billed as a Christian group, these songs reveal a depth of consideration about harm and morality that is rare amongst "real" Christian music groups. The latter's songs are typically far more concerned with belief: losing your way and finding it with God. That, I maintain, is a much more superficial aspect of Religion.
To reiterate, there is no problem with belief or symbolism as long as they are always subservient to the core meaning of religious instruction. This must be true, because the notion of God condoning harm in His name is not worth debating. It is morally wrong to wield any aspect of faith as a weapon of harm.
The offended parent responds: Premarital sex is morally wrong; it offends and embarrasses me as a parent. It is the thin edge of the wedge of other shameful vices and self-indulgent behaviours. You have to live with yourself. But on the other hand, I will still love you.The parent concerned with harm: Teenage sex exposes you to the risk of pregnancy and many sexually transmitted diseases, some of which are incurable. If any of this happens, your self esteem could suffer tremendously. Sex throws you into complex relationships and responsibilities that you might not be emotionally mature enough to deal with to avoid unpleasant consequences. On the other hand, it may make simple friendship more meaningful, help fragile self esteem and fight destructive loneliness.
The second approach simply has more depth. There are so many more things to talk about and tailor to the individual situation. Contrast that with the first parent, where there isn't much more they can say without discussing harm.
Try to spend an entire day carefully observing what causes a negative emotional reaction. Is your reaction based on identifying harm and considering action to reduce harm? Or are you just regurgitating arbitrary reflections of social norms, resulting in a feeling of offense? What actions will you take if so offended?
Another example: Two neighbours dislike each other's actions. One hangs their colourful underwear on the clothesline, the other uses a leaf blower to maintain a driveway clean enough to eat from.
Are these people equally justified in their mutual disgust?
No. There is no sane way to argue that the presence of underwear on a clothesline, however colourful or provocative, can cause harm. If you are offended by it, you do not have to look at it; problem solved.
On the other hand, the noise and air pollution emitted from the leaf blower is not just a question of learned distaste. Sound and air pollution levels can be measured, which exceed anything else in the neighbourhood. You cannot voluntarily stop hearing or breathing.
Scientists have studied what happens to blood pressure, heart disease and annoyance with noise and air pollution, and much of the response is beyond conscious control. You can even see animals running away. This is harm.
It is all the more bothersome realizing what superficial values are revealed by the desire to maintain fleetingly a visually perfect lump of pavement.
Every contentious issue can be constructively approached only if the concept of harm is acknowledged and acted upon. Feelings of offense should be identified as the product of arbitrary social norms and recorded as unproductive.
You name it: decisions about a new road or building, a dog park, or cuts in social services can only be solved in the long term by concentrating on harm. Done properly, this approach will have longstanding ramifications that do not become obsolete with changing trends.
On the contrary, decisions made based on popular support, largely to reduce the number of people offended, rely on cultural biases that are often short-lived. Like a dog chasing its tail, that path will get you nowhere.
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