Harm and Offense

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.

Why Bother Understanding Harm?

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.

Offense Trumps Harm: Where Religion Goes Wrong

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.


Thinking About Harm: Medicine

"Primum non nocere" (Latin: "first, do no harm"). This is highly ironic, because medicine has a rich history of doing just that out of ignorance and delusions of power. Even today, with thousands of studies looking at risk and benefit of various tests and treatments, there is a tendency to overestimate benefit and underestimate harm.

The profession is culpable, but half of the problem is driven by patients with agendas: do something, I want a test, and I want a pill (that is not indicated).

This is difficult to deal with, and sometimes I'm tempted to take the easy way out and cave in, rather than take the time to explain the concept of benefit and harm to someone who doesn't want to hear or cannot understand it.

If I persist in the explanation, the patient may well be offended; they didn't get their way. But I may have saved them from unnecessary harm.

The idea of medical harm is understood in a general way. The public understands that things can go wrong. A colleague once said there is no condition that surgery cannot make worse. But when it comes down to the individual, there is a sense of denial; it won't happen to me. If something goes wrong, then the doctor screwed up.

The more medicine can do to benefit people, the more it can potentially harm them. It is an unavoidable truth.

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.

Take for example the lyrics to a couple of classic rock songs: Signs, and I'm A Stranger Here, by the Five Man Electrical Band.

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.

Example: Teen Sexuality

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.

See the World Differently

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.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.


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By Lisa R (anonymous) | Posted May 18, 2007 at 15:39:37

Unfortunately, Mitchell's facts are based on assumptions rather than facts. Contrary to his claim, the core teachings of Judaism and Christianity are very different. The concepts of purpose of life, sin, 'soul', 'god', even what life is, etc are radically different between the two religions.

As much as Mitchell might hate to learn this, Judaism does not hold to a 'single Truth' model. Instead, Judaism supports the concept that there are countless truths for different groups that reach the same end. Yes, our practices are meant to differentiate ourselves from others. However, far from being a negative, this can be a positive. Personally, I couldn't imagine everyone in the world believing the same thing with one culture, look, etc.

As for harm/taking offense, Jews, for the most part couldn't care less what others believe so long as it doesn't impact us negatively. As there are many paths for many people there is no need for others to become Jews. As a result, we don't try to force our beliefs on others. That being said, the only time we feel offense is when others attempt to convert us and/or tell us how we're supposed to act as Jews.

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By postanon (anonymous) | Posted May 19, 2007 at 13:42:46

As posted by Lisa R. : "That being said, the only time we feel offense is when others attempt to convert us and/or tell us how we're supposed to act as Jews."

I think that the word "Jews" could easily be replaced with "people". No one, whatever their faith, or lack of faith wishes to be converted, or told how to act 'for the greater good', esp. when it would not sit right within their own conscience or interests to do so.

If we believe or don't in evolution, we must agree that people are social beings (creatures, mammals) & share basic kinds of actions that come hand in glove with close social interaction.

We create a verticle mosaic in our society from what we value. Faith, money, conformity in ideas, appearance, & values. We seek comfort in sameness & self validation in common social mores & religious doctrines. Those who have most of what is required will always rise to the top of that infrastructure. Moving beyond that requires a bravery & self confidence that most people don't have or want to have. (and potential loss of whatever status we have achieved within our own niche/group.)

In my opinion, the Hamilton area is unique in the influence of it's faith based societies. (I had never in my life been asked what faith I was by a stranger, until I moved to this area, & was quite astonished to even have the question asked at all in this century.) Past life experience said the world had moved past that kind of complex & personal questioning. (well apparently not..)

From information in local media, it seems that the GHA has one of the highest rates of pregnant teens, (& at the lowest ages) & teen STD's in Ontario. Can we say that this is a 'faith based' symptom? Can we say that this is a failure in the educational system, or parent failure? Maybe we can say that it's God's will, & shouldn't be tampered with at all? Perhaps it's God's wrath?

If we stopped vaccinating babies & young children against childhood diseases & stopped educating parents about disease prevention, could we say that all the deaths & long term illness' resulting are God's will, too?

I think that in a free society we all must act in accord with our own consciences, with the knowledge that we all have consciences. It is quite possible to have one without going to a religious institution on a regular basis.

" Sitting in a church doesn't make you a Christian, anymore than sitting in a garage makes you a car."

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By Pakars (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2007 at 17:21:45

There are only 3 things in this world that "offend" me(read:Really pisses me off).

-People who think they know what's best for you, even though they have no clue whatsoever.
I'm not joining your religion just because you want me to. I won't think how you want me to. Get lost, belief pushers! I'll enjoy my life here and now, thank you very much.

-When someone does something that is very stupid and harmful on purpose and doesn't have a valid excuse(or if they do, it still isn't enough to justify what they did). *cough*Bush*cough*
Though it helps if they at least try to make amends.

-When people's belief pushing causes harm. Religion has plenty of examples for this, if you look around. Kids who kill themselves because "wanking off is wrong"(poor mormon kid, may he rest in peace). The fault lies solely on their parents and church.

*grumble* *grumble*

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