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Do No Harm: A Universal Moral Principle

By Paul Ewans

Paul is a Trustee of the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust. In this article he identifies some important rules which help to protect us from harm.

Are there any moral rules which apply to everyone, no matter who or where they are? A number of rules relating to doing and not doing harm appear to qualify. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer nailed down the essence of morality with his maxim: ‘Do not harm anyone, and help them as much as you can’. The logic of this seems clear. We evolved as social beings, and we would find it impossible to live together in society unless we were inhibited from harming each other and motivated to help each other. In fact, it is probably only because we live in social groups that we have a moral sense at all. If we lived entirely solitary lives, we would have no need of morality, no need to distinguish between right and wrong, and no reason to think that the question of doing or not doing harm was an important one.

But, living in society as we do, we need rules which will help to protect us from harm, and we need these rules to be upheld. And this is of course the main purpose of the criminal law. Assault, theft and blackmail are crimes precisely because they are harmful to the victims. We should therefore obey legal rules like these because they support a fundamental principle of morality – that we should not harm one another. Here are ten rules which we ought to obey:

  1. Do not commit murder

  2. Do not commit assault

  3. Do not commit rape

  4. Do not have sex with any child or animal

  5. Do not abduct, enslave or falsely imprison any person or animal

  6. Do not mistreat any person or animal

  7. Do not verbally abuse, threaten or blackmail anyone

  8. Do not steal

  9. Do not cheat or defraud anyone

  10. Do not damage or destroy another person’s property

We can all be harmed in similar ways. We should therefore accept that the moral rules which help to protect people from harm do indeed apply to everyone, and that we all ought to obey them. In fact, most of us believe that these rules apply even to those who reject or ignore them. We insist that all members of society are subject to society’s rules. If we are serious about living morally good lives, we should try not to harm either people or animals. We should therefore obey the rules which help to protect all sentient beings from harm.

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Feb 13, 2023

I wonder if a set of 10 negative prescriptions is the best way to achieve the outcome?

Apart from aping the religionists 10 Commandments, there is a simpler definition.

Why not: Respect the lives, personal autonomy and property of all life forms ?

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