Is it moral to harm some individuals to
a greater harm to many others?
As stated previously:
In the religious essays on this web site, we treat beliefs and actions differently:
We are tolerant of people's theological beliefs. We advocate that
others be tolerant as well.
We are tolerant of people's benign religious actions; We
advocate that others be as well.
We are critical of actions which harm
people, even when those actions are motivated by religious belief. We advocate that others be similarly critical.
Unfortunately, the concept of "actions which harm people" is not
well defined. It leads logically to the question whether it is acceptable, and even
desirable, to harm one or a few individuals in order to avoid a larger injury to
the society as a whole.
Some examples of actions which harm people that some think are justifiable:
Death penalty: Many North Americans believe that execution of
convicted murderers acts as a deterrent, and prevents the future deaths of
many innocent people. They feel that the overall gain to society outweighs
the snuffing out of individual lives.
Divorce: Many view divorce as one of our most serious problems --
one that is
greatly weakening the stability of society. It severely damages the
emotional development of children in the family, and leads to them being
more likely to consider divorce in their future marriages. Many would like
no-fault divorces eliminated. People would then only be able to obtain
a divorce if it can be proven that one party committed adultery, was violent
towards their spouse, or for a limited number of other immoral behaviors.
This will of necessity force many unhappy couples to remain married. But
those who support increased limits on divorce generally feel that this is a worthwhile sacrifice for the overall good of society.
Extra-marital sex: Some cultures stone individuals to death if they have been proven to have sex outside of marriage. Those same societies
generally feel that the death of a small percentage of individuals is justified in order to preserve the country's stability.
They feel that allowing sexual license would cause great damage society as a whole.
Marriage: Most older North Americans feel that the option to
marry should be restricted to opposite-sex
couples. Loving, committed same-sex couples have been historically deprived of the right
to marry. Although this harms the couple by preventing them from enjoying
approximately 1,000 federal and 400 state benefits of marriage, as well as enjoying the status of being married, many American adults feel
that allowing same-sex couples to marry would cause irreparable harm to society and destroy the
God-given historical concept of marriage.
Prayer in public schools: Probably the majority of Americans
would prefer that the public school schedule begin with a Christian prayer. They
recognize that this will cause distress to some non-Christians. It may
result in verbal abuse, physical abuse, and rejection for those students who
feel that they must excuse themselves during the prayer. However, those promoting prayer
generally feel that the benefits of prayer to the majority of students outweigh the
negative experiences of the minority.
Sex-ed: Some believe that pre-marital sex is itself damaging to
the country's moral fiber. They advocate that sex-ed classes be restricted to
only advocating abstinence until marriage. They feel that teaching about
contraception and STD prevention merely encourages premarital sex.
Students who lack knowledge of birth control and disease prevention would be
less likely to engage in sex outside of marriage. Making condoms generally
available sends the message that youth should freely engage in sex.
It is quite possible that a some youth will be sexually active even after
attending an abstinence-only sex-ed class. A few of them might become
infected with a STD, or die from AIDS, or cause a pregnancy which ends in
abortion. However, many supporters of abstinence-only education feel that
that a small loss in life is outweighed by the benefits of a generally
celibate youth. Many supporters also feel that condoms are partly or
completely ineffective in preventing STD transmission and pregnancy. This form of contraceptive
gives a false sense of security. So, the overall effect of abstinence-only
education might convince some to remain sexually inactive and actually
result in fewer pregnancies and less loss of life.
Vaccine against HPV and cervical cancer: Essentially all cervical cancer is caused by infection from the human papillomavirus (HPV) which is generally spread through sexual intercourse. Gardasil® is an effective vaccine against HPV. Some public health units have mounted programs to have all children vaccinated before there is any likelihood that they are sexually active. During 2004, about 3,500 women died of cervical cancer.
Some American adults oppose the vaccine; they believe that if youth realize that they are protected from cervical cancel that they are more likely to engage in pre-marital sex. This is part of their overall belief that youth who lack knowledge of birth control and disease prevention would be
less likely to engage in sex outside of marriage. They realize that thousands of unvaccinated youth
will contract cervical cancer and die. However, fear of cancer might discourage many
youth from engaging in sexual intercourse, getting pregnant, having an abortion, and thus murdering a pre-born human. Other youth might avoid contracting other sexually transmitted infections (STI) and dying from the STI.
Choosing the right action or lack of action:
Many criteria have been suggested to help people and their
governments decide on the best -- or least worse -- course of action.
None really work very well:
Utilitarianism: The English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham suggested
that the optimum policy results in greatest happiness for the greatest
number of people. This approach breaks down when a proposed action produces a slight
improvement in happiness for many people, and a significant degradation -- perhaps even death -- to the
lives of a few.
Moral absolutism: This is the concept that decisions should be
based on a pre-existing set of laws and principles -- often contained within
a sacred text, like the Bible. This approach breaks down in countries which
maintain a strict separation of church and state, or in which no one
religion holds a dominant position, or -- as in the case of the U.S. and
Canada -- in which the dominant religion is
fractured into many faith groups with opposing interpretation of what the
sacred text actually means.
Most of our site's visitors are Christian and
are probably familiar with that religion's Golden Rule: Matthew 7:12 states:
"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye
even so to them."
The next most common religion among our visitors is
Wicca. Their foundational rule of behavior is the
Wiccan Rede"An it harm no one, do what thou wilt"
(i.e. do what ever you want to, as long as it harms nobody, including
Unfortunately, such Ethics of Reciprocity tend to be naive. Few
actions are universally good or all bad. Any policy that is beneficial to the
majority may well be harmful to some minority. If we are to avoid all harm, we would be
prevented from doing much good. Also, as George Bernard Shaw
implied in 1903: the Golden Rule can be oppressive. He said: "Do not do unto others as you
would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same."
Pragmatism: This is the concept that there are no real objective
standards that one can use in deciding a course of action. One judges
the goodness of an action or policy by its results. "If it works, it is
Secular humanism: Although Humanists hold a wide range of
beliefs and follow a diversity of moral systems, most would probably promote a blend of the following criteria for
choosing optimum action: personal "happiness, the good life, individual and
shared enjoyment of life, creative realization of human needs and desires,
and the complete realization of the human potential and enrichment." 1
Human rights: This approach considers
human freedoms to be of paramount importance. Any policy which executes
people, intrudes upon their religious freedom, or limits their personal
pursuit of happiness is automatically rejected.
Most politicians and other citizens somehow muddle through, employing a
mixture of these criteria -- and others -- when making moral decisions.