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Tolerance, morality, ethic of reciprocity

Is it moral to harm some individuals to
prevent a greater harm to many others?

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As stated previously:

bullet In the religious essays on this web site, we treat beliefs and actions differently:

bullet We are tolerant of people's theological beliefs. We advocate that others be tolerant as well.

bullet We are tolerant of people's benign religious actions; We advocate that others be as well.

bullet 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.

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Some examples of actions which harm people that some think are justifiable:

bullet 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.

bullet 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 to see 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

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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:

bulletUtilitarianism: 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.

bullet 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.

bullet Reciprocity: All of the major religions of the world contain an Ethic of Reciprocity: a command to do onto others as you would have them do onto you.

bullet 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."

bullet 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 yourself). 

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."

bullet 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 true."

bullet 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

bullet 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.

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  1. Bob Sherman, "Secular humanism characteristics," at:

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Site navigation:

Home > Religious tolerance > here

Home > Spirituality > Religious tolerance > here

Home > Morality > Introduction > here

Home page > Religious information > Theory of Reciprocity > here

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Copyright © 2003 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-DEC-30
Latest update: 2010-OCT-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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