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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

'First, Do No Harm...'

The title of this post, often seen in the original Latin - Primum non nocere - is one of the core tenets of bioethics taught to medical students.  

But what few of us realize is that this maxim is also the cornerstone of modern, western society.

Modern society, as we know it, has evolved to allow as much individual freedom and development as possible, by establishing and enforcing laws, rules, social norms and taboos that prohibit (or at least discourage), anyone's freedom from infringing upon (i.e. harming), the freedom of anyone else.

On the most basic level, that means that the only limits to your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be that that pursuit not deprive anyone else of the same.

So, in theory, anyone arriving in a strange modern country with no knowledge of the local rules, should be able to avoid running afoul of the law if they simply examine their own actions to ensure they do not physically or financially injure / deprive anyone else.  Everything else should be a matter of local custom.

This model has served us well for hundreds of years here in the west.  And any time individuals within modern society have suffered, you can pretty much guaranty that one of two things has been allowed to happen:

1. The government has become so strong that it can act with impunity contrary to accepted modern societal norms of behavior, leading to dictatorships & totalitarian regimes.


2. The government has become so weak (or non-existent) that accepted modern societal norms of behavior can no longer be enforced, leading to a complete breakdown of order (think 'Lord of the Flies').

Why should that be?  Why should the relative strength or weakness of the government be the deciding factor?  The answer is simple:  The basic rules that have created and nurtured modern society are man-made rules, not natural rules.

Human beings don't instinctively protect and respect others.   These societal rules are actually quite contrary to human nature... and to nature in general.  And they require both a leadership and social structure capable of enforcing them, and a populace forced (by law and/or cultural pressure) to adhere to them, for the system to function.

Lacking one or both, we find ourselves back in the forests living or dying according to narrow, unforgiving rules that can be observed at your leisure on The Nature Channel.

The events we are seeing on the news these days are the result of both of the extremes mentioned above.

We have an entire region whose governments are either so strong as to be able to act with impunity towards its populace and neighbors, or so weak (or non-existent) that the populace is allowed to revert to the cruel laws of nature.  In both cases, 'do no harm' is nowhere to be found.

Whenever a western country has devolved into one or the other of the extremes mentioned above, either the populace or its neighbors have been able to draw on the collective cultural memory of the basic rule to 'do no harm', and rediscover (or re-impose) social balance.

But this region, with its two default extremes - too much or too little ruling power - is like a run-away train with no brakes. There is no collective cultural memory of modern societal rules to slow it down or reform it.  The norms of behavior in this part of the world are (and always have been) more akin to the laws of nature.

Where the governments are strong, the animals are kept caged.  Where they are weak, they wander free.  In both cases, the animal's instincts and behavior remain un-blunted; guided by natural, rather than artificial rules.  The concept of 'do no harm', does not appear among their rules.

Sadly, we in the west have not yet realized that the laws of nature and the laws of civilized society do not coexist comfortably.  Anyone who has encountered a predator in the forest understands this.

We think that just because we live in clean, well lit, modern societies full of rules and protective customs, that we are safe from the animals of the forest.  Yet we fail to see that the cages of the zoos are swinging open, and the predators of the forests are on the move, seeking easier hunting grounds.  

Because for a predator, the easiest prey is the one whose central creed is 'first, do no harm'.

Posted by David Bogner on November 17, 2015 | Permalink


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