A prime directive for religions and politics: First, do no harm!

Primum non nocere – First, do no harm!

It is sometimes expressed aa “Above all, do no harm” or “Primarily, do no harm”. It used to be part of the Hippocratic oath for physicians as “… abstain from doing harm”. It is a phrase which is used mostly in a medical or psychological context but it seems to me it should rightly be a Prime Directive for virtually all human activity.

All human systems of law exist to make proper redress when a claim is made. For a claim to be made against anyone or any body of people, there must first be liability. Without liability there is no claim to be made. If no harm is done there is no liability. If this is the Prime Directive for all human kind, and if there is full compliance, it follows that having a system for handling claims and and redress becomes unnecessary. Note also that without harm being done, the question of ethical dilemmas does not arise. Generally law tells us what not to do and ethics tells us what to do. Legal and ethical dilemmas only arise because what law or ethics tell us to do can cause harm to someone. And as soon as harm is done, there is liability and there is a claim.

Not everything legal is ethical and not everything illegal is unethical. But we get a confluence of ethics and law if both adopt doing no harm as the foundation on which their structures are built.

If we must have religions, why cannot every religion have that as its prime Directive or Commandment number Zero? It ought to be the underlying tenet of every political party, of every association of people, of every corporate body, of every advocacy group or – even – of every charity. It ought to be the default codicil to every exhortation to action and to every purpose. “Seek happiness but first, do no harm” or “Make a difference, but first, do no harm” or “Make your fortune but first, do no harm”.

Of course it will be rationalised and circumscribed. “First, Do no harm” will nearly always become “Do no unnecessary harm” and you could argue that the concept of the use of force not being disproportionate to the task in hand is just that. In fact the concept of “being proportional” lies at the heart of our concepts of justice and fairness and “balance”. Even in war we require that harm be kept to a minimin. “Collateral damage” is to be minimised. Using disproportionate force is frowned upon. Attacking unarmed, non-combatants is not the done thing.

The practical reality is that human activities do, in fact, do harm to others. But that does not preclude any human activity from starting with “First, do no harm”. 






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