The harm avoidance principle

"Don't harm others if you can avoid it" - a pretty unobjectionable idea, right? Still, there are so many people who do not seem to recognise it, especially as it applies to non-human life, that it seems worth justifying, and that's what I do on this page. The approach I take is to propose and justify a more specific wording of the principle. I encourage you, though, to consider not just my wording and defence, but also the general sentiments and mindset behind it. It is likely that even if you find problems with my wording and defence, you will be able to accept the sentiments and mindset behind it. This is literally a matter of life and death - not necessarily for yourself, but certainly for other beings - and so I hope that you give it a fair hearing.

My wording of the principle, then, which for convenience I refer to as "the harm avoidance principle", is as follows:

"We ought to avoid harming others unless that harm is unavoidable or we have the informed consent of the harmed".

If you are a moral nihilist, or for some other reason refuse to recognise the bindingness of the moral prescriptiveness of words like "ought", then you can instead phrase the principle in personal, action-oriented, descriptive terms as:

"I strive to avoid harming others unless that harm is unavoidable or I have the informed consent of the harmed".

The reasoning and sentiments behind this phrasing are much the same as for the original, only the words are changed.

If you already agree with this principle, then you might want to skip the next two sections and head straight to the discussion of terms.

Core justification

The core of this principle is justified in the reality of conscious experience, and the rest is accounted for by reasonable exceptions. Knowing what it feels like to be harmed, and given the reasonable assumption that others feel the same way, it follows that we ought not to inflict harm upon them. Whilst it is sometimes asserted that "you can't get an ought out of an is" [wikipedia], a more justifiable view is that the "ought" of "we ought not to harm others (with reasonable exceptions)" arises out of the "is" of "what harm is" simply due to the (negative) nature of the experience of harm. If your child asks you, "But why shouldn't I kick Billy in the shin?", you would provide sufficient justification by responding, "Because it would hurt him, honey, and you know how that feels".

Whilst this is a principle of reason, it can certainly be supported by natural human empathy and love. To feel a kinship with others as our sisters and brothers in the family of life, and to wish for each of them the very best is an ideal perspective to come from, in which the "ought" of the principle becomes almost redundant because we simply have no will to do harm to others; there is nothing from which we have to restrain ourselves using a sense of moral obligation.

This principle is, in my eyes, however, simply a manifestation of the ultimate ethical principle that is the Golden Rule [wikipedia], particularly in its negative form: that we do not do unto others that which we would not like done unto ourselves. That Rule too can be justified as above.

Justification of exceptions

If therefore harm generally ought to be avoided, then what reasonable exceptions might there be?

The unavoidability exception and the least harm principle

The first exception is that sometimes it is simply not possible to avoid harm - either because it is physically impossible to do so, or because the harm could only be avoided at the cost of a worse harm: so, for us to be compelled to avoid it, a harm to another must in the first place be avoidable.

Physical unavoidability is fairly straightforward, and can be defined through an example: if you are driving your car, and your brakes and all controls fail, and you are headed for a pedestrian, and you lack any psychic abilities or other means of changing the course of events, then there is no way that you can physically avoid harming that pedestrian.

Unavoidability due to the possibility of worse harms essentially means that where we are limited to a choice of several harms, we ought to make the choice that causes the least harm: this harm then is "unavoidable" because if we hadn't chosen it, we would have had to have chosen a worse one. Sometimes, this - the notion that we should always choose the least harm - is referred to as "the least harm principle".

The second reasonable exception is that sometimes individuals might choose to have harm inflicted upon themselves. Some of the reasons a person might choose to accept harm include future benefit and experimentation. An example is a person who accepts the harm to his/her muscles inflicted upon him/her by a trainer in a session at the gym in exchange for the future benefit of increased muscle mass and strength. We would not be justified in restricting such personal choices where they cause no harm to others, and this is again grounded in the nature of experience: we "ought" not to unnecessarily restrict an individual's choices insofar as those choices cause no harm to others simply because we very well know, as individuals, what it "is" to be so restricted - it could even be viewed of itself as a type of harm. Hence the second exception: we are not compelled to avoid a harm to another if the harmed consents to it.

It is necessary though to qualify this second exception even further to account for scenarios in which predatory individuals deceive target individuals into accepting harm that those target individuals would not otherwise - i.e. in the absence of deception - have chosen. Hence we add a qualification: the consent must be informed consent. If an individual doesn't have reasonable access to the information that has a bearing upon his/her decision to consent to harm, then, in general, the agent of harm is compelled to avoid inflicting that harm upon the object of harm.

The exception to this generalisation is where it is impossible to gain the informed consent of the target, and where it can reasonably be assumed that the target would consent if s/he could, due to a corresponding benefit. Some examples of this exception in action are:

The notion of informed consent as well as the above exception to the necessity of obtaining it has a bearing on the proscription against animal experimentation that I will outline in later, as-yet-unwritten pages.

Discussion of terms

A couple of terms deserve further discussion, those terms being "others" and "harm". Without further ado:

Defining "others"

Perhaps the most controversial term to define is "others". Based on the above, a first-pass definition might be "those who are capable of being harmed". To be capable of being harmed, an entity has to be capable of experience - entities which are incapable of experience we might describe as being "damaged" rather than "harmed". Other words for "capable of experience" are "conscious", "aware" and "sentient", the latter of which is typically chosen in this context. "Others", then, are best defined as "sentient beings".

We know from personal experience that humans are sentient beings, and it is plainly evident that other animals are too (it certainly can't be denied by anyone who has ever had a companion animal). I deal with naysayers in my response to the "animals are not sentient" argument on this site's "Objections and responses" page. It might surprise you to know that there is also a lot of persuasive evidence that plants, too, are sentient beings. I present some of this evidence on the next page.

Defining "harm"

In trying to keep this essay as brief, simple and universally-agreeable as possible, I will not attempt to answer some of the more complicated questions about harm, such as to what extent it should be defined in absolute terms, and to what extent in relative or contextual terms. In the spirit of the Golden Rule, especially its positive framing - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us - I encourage all of us to extend the definition of harm as far as possible. I suggest in the spirit of universal agreement though that the minimum categories of absolute harms to be avoided where exceptions don't apply are as follows:

Next: respecting the non-human life of our planet

On the next page, "Respecting the non-human life of our planet", I derive from this list a more specific list of our obligations towards animals and plants.