A common statement among liberty-minded people when explaining their political beliefs goes something like this: “I have the right to do as I please as long as I don’t hurt anyone.” Or, they quip that people can do whatever they want as long as they “do no harm.”
Liberty critics are quick to attack this succinct manifesto and the perceived fallacies with it. They will point out, for example, that drug use hurts people other than those who use them. A drug addict causes untold agony and misery to the people around them by their behavior. Or, people engage in actions in which they harm others unknowingly or indirectly when they make poor decisions such as gambling or prostitution or alcoholism. Because of this, the “do no harm” philosophy does not work when determining laws.
In this sense, the critics are correct. People’s actions can hurt others, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. What the last three don’t do, however, is violate anyone’s rights.
What we have here is a situation where liberty-minded individuals misstate their beliefs and use incorrect words to describe their concept of liberty. When they say “hurt” or “harm,” what they really mean is not violate other peoples’ rights.
Additionally, this manifesto is often used as more than a political manifesto, but also as a means of determining morality.
It is important for people to maintain a partition between what is legal and what is moral, what hurts and what violates rights. They may seem like small nuances, but they are not.
When we confuse “hurting people” with “violating their rights,” we get into trouble as the argument is further explored and practical scenarios are introduced. We allow our opponents an opening to justify the use of the State, that is, to prevent people from “hurting” other people. Since the slogan is to do not harm or not to hurt, actions must be justified under this criteria, but those who infringe on this person’s freedom, however, need only claim that it is harming or hurting another. It becomes incumbent upon the person striving to be free to prove their actions do no harm and disprove accusations to the contrary.
It isn’t hard to envision the limitless scope of such control, because this is the rationale currently used by governments. Almost any aspect of human behavior can potentially “hurt” another person or bring them harm and in consequence is regulated. It is much like the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Interstate Commerce Clause in the Constitution; to them, not participating in interstate commerce affects interstate commerce.
Trying to define words like “hurt” or “harm” politically raises a whole host of conundrums. When I speak the truth of someone and it does not reflect well on their character, am I harming them? Or am I harming others by not conveying my knowledge of their lack of character so they may avoid harm caused by said lack of character? Sarcasm and sardonic wit can also cause harm to people or institutions.
The other quandary is who gets to decide what constitutes harm. Usually, the perceived victim attempts to claim this power, and naturally they have an incentive to claim they are harmed whenever they do not like the action. As such, these words are not appropriate as part of political vernacular. How does one define “harm” in a political sense? The usage also infers that people have a right not to be grieved or hurt emotionally by someone else.
Thus, the “do not harm” or “do not hurt” manifesto can lead to a perverse notion of freedom. We start to have freedom from things, such as fear and want, as we have freedom of things, such as worship, speech, and the press. The latter merely requires others to not interfere with the individual so that they may worship, speak and write what they wish. The former necessitates actions because they are not a natural condition. Someone must be proactive in order to provide someone’s rights, who remains passive.
In essence, it is a slavery or indentured servitude of sorts.
Today, this is what many people regard as rights. A right to a job. A right to healthcare. A right to affordable housing. To a quality education. These rights involve things that must be created and provided for. Therefore, someone must be proactive in order to maintain someone else’s rights and keep them from being violated. Remember, if a person has a right to something that means they do not have to do anything to obtain it.
Or, if you like, someone must do what another says or they are “harmed” or “hurt,” and one shouldn’t be surprised when the person who benefits most gets to decide when they are being harmed or not. It borders on sociopathic logic; do what I say or you are violating my rights.
That is what happens when the premise for a political system is to do not harm or not hurt another. Obviously I am not advocating that it is acceptable to harm or hurt another person in a physical sense, nor am I promoting actions which are intended to cause emotional harm on other people, but it is impossible for a society to enforce such rules through violence and coercion, which is what law is. A law that does not have a threat of violence or actual violence to enforce it is not a law. It is, as Captain Barbossa put in Pirates of the Caribbean, more like a guideline than an actual rule.
Yes, a drug addict can break their parents’ heart and leave them bereaved as they destroy their life and die prematurely. So can a child who chooses a bad spouse, a different religion, or a career outside of what they consider suitable or respectable. But politically it is irrelevant. As long as they do not steal or inflict physical harm upon others, no one has the legitimate authority to prevent them from making choices that are seen as foolish.
I have observed the “do no harm” manifesto attacked firsthand and those who employ it always paint themselves in a corner because they don’t adequately explain how the statement pertains to a limited sphere of life. The blame can also be laid at the feet of the critics, who mistakenly confuse legality with morality and somehow think of them as synonymous.
A person is free to declare that the definition of what is moral is determined by whether it harms another person or not, though I personally believe they will run into trouble defending it. To do so, however, goes beyond the sphere of libertarianism, which is concerned solely with political philosophy. From a libertarian perspective, I’m only concerned with whether or not the action violates the Non-Aggression Principle.
The NAP succeeds where the “do not harm” manifesto fails because it possess all the traits that make it appealing; it is simple, short, and easy to remember. What makes it superior are clearly defined words – coercion, aggression, violence, and threats of violence.
Notice the word “rights” is not in the NAP.
Libertarianism is not as concerned with rights as much as they are concerned with the ownership of property, a word that is used in the NAP, as well as the legitimate use of coercion and violence, two words also included.
A person ultimately has only one kind of right and that is a right to their property. People have property in themselves and that which they own. It is from property ownership that the concept of rights stems. A person has a right to worship and free speech because they own property in themselves and have authority to use that property as they see fit. If they own writing and printing materials, a person has the right to freedom of the press because they own the property and can use it as they deem appropriate.