Can You Do Whatever You Want As Long As You Don’t Hurt Anyone?

By L. Alfred James

The most commonly proclaimed moral principle in our society is this: “You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.”

This view of morality is outrageously popular. In the public square, it is assumed that every intelligent person totally agrees with it.

One of the reasons for the popularity of this principle is that it doesn’t condemn much of anything. In fact, it only condemns behaviors that cause physical or emotional harm. So, if you don’t cause pain in someone’s body, or hurt their feelings, you are fine, no matter what you do.

This principle is the absolute foundation for all conversations about moral topics. The only standard that is used to measure the rightness or wrongness of any action is whether or not it causes physical or emotional pain. Among other things, this principle entails that whatever you want to do in the privacy of your bedroom with your boyfriend, girlfriend, or random strangers is perfectly fine—another reason for its popularity.

Anyone who expresses opinions to the contrary will immediately be confronted with questions like: “Who are you to judge?” “What’s wrong with that?” “What harm is being done?” “As long as I’m not hurting anyone, I don’t see what the problem is.”

The technical term for this view of morality is the minimalist ethic—because it bases all morality on the most minimal foundation conceivable.

When you ask this question of those who so loudly proclaim it, you will find their responses to be intellectually lacking. Typically, they say something like, “There is much disagreement about moral issues, morality can’t be objective. Moral rules are just a matter of preference. The only objective rule of behavior is this one: don’t hurt other people if you can avoid it.”

To see how pathetically weak this argument is, see my previous post Is Morality Just Subjective?.

Besides being based on such a weak argument, there is one big problem with the minimalist ethic. No one actually believes it.

No. one.

There are all kinds of behaviors that every sane person condemns that do not cause any physical or emotional harm. For instance, do you know anyone who approves of these behaviors?

Peeping Toms who don’t get caught. Maybe they stare into people’s bedroom windows, or they use technology to watch people having sex in hotel rooms. Or maybe they just watch you going about your everyday business, and you have no clue. Either way, they are not causing any physical or emotional harm—because they don’t get caught.

Adulterers who don’t get caught. If your spouse never finds out that you are cheating on him/her, what harm has been done? No one has experienced any physical or emotional pain. So, is an adulterer—who keeps their affairs hidden—not doing anything wrong?

Liars who don’t get caught. A man might have two wives, while each one believes she is the only one. Suppose both of these wives are very happy. If so, no one is experiencing any physical or emotional pain, how is it wrong?

Necrophiliacs who don’t get caught. Suppose some sick person digs up one of your deceased family members or friends and has sex with their dead body on a regular basis. But they never tell anyone, and no one finds out. Is this okay?

As you can see, one of the biggest problems with the minimalist ethic is that it has no way to condemn these actions that we all know are evil. I don’t know a single person who says any of these things are okay. That means that the minimalist ethic is utterly false. There really are some things that are wrong, even though they don’t cause any physical or emotional harm.

To put it in simpler terms, it means no one should ever say, “You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” That statement is every bit as false as claiming that the earth is flat, the moon is made of green cheese, or Elvis is alive.

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