Thursday, August 13, 2015

First Do No Harm

Primum non nocere is the Latin phrase that translates as “First, do no harm.” Though the exact origin of the phrase is uncertain (it is often thought of as part of the Hippocratic Oath, but this precise phrasing is not actually used there), it is often associated with the philosophies of medicine and bioethics. It is, whoever first said it, a reminder to be ever vigilant of the potential consequences of attempted intervention. We may not always be able to do good, exactly, but we can usually at least strive to avoid doing harm.

I would like to point out that, while the phrase tends to be associated with medicine and bioethics, it is a perfectly fitting motto for every person in every walk of life. Just imagine how different the world would look if we all made this our touchstone. Before we speak, will these words cause harm? Before we act, will these actions cause harm? I would never expect humanity to adhere to this motto with perfect accuracy, but just taking the time to stop and ask the question could make such a difference.

I believe that most people tend toward the good. We may not be very good at being good, but we want to be. Most of us do try. Very few people get out of bed in the morning planning what kind of harm they can cause today. Those people do exist, but they are the exceptions, the outliers. Most people, if given a black and white choice between GOOD or BAD, would choose GOOD every time.

The problem, of course, is that it so often is not a black and white choice. That is not to say that black and white choices do not exist, because they do - genocide is pretty clearly BAD, while the unconditional love of puppies and small children is pretty clearly GOOD - but they are not as common as some people might like. We live in a grey world with black and white accents, which is perfectly fine as far as I’m concerned. Life would be dull if everything were easy. This just means that we have to put a little more thought into things a little more often.

Come to think of it, that could be a problem. We may tend toward the good, but we do miss the mark rather often, and I believe that one of the leading causes for this is our tendency to not think things through. Most people spend most of their time running on autopilot. If something doesn’t set off obvious alarm bells, we drive full speed ahead with no thought for the consequences, until those consequences are in full effect. Then we look around dumbfounded, wondering how this came to happen.

It happened because we caused it to happen. That is how these things work. Human consequences usually have human causes, and one of the most common causes of negative consequences can be summed up with the phrase, “I didn’t think about that.” We too often don’t think about that, whatever “that” might be under the circumstances. We mean well, but we often forget to pay attention to whether or not we are doing well.

On the other side of the coin are those who never stop thinking. They could tell you, in theory, the potential consequences of every action you might consider, but they are a little short on practical knowledge, because they never actually do anything. They spend all of their time worrying, but still allow countless harms to happen because they were afraid to take any action that might address them.

As with most things in life, neither extreme does anyone much good. We need to think about what we are doing - preferably before we do it, but at least while we are doing it, to course correct as needed - but if we aren’t acting at all then all of that thought is going to waste. Thought without action is guidance without an engine. Action without thought is an engine with no guidance. It takes both to get anything done.

So how do we put both into proper practice. Start with the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. (On a side note, you might be surprised how often that is the right answer. Try it and see.) If your name is not Plato or Aristotle, you probably have more pressing things to do than working out a complex philosophical treatise for every action you might take. At the same time, though, we should be mindful of everything that we do. Autopilot is not a good way to live. So keep it simple. You may not be able to work out every angle for every action, and it may not even be advisable to try, but you can always ask, “Am I causing harm?” The answer to that question, if you are honest with yourself, is usually a pretty solid indicator for whether you are leaning toward GOOD or BAD.

Keep in mind that every rule has its exception. We shoot for “First, do no harm” knowing that we are going to miss the mark sometimes, but also knowing that, with such a lofty goal, even missing is still likely to leave us in a good, or at least a better, place. We don’t strive toward perfection because perfection is the goal. Perfection is the guide. An experienced hiker would be awfully surprised to ever end up standing on the North Star, but we use that North Star to point us in the direction we want to go. The same is true with perfection. It is our North Star, guiding us toward being the best that we can be.

Sometimes harm may be unavoidable, in which case it may be necessary to take the evaluation a step further. Like a surgeon who must cut to save, a small harm in one place may be necessary to correct or address a larger harm in another place. As with that surgeon, such a decision requires careful attention to and honest appraisal of the present circumstances. What causes the least harm? What restricts the harm in the most beneficial way? What ultimately leads to the best outcome with the least fallout?

These are all important questions that we should all be asking from time to time. You may not face such complex decisions often, but it is still a good idea to keep in practice. Remember, though, that you don’t want to overthink it any more than you want to underthink it. Keep thought and action in balance for the best results.

Life is not simple, but the day to day of it is often so much simpler than we allow it to be. If you want to be good then do good. If you want to do good then first, do no harm. If you want to do no harm then be mindful of the consequences of your actions, both before you act, and while you are acting. Think before you act, and act while you are thinking. If you can keep that formula in mind then you will hit the mark more often than not and, even when you miss, you will probably have better results than you would have had otherwise.

Nobody is perfect, and nobody needs to be perfect. Be the best that you can be, and be honest with yourself about what that means, and you will be what you need to be. First, do no harm, and the rest will usually fall into place with a little effort.

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