Is it wrong if no one gets harmed?

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And have we become blinded to the harm we do to ourselves?

How do we decide whether something is morally wrong? Is it possible for an action to be wrong even if no harm results? Does there have to be harm for something to be considered to be wrong?

In previous generations, it seems that wrongfulness and harmfulness were two distinct concepts. Right and wrong was clearly defined, and whether or not actual harm resulted was largely irrelevant.

The author Malcolm Gladwell spoke about this at a recent speech at the New Yorker Festival, sharing a story from his childhood to illustrate:

As kids, Gladwell and his brother sneaked into a neighbor’s cornfield and built a fort. His father discovered the fort, and was furious. Although they had only done about a dollar’s worth of damage to the cornfield, they had trespassed and defaced another person’s property, and therefore their actions, to their father, were immoral regardless of their consequences.

Gladwell argues that we don’t make moral arguments this way anymore. Instead, whether an action is right or wrong is determined solely by the harm that results.

There are clearly pros and cons to this change. So much moral teaching can feel arbitrary. Churches in particular have loaded countless moral burdens upon their congregants that seem more about power and control than about either true wrongdoing or indeed harmfulness.

Being able to see a clear harmful outcome makes it more palatable to accept something as ‘wrong’. Killing people is clearly wrong, the harm is beyond doubt. Adultery too: who can deny the harm resulting from an affair?

But what about lust? Or anger? If this just happens in the privacy of my own mind and home, is it morally ‘wrong’? Jesus, the first-century Jewish teacher, thought so, making a clear link between lust and adultery and anger and murder. But culturally today, we find this hard to accept.

It seems, though, that there are two measures of harmfulness. Our culture has shifted our focus to the harm we can see. But what about the harm we do to ourselves when we become consumed by angry or lustful thoughts?

Western society has shifted our emphasis to the externals. It’s all about looking right. Being seen to do the right things. We measure right and wrong simply based on external harm that does or doesn’t result.

But our inner life matters. Lust and anger may not lead to us committing adultery or murder, but they can eat away at our lives, robbing us of so much. Slowly but surely, allowed to fester, these kind of thoughts can begin to change how we see others; we can end up dehumanising those we continually think negative, inappropriate, or unhealthy thoughts about.

How many of our society’s horrific attitudes and behaviours towards women stem from unchecked lust and anger among men? And yet we shy way from calling these things ‘wrong’ because the link to any resulting harm is only indirect.

I realise I’ve shifted somewhat from Gladwell’s original point. He is arguing that today we only see something as wrong if it is harmful. I’ve argued that perhaps it’s less about requiring harm for something to be considered ‘wrong’, and more about us having become blinded to the inner harm of our thoughts and behaviours and putting the emphasis instead on whether or not anyone else is harmed.

But what about if there is neither internal nor external harm? Can something that literally has no harmful outcomes be considered to be wrong?

I still need a little more time to ponder that question I think. Do feel free to add your own thoughts and comments though—I’d love to read them.

Photo: Glenn Carstens-Peters

Sunset reflections

The longing to travel