Philosophy 13 - 1.3.3 The Importance of Doing No Harm

Even though many early philosophers were concerned with understanding nature, Socrates is much more concerned with ethics, or how to live a good life. He considers the primary purpose of philosophy to make one’s life better by making the philosopher a better person. Even though Socrates rarely claims to have knowledge about anything at all, the few instances where he does profess knowledge relate directly to morality. In particular, Socrates asserts a pair of moral principles that are quite controversial and may appear at first glance false. However, upon closer inspection, you may find that these principles bear some truth that is worth consideration.

Socrates’s Harm Principle

Socrates’s harm principle claims the following:

  1. No one willingly chooses what is harmful to themselves.
  2. When a person does harm to others, they actually harm themselves.

The first principle is sometimes stated as “no one intentionally chooses evil,” but for the purposes of this discussion, it will be clearer to consider the above formulation. The important thing to understand about the first principle is that Socrates believes that when people choose bad things, they do so out of ignorance. The reason he thinks so is that he believes all people desire what is good. For Socrates, it is intuitively true that whatever someone desires, that desire is always directed at something that appears good to them, which means a person cannot choose what is harmful for its own sake. Instead, Socrates reasons, when individuals do harmful things, they believe that what they are doing will bring about some good for them. In other words, when people choose evil, they do so in the belief that it is good or will bring about something good. If, in fact, they are wrong, then that was the fault of ignorance, not a desire to do evil. If they had better understood the consequences of their actions, Socrates reasons, they would not have chosen something harmful.

The second principle derives from the fact that Socrates thinks the greatest harm that can come to anyone is for their soul—or their character—to become corrupted. Since a corrupted soul is the result of making the kinds of choices that produce harm, it follows that whenever someone does something harmful, they corrupt their soul, so they harm themselves. At the end of the Apology, Socrates argues that it is not possible to harm a good man because, even though you might kill him, you cannot harm his character or make him do evil. Socrates seems to regard physical suffering, and even death, as a temporary and minor harm. Moreover, he regards the harm to one’s character by living a life of ignorance or malevolence as far worse than physical death.

Think Like a Philosopher

  • Do you agree with the first principle of Socrates, which leads him to claim that no one willingly does harm? Why do you agree or disagree with him?
  • Can you think of examples from your own life or experience that demonstrate that people deliberately do harm for harm’s sake?
  • Is the second claim true or false? Can you think of examples to prove the second claim true? False?
  • Why might Socrates believe that harm to one’s character is more significant than even death? Is Socrates mistaken? If you believe he is mistaken, on what do you base your claim?

When you answer these questions, be sure to give Socrates the benefit of the doubt. After all, there is no question that Socrates was a smart person. He lived at a different time and may appear strange to you, but you will find that his ideas are still relevant if you give them some consideration. After you take Socrates seriously, can you still find an error in Socrates’s thinking?

Comparison of Socrates’s Harm Principle with Ahimsa in the Indian Tradition

It may be instructive to consider the possible connection between the core concept of ahimsa in classical Indian philosophy and Socrates’s harm principle as discussed above. Etymologically, the word ahimsa, in Sanskrit, literally means “the absence of doing injury or harm.” The concept is found throughout Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist texts and likely has its origins deep in classical Indian thought. A well-known illustration of ahimsa comes from Jainism, where the concept is taken to what most of us would consider to be extreme measures—at least in the case of Jain ascetics observing ahimsa as one of the “great vows.” Such ascetic Jains must take the greatest possible care not to cause harm, intentionally or unintentionally, to any creature, including insects, plants, and microbes. At the end of their lives, a devout Jain may even fast to death (stop eating) in one final renunciation of doing harm. Another well-known example of ahimsa can be seen the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, who used the concept to establish a nonviolent civil disobedience movement that some say helped speed the colonial British departure from India.

Ahimsa is identified as one of the highest virtues in the Vedic tradition (the Vedas are the most sacred scriptures of India) and is one of the loftiest teachings in Indian philosophy. The idea of ahimsa informs animal ethics, just-war theory, and interpersonal relations. On a metaphysical level, ahimsa is connected with karma—the causal law that links causes to effects, even across lifetimes. This informs the belief that an individual will bear a future burden for harms committed in the present through the process of samsara, or transmigration and rebirth of the soul. According to this religious and philosophical theory, the soul brings both its good and bad karma (fruit of action) with it from life to life and will either enjoy the fruits of prior good actions or suffer the consequences of bad ones. Because of the laws of karma and reincarnation, any action resulting in violence, injury, or harm has the direct consequence of chaining an individual’s soul to a process of rebirth and material suffering. Insofar as a person causes injury and suffering to others, they increase the total negative effects in nature. In summary, the individual creates bad effects for themselves by acting badly. From the perspective of Indian philosophy, there is a natural connection among all beings, so causing harm or injury to one entity is like harming a family member or even a part of oneself. Additionally, because individual experience is governed by the laws of karma, harm and injury to others has the result of causing injury to oneself.

However, ahimsa does not focus only on the problem of causing harm. The practice of ahimsa also calls for the practice of love and compassion toward all beings. Following the same principles of karma and samsara, acts of love, kindness, and generosity have the effect of increasing the total amount of good in the world, of recognizing that we are, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality” and “tied in a single garment of destiny” (1963). The practice of love and compassion increases the possibility of liberation from material suffering.

It may be useful to consider possible comparisons between the Indian notion of ahimsa and Socrates’s harm principle. Both doctrines teach that by causing harm, acting through violence, or causing suffering to others, we actually harm ourselves. They describe different mechanisms for how that harm comes to us. Which do you think sounds more likely to be true? Are there other advantages or disadvantages to either view?

Additionally, Socrates says that no one directly desires to cause harm or do evil; harm is the product of ignorance. For Indian philosophers, there is a connection between harm or suffering and ignorance as well. For them, suffering is caused by attachment to temporary things, both material and immaterial, including feelings, goals, or ideals. The remedy for attachment is enlightenment, which comes from recognizing that all perceptions, feelings, and desires emerge from prior causes and that the chain of causes continues without end. All things that are part of the chain of causes, according to Indian philosophers, are temporary. Once a person has this realization, they ought to recognize the harm that comes from attachment, from trying to hold on to any product of the unending chain of causes. The connection between ignorance and harm is quite different for each philosophy, but it may be worthwhile to consider how and why they are different. It may also be worthwhile to reflect on whether there is a connection between harm and ignorance and what it might be.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax