The other day a long-time acquaintance insulted and attempted to humilate me in front of several other people. The behavior was hurtful and unwarranted and later I pulled him aside and told him this. He responded, “Okay,” and unapologetically walked away.
This was certainly not the worst thing one human being has ever done to another but, as I say, it was hurtful. Consequently, a part of me wanted to hurt him back, to say something that would sting him as he’d stung me.
This is a fairly global response in our culture: When people hurt us we try to hurt them back. It’s a matter of justice, right?
I used to think so. If people hurt me or even if I thought they “deserved” punishment for some offense not necessarily involving me directly, I would attempt to inflict some form of pain on them. I wrapped it up in platitudes about justice but really I just wanted the satisfaction of lashing out and of seeing them hurt like I did.
Yet after thinking this way for the first half of my life I began to ask myself a simple question: When is it right to hurt people?
When, if ever, should we intentionally inflict pain and suffering on other human beings?
When I stripped it down and looked at it in these naked human terms I had to conclude it’s never right to hurt people unless it’s unavoidable. There are certainly times when it is unavoidable — for instance, to stop someone from physically hurting us or someone else. If someone attacks me or a person who can’t defend themselves, I believe I’m justified in doing whatever is necessary to make the attacker stop. But such incidents account for only a tiny percentage of the time I used to feel that hurting people was good. If I stopped doing all harm but this absolutely necessary kind it would reduce my harmfulness in the world by at least 90 percent. This, it seemed, was a minimum requirement for living an ethical life, so I made a commitment to it. I would try to avoid doing any unnecessary harm.
But I knew that even when harm was unavoidable there were ways of doing it that still didn’t seem right. This is why, when soldiers disrespect the enemy dead, we consider that unethical. One might think that once we decide that harming — or even killing — is necessary, there’s nothing further we would find objectionable, but we know that’s not true. In the same way, if we do the harm itself with glee, looking forward to it, this also seems objectionable. This was inversely illustrated recently when a reporter asked President Obama how he felt upon seeing photos of Osama bin Laden’s body. This was one of the most notorious men in the world and President Obama himself had given the orders that ultimately took bin Laden’s life. Still, the president answered that this was a complex question. Obviously, you’re glad he can’t cause further harm, he said, but you also acknowledge that you’re dealing with the destruction of a human being.
He could have said, “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” or any number of other dismissive remarks and many people would have cheered him — just as, undoubtedly, many will attempt to deride him for expressing any regard for this criminal. But in my mind he took the high road. There’s too much harm, even necessary harm, done in our world with an attitude of disregard. This attitude always increases the amount of unnecessary harm in a culture.
Thinking about this led me to add a second part to my commitment. Not only would I attempt to avoid all unnecessary harm but also, if and when harm is necessary, I would commit to doing it only with reverence.
Reverence is acknowledging the transcendent in a person or thing, but it doesn’t mean agreeing with everything a person does. When President Obama showed regard when talking about bin Laden’s destruction, he was acknowledging that even though bin Laden had done despicable things, there was still a part of him that was transcendent — because there’s a part of all human beings that is transcendent and sacred.
My commitment to doing only necessary harm and then, only with reverence, results in a two-pronged test that can be applied whenever the question of causing harm arises. The first prong consists of asking: Is it necessary?
Currently, we usually ask only one question to determine if hurting people is ethical: Do they deserve it? “Is it necessary?” replaces this question for me.
Asking “Is it necessary?” and being committed to doing no harm that is unnecessary, immediately gets rid of most of the harm we do to one another because most of that harm is, in fact, not necessary.
If we determine that it is necessary to cause harm, the second prong of this test is: “Am I doing it with reverence?”
Reverence doesn’t stop us from doing what we need to do. Instead it prevents us from doing it dismissively. If we must cause harm, reverence says, do it with consciousness.
The impulse to say something hurtful back to the acquaintance who hurt me didn’t make it past the first prong of this test. Despite the satisfaction it would have brought my bruised ego, saying something hurtful back to him was not necessary. Therefore it, like too much of the harm we do to one another in life, wouldn’t have been ethical.
Only necessary harm can be considered ethical, and then only if it is done with reverence.
The question of whether people deserve to be hurt is nothing but a cover for those who want to hurt people but don’t want to own up to this dark impulse. Once we decide someone “deserves it,” we can deny any culpability for the harm we do to them. We make victims of the people we’ve perceived as perpetrators in an escalating game of payback. Subsequently, the victim is considered to be causing our cruelty, which is seen not as a choice we make and are responsible for, but rather as a consequence of something our victim did. We wouldn’t have hurt them if they hadn’t done this or that, therefore their victimization is their fault.
This thinking is poison and the two-pronged test is its antidote.