As I have documented in previous posts in this series, the dominant culture in western societies acknowledges no public validity to natural law, human nature, divine law, or traditional wisdom. It recognizes no natural obligations individuals have to one another. The good and the right are defined subjectively, the good being understood as what pleases you and the right as “what is right for you.” Hence modern people feel reluctant to impose moral restrictions on others or to condemn their behavior; and they feel anger toward those who do so.
Nevertheless, there is one moral principle the dominant culture can feel good about imposing on others. It is called the “harm principle”, and was most famously stated by John Stuart Mill (Liberty). We’ve all heard people say, “Do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else.” It can be stated in various ways. But the principle is this: one must give an individual liberty of action up to the point where it begins to restrict the liberty of others. Hence the only condition under which our contemporaries feel justified in condemning a behavior is when one person coerces another person, that is, when one does something to another that the other does not want done to them. Whatever one does with and to oneself concerns only oneself and indeed falls completely outside the ethical sphere.
My goal today is to subject the “harm principle” to analysis, to show what it presupposes and where it leads. Clearly, the primary goal of the “harm principle” is to set limits on behavior that make sense within a fundamentally libertarian framework. (Without limits of some kind liberty becomes anarchy.) The harm principle defines the self in terms of will and the associated concepts of freedom, self-expression, authenticity, preferences, and a subjective view of the good (as the good-for-me according to my assessment). It is noteworthy that the self is not defined as God’s creature made in God’s image and responsible to God. The self is a will that does one thing: it acts to realize its desires. And it is limited only by the existence of other selves that also act to realize their desires, not in view of divine law, natural law or an objective understanding of the good passed down in tradition.
The fundamental instinct of the modern self is that it should be able to do whatever it wills. But most people stop short of advocating complete anarchy, realizing that this condition is war of each against all. Hence attempting to stay as close to the fundamental instinct as possible, they argue that liberty should be limited only by liberty itself and will by will. This move avoids appealing to human dignity, divine creation or other principles to limit liberty. In fact, the harm principle is not so much a principle as a pragmatic accommodation to the contradiction within the idea of liberty itself. There is no principle within the idea of my liberty that demands that I respect your liberty. Since modern culture refuses to acknowledge a law above human liberty, it resolves the inherent contradiction in the idea of individual liberty by turning to an even bigger will incarnated in the state. The state decides the scope and limits of individual liberty by deciding what individual or group activities cause harm to others. In a supreme irony liberty sells itself into slavery to escape its internal contradictions. Henceforth legality replaces morality.
Now let’s relate the well-worn phrase “consenting adults” to the harm principle. Our contemporaries have nothing to say about how human beings should act within, for and on themselves because they assume that when we do something with our own bodies we do so freely. The only moral question the dominant culture poses about the activities that two or more adults perform on each other concerns consent or lack thereof. There can be no rules for what two consenting adults do with each other derived from the harm principle; for harm is measured in terms of consent and coercion, not in terms of right and wrong or good and bad. To object to the activities of consenting adults one would need to appeal to other principles—human dignity, divine law, natural law—something modern culture adamantly refuses to do.
Here is the logical trajectory and emotional engine that drives the incessant change in sexual morality in contemporary culture. The dominant culture acknowledges no principle that can limit what individuals do with their solitude or what consenting adults to with and to each other. The harm principle cannot override the principle of mutual consent because “harm” is defined as coercion or lack of consent; and you cannot coerce a consenting party. As one after another formerly forbidden behavior is permitted, it is always accompanied with the judgment that no harm is being done; and if harm is defined as coercion, this judgment is self-evidently true. The human imagination is prolific in devising ways to excite pleasure or relieve pain. (Is it too much to say that it is unlimited?) And unless a third party is harmed (i.e. coerced) the modern person can make no moral objection to anything consenting adults wish to do. All claimed moral objections to behaviors that have been declared healthy by the culture will be interpreted as arising from a desire to dominate others or from sheer bigotry. And oppression and bigotry are deemed harmful to society. Since the state has been given the power to prevent harm, moral objections to approved behaviors will be subject to state coercion.
The Point of the Series
What am I trying to say in this series? (1) To those who reject divine law, natural law and traditional wisdom about what is good for human beings and celebrate maximum liberty as their sole value, I issue a warning: you are standing on the edge of the abyss of moral nihilism. Liberty is a purely negative concept. It means the absence of limits, and the absence of limits means the absence of distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong; and that is the essence of moral nihilism. If liberty to pursue your desires is your sole principle, there can be no principle by which to set limits to liberty. Such limits to liberty as the harm principle are in fact unprincipled and arbitrary impositions on liberty. It’s just a matter of time until some people transgress those limits into violence and murder in the name of liberty. If there is no God, there is no moral law; if there is no moral law, “all things are permitted.”
(2) To those who wish to remain serious Christians, I say: do not be fooled by the culture’s superficial appeals to tolerance, compassion and respect for other people’s autonomy and search for happiness. Underneath this beautiful veneer lies the rot of moral nihilism. Moral nihilism cannot affirm the good and right; it can only destroy. The dominant culture’s appeals to tolerance and compassion serve only one purpose: to undermine the idea that there is an objective good and right. Do not allow the false charge of intolerance to intimidate you into giving up or minimizing the importance of our faith that God is our Creator, that human beings are made in God’s image and are responsible to him for everything we do, and that there is a divine law and a natural law and that the Scriptures embody divine wisdom about what is good and right. Do not be deceived by the idea that desire and consent alone make an activity good or right.
End of series