Harm and Need
The Principles of Harm and Need
By John Taylor; 2010 Sep 03, Asma 16, 167 BE
The cosmopolitan condition marks the end of an age of ideology and the beginning of the age of principle. Today let us discuss the principles of harm and need.
Stoic philosophers taught that we should do what we love and are good at doing, but only if it does not harm others. This duty to "do no harm" is part of the famous Hippocratic Oath; where at the beginning of a medical career physicians swear that treatment will before all else "do no harm." In a cosmopolitan condition this principle is universalized. Every apprentice will swear to avoid harm. This determination will be reinforced by a workplace constitution which assures that every job adheres to the principle of harm. Since everyone learns a trade in elementary school, everyone offers the oath at least once.
Going to the Greatest Need
The harm principle has a positive corollary, the principle of need. This imperative to "seek out the greatest need" is also known as the service principle. Each worker has a duty to make himself useful. Each job is a service to self, God and humanity; it follows the Golden Rule by filling a real need. Again, when labour fails to serve it becomes a form of corruption that spreads harm.
In plying a trade, then, I should avoid activity without real benefit. My duty is actively to seek out services that make a difference both in the short and the long term. A trade, then, is not a mere set of skills to be used for good or evil; it is part of a coherent career, a lifelong entrepreneurial initiative to root out needs and invent new ways to fill them.
The need principle has a technical and a moral side. Technical need is a test of skill. An expert demonstrates expertise by performing work that colleagues consider a challenge to the characteristic knowledge of their trade or profession. The limits of technical need are summed up in a common saying: "A man with a hammer sees everything as a nail."
Moral need is a kind of triage. The prime obligation of moral need is to address problems without respect to how well prepared the expert is to solve them. In a flood, the first task is to get people out of the water, not to show off one's skills in carpentry or medicine. Moral need takes critical cases before urgent ones. What we know and can do well is placed second to what the situation requires us to do.
A career can be meaningful only if it is balanced, if the worker attempts all three, to avoid harm and to serve both elements of need, technical and moral. These must be harmonious with one another, as Plato's Athenian stranger says in the Laws,
"If we disregard due proportion by giving anything what is too much for it, too much canvas to a boat, too much nutriment to a body, too much authority to a soul, the consequence is always shipwreck; rankness runs in the one case to disease, in the other to presumption, and its issue is crime. ... No soul of man, while young or accountable to no control, will ever be able to bear the burden of supreme social authority without taking the taint of the worst spiritual disease, folly, and so becoming estranged from its dearest intimates. (Laws, 691c, from Plato, Collected Writings, p. 1286)
The question is, what "due proportion" is appropriate for each trade, profession or job?
Undoubtedly this will become clearer with experience in the cosmopolitan condition. Gradually, the incentives of computer games will be integrated into the world of work, engaging every worker in applying the principles of harm and technical and moral need. Another help will be the three Comenian polities of light, peace and holiness, which break up what Plato called the "overpowerful and unmixed sovereignties" that throw the proportions of life out of whack. In order to do this, each job in the workplace will take time to serve each of the three institutions, the college, dicastery and the consistory.
As Plato says, it takes tremendous foresight and power "to limit the sovereignties and make one of three..." (Laws, 692c, from Plato, Collected Writings, p. 1287) However, since each of the three institutions uses its own currency, it is as easy as looking into one's bank account to know which of the three "sovereignties" needs improvement in order to regain an overall balance and harmony.