Dear Professor Theophilus:
I stand on the fact that God ultimately defines what is right and wrong. But my friend bases his entire moral code upon the idea that “as long as lam not directly hurting anyone other than me, then nothing that I do is wrong.” I don’t have an intelligent response. Do you?
Reply: C. S. Lewis once remarked that the inventors of “new moralities” don’t really invent new moralities; they merely accept the bits of the old morality that they like and ignore the bits of the old morality that they don’t like. For example, an extreme Nationalist accepts the parts about our duty to kin but ignores the parts about all men being brothers, and an extreme Socialist accepts the parts about our duty to relieve suffering but ignores the parts about justice and good faith. Your friend is doing much the same thing, for the duty to avoid unnecessary harm to others is a genuine part of the moral law. His problem isn’t that it’s wrong; his problem is that he ignores all the other parts.
The first problem with throwing out every duty but the avoidance of harm to others is that it will make him flat. We were made to serve God, not just ourselves. In the words of the Westminster Catechism (these are words that both Protestants and Catholics can accept), “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever.” By casting aside our greatest duty, your friend is also casting aside our greatest joy and privilege.
The second problem with his way of life is that it will make him selfish. What would he think of a man who had never lifted a finger to protect his wife but bragged that he had never beat her? Or a man who failed to sound the fire alarm but boasted that he hadn’t set the fire? How about a teacher who had never taught his students an important truth but preened himself on the fact that he had never taught them a lie? Frankly, I don’t believe that your friend would admire such people any more than you would. But by claiming that his only duty is to avoid unnecessary harm to others, he is training himself to be just like them.
The third problem with your friend’s narrow-mindedness is that it will make him stupid. If the only duty he recognizes is not harming others, he won’t have the foggiest idea of what harming others means. This is already happening in the way he limits harm to direct harm, then limits it even further to “hurt,” to physical harm. Suppose that through reckless driving I were to get myself killed, leaving my wife a widow. Would the fact that the harm of widowhood was indirect make it small? Suppose that I were to corrupt a young female student by seducing her. Would the fact that the harm of corruption was nonphysical make it trivial? You see, every moral duty depends on the other moral duties to flesh it out and complete its meaning. By keeping one duty but throwing out the others, your friend eventually won’t even understand the one that he keeps.
The slogan, “It can’t be wrong if it doesn’t hurt anyone” first became popular as a rationalization for sex outside of marriage. That was thirty-five years ago. Now, after tens of millions of abortions, divorces, fatherless children, sterilization-inducing diseases, and broken hearts, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the meaning of hurt. I don’t know what your friend hopes to justify, but you can be sure he is looking for a way to justify something he really knows is wrong.
Just so you don’t overlook it: We’ve been talking about the surface issue—your friend’s claim to be ignorant of every moral duty but avoiding harm to others. But there is a deeper issue—his implicit claim to be ignorant of his moral and spiritual dependence on God. That’s where he most needs your prayer.
Grace and peace, Professor Theophilus
— J. Budziszewski, from Ask Me Anything, p. 115