Primum Non Nocere

Primum Non Nocere is Latin for “First, do no harm.” It is a phrase used in the medical field as part of the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians:

As an important step in becoming a doctor, medical students must take the Hippocratic Oath. And one of the promises within that oath is “first, do no harm” (or “primum non nocere,” the Latin translation from the original Greek.) (Quote source here.)

Of course, those of us who aren’t physicians aren’t required to take an oath that we “first, do no harm” to others. In our relationships with others, whether family members or coworkers or friends including the myriad of people (even strangers in our midst) that we come into contact with on a daily basis, it is hopeful that our intent is to do no harm to them. However, that isn’t always true.

Fractured relationships, whether personal or in business, political rivalries, divorce, and even such things as greed and jealousy get in the way and keep lawyers very busy making a living off of the harm we do to others. And often, it is intentional harm that we do to others or that we are the recipient of from others.

In an article published on December 21, 2017, in Psychology Today titled, Why Do We Harm Each Other?” by Dale M. Kushner, MFA, author and investigator of the intersection between creativity, healing, and spirituality, she writes:

Not long ago, while doing research for my second novel, I interviewed a man who’d grown up in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. Beirut, once called the Paris of the Middle East, had been a city known for its beauty and cultural sophistication where Maronite Christians, Druze, Sunni and Shia Muslims lived peaceably side by side. By 1958, however, sectarian politics had set neighbor against neighbor and engendered hatred between the groups. As my interviewee remembered, “The dear friend you played with as a boy might now knock on your door and shoot your mother in the face.”

How do we make sense of this? How could former friends and neighbors suddenly commit egregious acts of violence? Reading the oral histories of war victims suggests a pattern: under certain conditions, especially during times of state upheaval or governmental collapse, ordinary people can be persuaded to commit atrocities or to enable others to commit them. The outer chaos of change and disruption fosters confusion that undermines our sense of trust and confidence and can deeply affect our inner lives. Empathy is the ability to feel another’s suffering, but during times of stress, when our circuits for handling negative emotions get exhausted, we grow numb to the fear mounting within us. Self-preservation becomes our focus and our instincts drive us to align with the powerful, the winning side.

We don’t have to look to war zones to see evidence of this. To a lesser degree, it’s enacted on the playground, in classrooms, in corporations and in government. Although it may be comforting to think of a crazed gunman, a revolutionary, or cult leader as the sole perpetrator of evil, “good citizens” everywhere, even in our own country, have been responsible for or complicit in reprehensible crimes in the form of slavery, sex trafficking, child labor and inhumane labor conditions.

Closer to home, who hasn’t indulged in or colluded with the more minor indecencies of taunting, bullying, hazing, name-calling or ostracism? Telling an ethnic-slurring joke may seem harmless; yet if we have been the brunt of such a joke, we feel its poisonous barb. To think of someone as a category–a gook, a geek, a Pole, a retard—is to ignore that person’s individuality and make them into a “thing.” It is easier to hate a “thing” than a creature that resembles ourselves.

Neither hatred nor anger completely explains how intelligent, rational people do the unthinkable. In their testimony, Eichmann and other Nazi officials responsible for the death of millions prided themselves on having a fondness for individual Jews. To them, their lack of hatred exonerated them from their horrendous deeds and proved they were superior to the crass killers who enjoyed murdering others. In the minds of these courteous and civilized killers, they were only doing their jobs (mass extermination), and doing them well, another source of pride.

How do cruelty and meanness become normalized? As philosopher Elizabeth Minnich, one-time assistant to Hannah Arendt, writes inThe Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death Importance of Thinking,” “We know that we humans can shift our minds into making sense of and accepting things that, before we became insiders of utterly distorted systems, we would have found impossible to imagine ourselves approving of, let alone doing.”

Many people in the U.S. are surprised by the rank bitterness, anger and hatred circulating in the zeitgeist. We may even be surprised by our own vitriol. Our neighbor voted for the other guy (or gal), and we wonder “How could he?” We feel our differences are irreconcilable. Our friend is no longer our friend, she is Other.

Imagine this: The Powerful declare that people with red hair are to be guarded against. Warnings are issued. At first, no one thinks much about the warnings or laughs them off. How can a group as diverse as red-haireds be lumped together as dangerous? But then the warnings increase, suspicion takes root, and rumors abound. Fear infects people’s thought processes. As the fear increases, red-haireds go from being shunned, to being taunted, to being hunted and killed. Some of the greatest sci-fi movies of the fifties,The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and the adaptation of George Orwell’s books,1984andAnimal Farm(the 1954 American animation was funded by the CIA), aptly symbolize our fear of “aliens,” the national paranoia of communism at that time, and the surreality of living under absolute power. Orwell’s books, in particular, depict how the accretion of propaganda can numb our brains and change our hearts and minds. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II wrote his own version of this phenomenon for the musical “South Pacific.”

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

In the preliminary stages of propaganda, people’s perceptions of the “Other” change. Maybe that red-haired banker is embezzling my cash. Should I trust my kids with the red-haired babysitter? Once perceptions change feelings about a person change. The Powerful proclaim red-haireds are cockroaches. Soon they begin to look like cockroaches. We notice they don’t walk, they scurry. They stink like garbage; they disgust us. The vilification of another leads to his objectification. We know from history that if we dehumanize a person, it’s easier to take violent action against her. If our neighbor is now a bug, sub-human, we are free to remove her from our society. Squash the cockroach!

In his excellent chapter “The Fascist State of Mind” in the book,Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self Experience,” psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas lists the mental mechanisms we use to dispassionately de-personalize the Other. The list includes distortion or slander of the other’s point of view; denigration or belittling of the other; caricature, or the cartooning of the other individual; character assassination; change of name as in labeling, and name-calling.

Bollas wonders why we often seem to love our monsters, those “most gifted practitioners” who have achieved “places of prominence by viciously attacking others.” “Indeed,” Bollas writes, “they [the monsters] also seem to be objects of endearment to those who otherwise would be horrified by such behavior.” One way Bollas understands this phenomenon is that we may try to recover from the trauma this individual has perpetrated in our world “by reminding ourselves how, in so many other ways, this person is not only sane but likable.”

What we do know is that when propaganda and the distortion of truth rule, we have stopped paying attention to reality and have ceded moral reflection and self-awareness to an authority outside the Self. As social beings engaged until death with our connection to others, we are called to live a thinking and feeling life. When we dissociate from the depths of our self-knowledge and abdicate the cultivation of our hearts and minds, we make room for the shadowy “Bluebeards” to dominate our world.

Watch the 1954 animated adaptation of George Orwell’sAnimal Farm.” (Quote source here.)

An added note regarding the article above, the following quote is taken from a brief description of the book mentioned above by Elizabeth Minnich, Ph.D., titled,The Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death Importance of Thinking,” on Amazon.com:

How is it possible to murder a million people one by one? Hatred, fear, madness of one or many people cannot explain it. No one can be so possessed for the months, even years, required for genocides, slavery, deadly economic exploitation, sexual trafficking of children. InThe Evil of Banality,” Elizabeth Minnich argues for a tragic yet hopeful explanation. “Extensive evil,” her term for systematic horrific harm-doing, is actually carried out, not by psychopaths, but by people like your quiet next door neighbor, your ambitious colleagues. There simply are not enough moral monsters for extensive evil, nor enough saints for extensive good. In periods of extensive evil, people little different from you and me do its work for no more than a better job, a raise, the house of the family who “disappeared” last week. So how can there be hope? The seeds of such evils are right there in our ordinary lives. They are neither mysterious nor demonic. If we avoid romanticizing and so protecting ourselves from responsibility for the worst and the best of which humans are capable, we can prepare to say no to extensive evil—to act accurately, together, and above all in time, before great harm-doing has become the daily work of ‘normal’ people. (Quote source here.)

Now let’s look at the Biblical definition of good versus evil. The following is taken from Got Questions.org:

Among the most universal beliefs across all humanity is the concept of “good versus evil.” Every culture in every era has held to some version of this struggle. The definitions of the terms good and evil vary wildly, as do opinions on how they interact. Still, belief in some difference between that which is “good” and that which is “evil” pervades all of mankind. When all options and ideas are compared, only the Bible provides a perspective on good and evil that is fully coherent and fully livable (Psalm 25:6–15).

According to the Bible, “good versus evil” is not a matter of opinion. Nor is it an evenly matched struggle between two beings or forces. Scripture does not indicate that the boundaries of good and evil change. Nor does it claim the conflict between them will last forever. Of special importance is that the Bible does not suggest some people are good, while other people are evil.

Rather, the Bible teaches that good and evil are defined in reference to a perfect and unchanging God. Every person must grapple individually with the presence and temptations of evil. Scripture notes that all evil, without exception, will ultimately be punished and defeated. And it tells us there is an ultimate standard of goodness to which we should aspire—a standard grounded in a person, rather than a theory.

Good and Evil Are Objectively Distinct

According to the Bible, there is a real difference between good and evil. Some worldviews claim all moral distinctions are based purely on preference. Atheism, for instance, allows no objective basis for defining anything as “good” or “evil.” In a godless universe, there are only things a person prefers and things a person does not prefer. This is a key reason why philosophies embracing atheism always tend toward violence and tyranny: there is no sense of higher authority and no reason to moderate the whims of those in power.

The idea that defining good and evil depends on preferences or situations is commonly called moral relativism. Scripture rejects this idea as false. The Bible defines some things as “good” and other things as “evil” (Isaiah 5:20Romans 12:9). This dichotomy is reflected in the consistent use of themes such as light versus darkness (Isaiah 9:2Matthew 4:16John 1:5Ephesians 5:8). The ultimate fate of all people depends on whether they are aligned with a good God or opposed to Him (1 Corinthians 6:9–11Revelation 21:8).

Discerning between good and evil is possible only in reference to a single, unchanging standard: the perfect nature of God. God is not subject to morality, since He is the source and benchmark for it. Nor is morality subject to change, since God’s perfect nature is eternal and unchanging. Counters such as Euthyphro’s dilemma fail, since they do not distinguish between an eternal, unchanging God and the fickle deities of ancient Greek religion.

Good and Evil Are Not Balanced

A frequent component of fiction and fantasy is the idea that good and evil are equally balanced, evenly matched forces. According to this view, neither is ultimately in control. Either may eventually win. This is the concept of dualism, which suggests a perpetual balance between the forces of good and evil. In some cases, dualism implies that opposing beings, such as God and Satan, are deadlocked in a struggle for control and power.

Some worldviews teach that all good and evil will eventually be balanced. This is related to Eastern ideas such as karma, which implies that good and evil are inherently imbalanced but will one day be evened out.

Scripture rejects dualism as false. The Bible indicates that God is absolutely supreme and in no danger whatsoever of being defeated (Job 42:2Psalm 89:8Galatians 6:7). What Satan does, he is “allowed” to do, but he cannot act to overpower God (Job 1:12Revelation 9:120:7). Biblically, evil is destined only for defeat and destruction. Not one single act of evil will escape judgment; every sin will either be paid for by Christ on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21) or by those who reject Christ (John 3:36) as they experience an eternity in hell (Revelation 20:11–15).

Good and Evil Are Not External

Evidence that humanity holds to a basic concept of good versus evil is obvious (Romans 1:18–20). This explains why moral reasoning—separating “what is” from “what ought to be”—is a universal facet of humanity. Of course, that does not mean all people hold the same views on good and evil. We are not examining morality from the outside, as neutral observers; all moral discussions by definition involve the person(s) who discuss them, as well.

A unique aspect of the Bible’s teaching on good and evil is that all people, without exception, are subject to sin and evil (Romans 3:103:23). The biblical concept of a sin nature means that the line between good and evil cannot be drawn between people. Rather, it is drawn within every person. This fact of human nature is critical to understand (Matthew 15:19–20). As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

In simpler language, C.S. Lewis noted, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you” (see Matthew 6:14–15).

One truth found in the gospel is that all people, without exception, are sinners in need of a Savior. Biblical Christianity does not see good versus evil as a battle to be fought on earth (John 18:36), an issue to resolve by revenge or retribution (Romans 12:20–21), or a philosophical position to be considered. The Bible says every person is created for a good purpose (Genesis 1:27Galatians 3:28) but suffers from an evil heart (Romans 7:15–25), which can only be remedied by faith in Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Redemption is available to anyone (Matthew 7:7–8Revelation 22:15), regardless of his past or the depth of his sin (1 Corinthians 6:9–11).

Good versus Evil Requires “Right Judgment”

Another key aspect of the Bible’s teaching on “good versus evil” is that no person is infallible, even on spiritual matters. Those who are guided by the Holy Spirit are better equipped to judge spiritual matters (1 Corinthians 2:14), and they ought to do so. Scripture is clear that all people are subject to sin, and it is just as clear that all people are subject to correction (Hebrews 12:5–11), learning (2 Timothy 2:15), and limitations (1 Samuel 16:7).

In Matthew 7 Jesus gives an extensive explanation of how to properly discern between good and evil: to “judge” in the correct way; that is, to use “right judgment” (John 7:24). The Bible commends examination (Acts 17:11), commands putting things to the test (1 John 4:1), and promotes accountability (1 Peter 3:15) and a commitment to truth (Galatians 1:8–9).

Scripture does not imply that “good versus evil” is a simplistic, binary concept. Since only God is ultimately perfect, the Bible allows for a “good versus better” spectrum. God called His initial creation “good” (Genesis 1:24), then after more creating called it “very good” (Genesis 1:28). Some of the good things God has given us have more than one use, and not all uses are automatically good or evil (1 Timothy 4:4). The biblical understanding of good versus evil does not imply that all things are either perfectly holy or wholly satanic. Rather, there can be good and bad aspects of many of the freedoms God gives us (1 Corinthians 6:12). Likewise, while all sin leads to separation from God, Scripture does speak of some sins as being more heinous than others.

The Bible acknowledges that not every moment in human experience will come with a clear, black-and-white moral answer. Scripture focuses only on the most important points we need to know, not every imaginable scenario (John 21:25). This means even the most sincere, Bible-believing, born-again Christians might disagree on an ethical question (1 Corinthians 10:23–33). The Bible’s answer—when the issue is not covered overtly in God’s Word (1 Corinthians 5:6)—is for tolerance and patience (Titus 3:9). We’re given a conscience for a reason (Romans 14:23).

Truth is objective; for any given opinion or interpretation, someone is right, and someone is wrong. But human beings lack the moral perfection of God; this is reflected in the Bible’s teaching on good versus evil and our role in applying good judgment.

Scripture encourages believers not to apply terms like good, evil, sin, and so forth to issues where there is room for doubt (Romans 14:1–12). Contrary to what some think, the Bible admits that human beings might not always be correct in our moral judgments. We are not to avoid all judgment (John 7:24), but the Bible teaches us to carefully consider when and how we judge (Ephesians 5:10).

Good versus Evil Demands a Response

The Bible’s teaching on good versus evil leads to a challenging conclusion: that every person is obligated to make a fundamental choice between the two. That choice is entirely determined by our response to God, who is both the definition of good and our Creator. Moment by moment, that means either following His will or rebelling and choosing to sin (1 Corinthians 10:13). Eternally, this means we either choose to accept Him and His salvation (John 3:1614:6) or align ourselves against Him (John 3:36). While we may be imperfect and fallible, we cannot be neutral in our approach to good versus evil. Our hearts are either seeking the goodness of God (Matthew 7:7–8Romans 2:4) or the selfishness of evil (1 Peter 3:10–12). (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with Paul’s words from Romans 12:17-18: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible…

As far as it depends on you . . .

Live at peace . . .

With everyone . . . .

YouTube Video: “Do No Harm” by Sarah Hart:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here