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We should aim for harmlessness. No matter what else we set ourselves to throughout our lives, and no matter what other values and principles we might hold to, unpinning and informing it all must be a commitment to refrain from causing harm.

Sometimes harm is unavoidable, of course. We can find ourselves in tragic situations where we have no choice but to inflict suffering, if only as an alternative to inflicting greater suffering through a different course of action. The world isn’t perfect and it isn’t fair. But our intent should be harmlessness, nonetheless. And this intent, if we take it seriously, means developing an awareness of which actions are harmful, and which harmless. 

There are obvious examples: Don’t hit people. Don’t take their stuff. These fall under what we typically think of as rights violations. But refraining from violating strict rights—however we might define and delineate those—isn’t all that’s necessary to avoid inflicting harm. We can be cruel without transgressing rights. We can make others’ lives worse without hitting them, and without taking their stuff. To the extent that our actions affect others, we should strive to make sure those effects make their lives better.

Our perspective of harmlessness shouldn’t be limited to an outward direction, either. Just as we shouldn’t harm others, we also shouldn’t harm ourselves. The world inevitably inflicts pain upon us. We will get sick, grow old, and die. But so much of what we suffer through in our lives, so much of the unease and stress we feel, isn’t because of something the world has done to us, but rather the way we interact with the world and react to it. If you fall down and skin your knee, that’s unquestionably painful, and that’s a pain you’ll have to bear for as long as it takes the wound to heal. That’s a fact of the world, and not within your control. What is within your control, however, is how you respond to injury and discomfort. Do you accept it and move on? Or do you instead curse fate for giving you this skinned knee, dwell on the pain, and give the wound your full attention, letting it consume you, until finally, begrudgingly letting go?

This is how we fail in turning that principle of harmlessness inwards. We give in to aversion, focusing our attention on the pain and the unfairness of the injury. We give in to craving, longing for when we were healthy and letting that longing take over our mental landscape. We give in to a delusion that, if only we could exercise more control, and if only the world weren’t so unfair, we wouldn’t get skinned knees in the first place. And the suffering we inflict on others is just as much a product of aversion, craving, and delusion. We want them to behave in just the way that conforms to our tastes, or we want them to stop acting in ways that make us uncomfortable, or we want the world to stay the way it is (or, more often, the way it was when we were young and imagined ourselves to be happier and more stable), and demand that its relentless dynamism just stop.

The path to harmlessness, then, the path out of aversion, craving, and delusion. With those set aside, we can better see which of our actions and beliefs are harmless and wholesome, and which are harmful and unwholesome.

With that perspective in mind, we can turn to the question of politics, and what a politics that takes harmlessness seriously might look like. And the clearest way to approach answering that is by looking at politics as it usually manifests, and how it is the institutional and social embodiment of the very aversion, craving, and delusion we need to abandon. Because, to an important extent, a politics of harmlessness just is a political culture not bound up in those traits that are the genesis of harm.

Social contract theory tells a neat story about the origin of government, and so the origin of politics. We used to live in a state of nature, free to do as we pleased, without any protection from those whose “as they pleased” was to hurt us. Thus we agreed it would be better if, instead, we established a ruler who would then protect us from violence, theft, and so on—and at the reasonable cost of giving up just a little of our freedom, and a little of our resources. And, unless this ruler was an autocrat, he’d be influenced by, to one degree or another, the will of his subjects. Hence, politics. 

Whether this narrative has any historical truth (it doesn’t) is beside the point. What’s important is that it neatly frames a helpful way to conceptualize government (a powerful tool for guiding the behavior of humans, using violence and threats of violence as its mechanism for enforcing that guidance) and politics (the ways the people go about directing the use of that tool). 

Unfortunately—or, in many cases, tragically—that tool gets directed under the influence of aversion, craving, and ignorance. We use the government not (just) to reduce harm, but to inflict it. If that group of people over there—who are not themselves directly harming anyone, but are instead just behaving or expressing themselves in ways different from what we might prefer—are making us uncomfortable, or clashing with what (we imagine to be) our “traditional” values, we use the political process to direct the state to punish them. We declare their expression (or their different religion, or their way of living) illegal, and then let the state enforce the law against them. Or if the cultural patterns we grew up with and are used to give way to evolution and change (as all cultural patterns inevitably do), we insist that the government step in to punish those at the forefront of that change, or subsidize those seeking to hold it back. We give up on the notion of harmlessness because, consumed by aversion, craving, and delusion, we convince ourselves that this time, this bit of violence, isn’t harm, or perhaps justified harm, and we use politics to carry it out in our name.

This sort of thinking infects so much of politics that it can be difficult to imagine politics without it. It is so common that most people don’t even recognize it as harmful. Rather, they view it simply as what politics is for. They lose sight of harmlessness and, either from ill-will or simple ignorance, inflict terrible suffering upon each other. A politics of harmlessness would reject those uses of government. It would recognize that happiness depends upon non-harming, and that our own contentment is not more valuable than the contentment of everyone else we share the country (and the world) with. It would respect the dynamism of human societies and cultures, and the right of everyone to peacefully pursue their favored lifestyles, religions, modes of expression, and preferences. And it would see clearly how the attempt to prevent that dynamism and diversity—an attempt always destined to fail—can only bring greater suffering, not just to others, but to ourselves.

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