I have been thinking about ethical principles for the past few days. Most professional organizations have a code of ethics that their members are expected to observe. Although the specifics may vary from organization to organization, there are often overarching principles that apply more universally. For example, ideas like beneficence (seek to do good to others), non-malfeasance (do not harm others), autonomy (do not infringe upon the freedom of others), and integrity (promoting honesty and truthfulness) are common. These principles work well on paper, but in real life, ethical decisions are sometimes less obvious.
The typical American citizen is not beholden to these same ethical standards; however, I suspect a large majority of us would agree that these are useful ideas to uphold. Doing good to others while avoiding harm to them, respecting their freedom, promoting justice, and living with integrity are all good things. But how do we make decisions when these principles appear to conflict, especially when our decisions feel infinitely complex? We are faced with questions such as: who defines what is good? How do I decide when insisting upon my freedom may bring harm to other people? How do we resolve the dilemma when something that is beneficial to one group of people may be harmful to another group of people? Most of us would also agree that these choices are not easy.
Thus enters primum non nocere, rendered, “first, do no harm.” This phrase is often attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates, though it is not actually found in the physician oath bearing his name. Regardless, non-malfeasance is a good place to begin. If I am able to reasonably determine that my action or inaction may harm others, it then behooves me to choose an alternative if it is possible. Assuredly, beneficence is closely related to non-malfeasance. Seeking the good of others is virtuous. I would further suggest that for Christians, beneficence is central to our understanding of Christian love.
What has concerned me for some time is what appears to be a tendency to elevate autonomy above both beneficence and non-malfeasance. In other words, we often seem to be more committed to our personal freedom than we are to the well-being of others. We will loudly proclaim “What about my rights?” while seemingly overlooking or discounting the potential harm to others that might come from insisting upon our own way. Too often it seems, at least in 21st century America, our motto has become primum sui iuris (first, autonomy) rather than primum non nocere. I am doubtful that America’s founders saw autonomy as the highest good, although they clearly valued freedom. I am certain that Jesus did not value autonomy as the highest good.
I suspect some people will read my words as rejecting autonomy. I’m not. What I am suggesting is that it appears, to me at least, that our values have gotten turned upside down. Jesus came and showed us how to live as citizens of God’s kingdom in this world, intentionally seeking the good of others and the glory of God. In fact, he went so far as to tell us, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NLT). This does not mean accepting the possibility of dying for your faith at some later date, but rather seeking the good of others even when it may cost you something. It means that when we are asked to do something that could benefit others, even though it means setting aside our rights, we will do so if it is reasonable.
If our primary citizenship is in the kingdom of the world, we will doubtless prioritize autonomy; however, if our first commitment is to the kingdom of God, we will seek to do good to others even when it means setting aside our own preferences or comfort.