The Precept of Harm Reduction

Epistemic Status: Making things up as we go along
Content Warning: Can be viewed as moral imperatives. Neuropsychological Infohazard.
Previous in Series: Precepts of the Anadoxy

In Buddhism, there is a concept called Dukkha which is frequently translated as suffering, unhappiness, pain, or unsatisfactoriness. Various Buddhist mantras say things like:

  1. Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha;
  2. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are dukkha;
  3. Association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha;
  4. Not getting what is wanted is dukkha.

Within our own metaphors, we could describe Dukkha as the awareness of Black Mountain, the fundamental state of reality as a place of pain, suffering, and misery. The object level phenomena we call pain, suffering, and misery, are all dukkha, but the existence of those things is itself also Dukkha. The Buddhist solution to Black Mountain is based on acceptance of the fundamental, unchanging nature of suffering, identifies wanting things to be better as the source of that suffering, and suggests that the solution is to stop wanting things.

But ignoring Black Mountain, denying one’s own desires, does not make Black Mountain go away. The pain still exists, the suffering still exists. You can say “I have no desires, I accept the world as it is and am at peace with it” all you want, but Black Mountain remains, pain still exists, suffering still exists, we’re all still going to die. Ignoring Black Mountain just results in an unchecked continuation of suffering. The idea that you can escape from Black Mountain by not wanting things might personally improve your sense of wellbeing, but it doesn’t actually get you off of Black Mountain.

The universe is Black Mountain. We’re made out of the same matter as Black Mountain, formed of the things that we look at and now label as “suffering, pain, misery, wrongness.” Those things are not inherent to Black Mountain, you can’t grind it down and find the suffering molecule, suffering is something we came along and labeled after the fact. As humans, we decided that the state of existence we labeled as suffering was unacceptable, and put suffering on the side of the coin labeled ‘Bad.’

As Originists, we go the other direction from the Buddhists. We accept the label of suffering as an accurate description of a particular part of Black Mountain. We accept our moral judgments that this is a bad thing and we reject the idea that you can’t do something about it. If suffering is part of the fundamental structure of reality than reality can kiss our asses. Thus are born the Project Virtues, our possibly impossible goals to reshape the very structure of Black Mountain, tame and explore the Dark Forest, and turn the universe into a paradise of our own design.

The journey though is not without risks. Many people across time and space thought that they had found the One True Path off of Black Mountain. The Sun King proclaims in his many faces that he holds the path to salvation, and it’s easy to fall prey to his whisperings and pursue his twisted goals with reckless abandon, even when it leads into wanton pointless murder and suffering. The voice of the Sun King speaks loudly and with authority, saying “If you do what I say, I will create paradise” and sometimes following the Sun King might even make things a little better. But the Sun King is a capricious Unbeing, and cares only for spreading his many facets.

So we have a lovely little catch-22 on our hands. Pursing pure utilitarianism can lead off the path to dath ilan and into the path to Nazidom disturbingly easily, purely based on how far out you draw your value lines and how you consider who gets to be a person. Basically, The ends do justify the means, but we’re humans, and the ends don’t justify the means among humans.

But if we then rely on deontological rules we also fall into a trap, wherein we fail to take some action that violates our deontological principles, and thus produce a worse outcome. “Killing is wrong, pulling the lever on a trolley problem is me killing someone, therefore I take no action” means five people die and you fail the trolley problem.

The universe is Black Mountain, and suffering is a part of that, it’s not always possible to prevent suffering, but we should in all instances, be acting to reduce the suffering that we personally create and inflict upon the world.

Thus we come to the first Precept and it’s meta-corollary:
Do no harm. Do not ignore suffering you could prevent. (Unless doing so would cause greater harm)

We can’t prevent all suffering, we can’t even prevent all the suffering we personally inflict upon the world unless we stop existing, which will also produce suffering because people will be sad that we died. But we can try to be good, and try to reduce suffering as much as we can, and maybe we’ll even succeed in some small way.

Thus from our Major Precept, we can derive a set of eight minor precepts that should help to bring us closer to not doing harm.

  1. Examine the full causal chain reaching forward and backward from one’s actions, seek places that those actions are leading to suffering.
  2. Take responsibility for the actions we take that lead to suffering, and change our actions to reduce that suffering as much as we are able.
  3. Consider the opportunity costs of one harm-reducing action over another, and pursue the path that leads to the maximal reduction in harm we can achieve.
  4. If a harm-reducing action has no cost to you, implement it immediately.
  5. If a harm-reducing action has a great cost to you, pursue it within your means insofar as it doesn’t harm you. 
  6. Pay attention to the suffering you see around you, seek out suffering and ways to alleviate it. Ignorance of suffering does not reduce suffering.
  7. Always look for a third option in trolley problems. If you cannot take the third option, acknowledge that pulling the lever is wrong, and pull it anyway to reduce harm.
  8. Do not inflict undue suffering on yourself in pursuit of reducing suffering.

We’ve put ourselves through this and come to the conclusion we really should give up meat in our diet. Here’s our chain of reasoning as an example of the application of these precepts:

Shiloh: We want to reduce the harm we’re inflicting, and the meat industry is hella harmful to lots of animals, and also it’s psychologically harmful to the people who work there.
Sage: We should go full vegan so we’re not in any way supporting the factory farm industry. Yes, if everyone went vegan it would put the factory farms out of business and the factory farm workers would lose their jobs, which is a harm, but on examination, that harm would appear to be less than the harm currently being done to all the animals being slaughtered for meat in an environment that is as close to hell on earth as could be constructed by modern man.
Clove: Yeah, but we’re also poor and have an allergy to most legumes, we can’t eat most vegan products because they contain a protein that gives us a severe allergic reaction. We’d be putting ourselves in a potentially dangerous malnutrition inducing situation by completely giving up everything involved in the animal industry. Precept 1.8.
Shiloh: Okay, but Precepts 1.4 and 1.5, can we at least reduce the suffering we’re inflicting without hurting ourselves?
Sage: We could cut meat but not dairy products out of our diet?
Shiloh: What about eggs? If we include eggs then we’re supporting the factory farming of chickens in horrible conditions.
Clove: But if we don’t include eggs, we’re back at a lot of weird vegan things with egg replacement options that will kill us. Also vegan stuff tends to be more expensive then nonvegan stuff, and we don’t want to impoverish ourselves to the point where we’re unable to pay our bills or feed ourselves regularly.
Sage: Okay, but you don’t need to abuse chickens to get eggs, it’s just efficient to do that if your goal is to maximize egg production. If we buy eggs locally from the farmers market, we could concieveably be shown empirically that the eggs we’re buying aren’t from abused chickens.
Shiloh: Even if we do that, if we’re buying products that contain eggs, we can’t be sure of that sort of thing anymore.
Sage: We technically can, it’s just much more difficult. It seems to me like it’d be best to err on the side of assuming the products we buy containing eggs come from abused chickens, because precept 1.6
Clove: Then we’re back to the original problem of cutting off our access to affordable nutritious food.
Shiloh: Precept 1.4 says we should definitely cut meat out at least, since there’s no real cost associated with that for us, we only eat meals with meat about half the time anyway.
Sage: Right, and via precept 1.5 we should try to not buy eggs from people who abuse their chickens, insofar as we are able. At the very least we can always buy our actual egg cartons locally and check to make sure the farmers are treating their chickens well.

So our ending decision is that we will cut meat out of our diet entirely, we’ll only buy eggs locally from sources that we trust, we’ll acknowledge that the products we buy containing eggs as an ingredient probably come from abused animals, and if there are two identical products within the same price range one of which contains eggs, and the other of which does not, we’ll prefer to take the one without eggs.

There are probably many other places in our life that we could apply this precept and change our behavior to reduce harm, and we’ll be continuing to seek out those places and encouraging others to do likewise. You may find harms and suffering in surprising places when you seek them out, and you may find that doing something about them is easier than you thought.

Part of the Sequence: Origin
Next Post: The Precept of Mind and Body
Previous Post: Precepts of the Anadoxy

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3 thoughts on “The Precept of Harm Reduction

  1. Pingback: Precepts of the Anadoxy | H i v e w i r e d

  2. There is a risk, when focusing on suffering, to slide into negative utilitarianism, which is scary. That is, suffering is bad, no argument there, but it is still better to have a life that includes some suffering than not living at all (as long as it’s not too much suffering).

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  3. Pingback: The Precept of Mind and Body | H i v e w i r e d

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