Hippocratic conservatism

Whether in medicine or statecraft, or in the manufacture of catfood, the principle of Hippocrates should generally be observed: “First, do no harm.” We cannot actually know whether Hippocrates said this — the words don’t appear  in his received texts, in precisely that order — but have no indication that anyone else said them first, so let me propose the harmless policy of leaving that attribution alone.

Well, we might want to do some harm in warfare. There are moments, you know, for everything. Perhaps one might nod: “everything in its season.” But let us consider specifically the benign notion, that one should try to avoid gratuitous destruction, even of one’s declared and rather active enemies. Having, for instance, killed all the men, we might want to go lightly on the women and children.

There is a Christian conception of right in warfare. It has, incidentally, been carefully thought through. We are not supposed, for instance, to kill maim or torture, just to settle a score, or because our opponents have put us in a bad mood. More broadly, the whole idea of solving one’s problems by killing people, ought to be resisted — even when the temptation is fairly strong. (As, for example, during an unwanted pregnancy.)

Not all harm results in deaths, however. Consider, gentle reader,  that there are people who have made a lot of money, crassly. I’ve known several. Allow me to think of one in particular. Can’t say he broke any laws while amassing his fortune, or that his products were worse than gross errors of taste. He committed other sins, but then, so did I. (We’re both still doing it.)

Don’t tell anyone, but I would sometimes like to hurt him. I wouldn’t risk doing anything direct, from the cowardly fear of getting caught, and perhaps the knowledge that God is still watching, even while my enemy is off guard. But were I, say, some sort of progressive activist, I would want to tax him, as ruinously as possible.

Yet by the (perfectly “secular”) principle that Hippocrates apparently espoused, I have no reason to hurt him, even in the moment when he is too much in my face. Moreover, my resentment does me no good. By inventing a tax only “bad people” would pay, I hurt many people I know nothing about. This is not a “might” but a certainty, as many Leftists have discovered, after the laws they advocated were turned against them. (My head is replete with delicious examples.)

I want him to give his money to good, charitable causes, but he wouldn’t dream of it, because he is a hard-boiled selfish skunk. But why do I have to do anything about that? God will deal with him at His leisure.

In the meanwhile I would be content to stop him from opening a store in my neighbourhood, to further corrupt the local kids. That might be legitimate.

What strikes me about current political debate, is that doing harm is taken for granted. Candidates for public office quite casually suggest acts of malignity towards their chosen foes, to large cheering sections of their friends. They would impose what, by the rules of civility, ought to be done voluntarily. They would take away rights which, in the long view of history, people long had; by acts which, in the same long view, never ended well.

Or to put this another way: slow down, hang back, don’t go there. Let us support doctors and politicians and petfood suppliers who will do no harm, unless they absolutely have to.