Good versus harm. Are we net positive?


If you can do no good, at least do no harm.  

Kurt Vonnegut

How will we ever know that the good we do will offset the harm we do? The good things we contribute to society, how we care for one another, our good deeds, the good things that we do every day. Not just the things we think about doing, but the things we actually deliver to the people and the society around us. How?

Good versus harm. Are we net positive?  Does our “goodness” outweigh the bad things that we do? Wait before you answer. I know you think you are a good person. Everyone does. And you are. But thinking and being are two different things.

Doing good over doing bad. Are we net positive? Even slightly? I wonder.

Doing nothing, including sleep, human maintenance, scrolling our phones etc is neither good or bad.

Consider for a minute, all of the bad we do without really doing anything. The unintended consequences of our wasteful lifestyle of material goods. Just using products that harm the environment, or other cultures, and other people. Yeah, our very existence has an impact and arguably, it is very negative.

I want to dust off the economic concept of externalities: the side effects or consequences of any economic activity that affects other parties without being reflected in the cost of the goods or services. These can be immediately manifested or emerge over many years unbeknownst to the investors, and operators of the activities.

We generate externalities. All in, what would our ledger of life look like? When every debit and credit is applied?

We try not to think about what we dump into the air, the ocean, and the rivers. The effects of pollution, plastics, carbon emissions, the plight of the honeybee, the snail darter or the steelhead trout. And then the secondary and cascading changes these externalities have on the food chain, the course of nature and the well-being of our planet.

I am as guilty as anyone for living the out of sight, out of mind, lifestyle.

The pesticides it took to grow your lunch salad. The animals that were sacrificed for your sustenance. The child and inhumane labor that was used to make your shoes and socks.

Not to mention the violence. War, terrorism, crime……

I could keep going, but I’m gonna stop. I’m just guilt bombing you right now to make a point. I’m trying to dissect and evaluate this query.

Let’s be ridiculously generous and count everything that is helping others and making the world a better place. Everything. Every minute. How much would that be?

Doing good takes many deceptive forms. I have met and worked with hundreds of people in philanthropy, many of whom are complicit in sustaining and even furthering the status quo, masquerading as agents of change. We know that corporate social responsibility is mostly an oxymoronic misnomer.

We have to measure the unintended consequences that harm others.

For example, the study that showed that one-year college scholarships contributed to more drop-outs and college debt than degrees. In this example, the $1000 scholarship, the purported good, produced at least 5x the harm.

We are so blindly ignorant of the harm we cause intentionally and unintentionally. We can feel good about bad outcomes. There are many positive impacts but the negatives are unaccounted.

I remember an episode of The Good Place (One of my favorite shows of all time) when Michael (Ted Danson), who was in the Good Place, this limbo heavenly world after death, and he was able to visit earth to evaluate the challenge of being “good”. He came back with this assessment:

Life now is so complicated. It’s impossible for anyone to be good enough for the Good Place. These days just buying a tomato at a grocery store means that you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, contributing to global warming. Humans think that they’re making one choice but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making.

Everything we do, every choice we make, with the best of intentions, is part of a matrix of decisions, choices and consequences we refuse to and could not anticipate fully.

Reducing our harm would be good, wouldn’t it?

I was talking to a friend whose relative believes in Jainism. Jainism is one of the world’s oldest religions, originating in India. It is estimated that they have approximately 10 million followers. Among their founding principles is Ahimsa–non violence.

They believe all living things, animals and plants, as well as human beings, contain living souls or jivas, literally “life-force.” Jains believe each of these souls is of equal value and should be treated with respect and compassion.

Jains avoid eating root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, and garlic because plants and other microorganisms are often injured or killed when uprooted. They are strict vegetarians and live in a way that minimizes their use of the world’s resources.

Their devotion to nonviolence goes much further. In the Jain tradition, monks and other devout Jains carry a fine brush to sweep away small insects that could be injured when they walk or sit.

This may sound extreme or nonsensical from our narrow worldview.
To Jains we are oblivious and perhaps uncaring as we move through the world and eat our garlic French fries.

What does doing less harm mean to Jains?

Last week I was introduced to a school of philosophical thought called anti-natalism. It was difficult to listen to and digest. It pushed me to the very limits of my rational mind and heart.

Anti-natalism is the moral philosophy that views birth and procreation of sentient beings (including non-human animals) as morally wrong. Anti-natalists argue that humans should abstain from procreating. Anti-natalists believe that every life brought into this world does more net harm to the world, to others and to themselves. It is science and fact-based philosophy that believes that life is not worth living. Interestingly they do not advocate for mass-suicide, but to prevent new life.

This one counters everything I believe in and perhaps for you too.

But anti-natalism has a loyal following. And the principles are compelling.

It made me think.

According to the philosophy—-pain is bad; pleasure is good. Absence of pain is good. Absence of pleasure is not bad. 

Does pleasure count as a good? And does our happiness offset the harm?

I know this is confusing and confounding.

Many of you will cry foul and cite the multiplicity of joy, beauty, truth, and relationships as the overwhelming source of pleasure, and perhaps good. And the amazing genius, talent and advancements human life has spawned.

I have three kids and wished we could have had more. I believe in procreation, and I am an optimist about the incredible and immeasurable pleasure that life offers.I believe wholeheartedly that life is worth living. I know that my children, and the new generation will continue to reduce the harm that we have done.

But the suffering and pain we cause is immense and far beyond what we know, what any of us comprehends.

Are you more optimistic than this?  

There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, “Oh it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything.” and an optimist who says, “Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine anyways. Either way, nothing happens.” Yvonne Chouinard

Nothing happens if we do nothing. What good can we still do?

We are not separate from nature or other living things and not even from inanimate things. We can’t be frozen into inaction or analysis paralysis, but we do have to increasingly be aware that living has consequences. We have to take responsibility for the costs for the harm, not just as a cost of good(s) but for the long-term consequences.

For me the viewpoints of the Jains and anti-natalists make me take stock of my actions and my ignorance. Seems almost impossible to be net positive—good over harm.

But it is worth trying.

How do we maximize the compassion and minimize the harm?

Life is more complicated. Especially when we increase our consciousness that we are interdependent with all things and all people.

Living a good life goes way beyond pleasure. It requires continuous acts of love to reduce harm.  

And we must celebrate those acts of love and hold each accountable for what we use and harm.

Sign-up for Career Collaborative #4!

April 28th

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Session #4
April 28, 2023  8-9:30am PST

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How do we keep track of how good we are? 

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