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Jakarta post

by Jennie S. Bev

John Stuart Mill, the 19th century British philosopher, was known for his utilitarianism concept. An individual has a value as long as they do no harm to others, regardless of whether they inflict any pain on themselves. 

“Doing no harm” is the highest standard of “morality,” if it is an appropriate word to use, as Mill himself didn’t agree with dogma-based “moral standards."

Frequently commuting between the USA and Indonesia as I do, I can clearly observe how “freedom” is a relative term. In many instances, “freedom” is not really so, particularly in Indonesia. Too many restricting dogmas abound, which place you in a “good” or “bad” category. Yet, dogma does not seem to work when it comes to the routine bribery, extortion and other abuses of public office.

Dogma seems to work well when involving dress codes and other relatively harmless everyday interpersonal acts, which are often enforced by social control and through religious leaders. It seems a bit ironic that trendy women wearing miniskirts are lumped into the “bad” category, while human-rights abusing and corrupt government officials are hailed as the people’s “heroes”. 

 I agree with Mill’s notion that as long as we do no harm to others, regardless of whether or not our acts harm us, we are good — with an exception. While Mill thought that conducting an act of suicide was not considered “wrong” as it didn’t harm others, I disagree. An act of killing is wrong on many levels, even when psychopathology is involved. And by “wrong” I’m not referring to the actor committing suicide, but oftentimes to the society that has failed the individual.

Mill’s notion of “doing no harm” is in alignment with the underlying paradigm in psychology: an individual is considered “abnormal” when he or she shows deviance, distress, dysfunction or danger. “Danger” can be directed toward others, while the other three symptoms are likely to be directed toward one’s self. The criteria of “abnormality” are not written in stone, as every culture and every phase in history have had their own characteristics, hence “cultural and historical” relativity.

As long as we are free and doing no harm to others, we are closer to achieving Aristotle’s “good life” or eudaimonia which means “happiness” or “welfare.” Every activity we do should be directed to achieving this without harming others, which is applicable in the world of politics and economy. John Stuart Mill’s concept of political economy in which Mill supported a “free market” while supporting taxation for the benefit of the people was considered a rival to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In every “free market,” some level of social responsibility exists.

 In today’s crowded world, an economy based upon eudaimonia is better. A “good life” is what’s missing from this linear pattern of classic economic theories. We can no longer afford to exploit as much as possible while our neighbors are suffering due to lack of clean water, health care and food. 

It would be mindless for corporations to continuously exploit limited natural resources as if they were limitless and create negative values through multiplication of hyped products and services because, in the end, they are killing the planet, and humanity — which are crucial for their consumers to maintain well-being and to buy their products.

 The paradigm that an economic act is necessary to solve a problem, such as “people are hungry, so I sell food” and “people need a good product, so I create a better product,” should be revised. 

In Betterment, Harvard economist Umair Haque proposed an economy based on “making people’s lives better” rather than based on “solving a problem.” The latter is similar to the pathological approach in the study of conventional psychology: Curing or treating a pathology. A nonpathological paradigm is called for, for the survival of humanity.

The logical steps for us today in living in a crowded and more demanding world are: Acknowledging the importance of freeing ourselves from restricting and judgmental dogma, harming no one through actions and inactions, and living a good life with awareness of others’ well-being.

 At last, love all. If you can’t love them all, do no harm.[]

The Jakarta Post, March 15, 2012

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