Language is extremely fluid, but as quarantine drags on I find myself wanting to use it more precisely—especially since physical contact with others is few and far between. Lately I’ve been thinking about the difference between “do good” and “do no harm”, both of which are goals for certain fields. On the surface, they seem to accomplish the same positive morale. As I dive deeper, they start to diverge.
Consequences come as the result of any action. We allow for some margin of error in most things because no actions can be performed in a closed system, and therefore all affects can’t be predicted. Defining that margin of error is crucial to the integrity and future improvements to the system.
In software development, programs will have features (intended results), bugs (usually errors), and characteristics. The classification of an attribute will depend heavily on the observer—see “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” The judgement of said consequences (good, bad, neutral) comes from afflicted parties and observers. To do good, is to maximize features. To do no harm is to minimize bugs. Ideally, we could optimize for both simultaneously; however, solutions are rarely so optimal.
Take for example the transplant version of the classic trolley problem. The doctor in saving five patients does a lot of good, arguably five times as much; however, in doing so actively does harm. Without this specific intervention, no harm is completed by the doctor. Doctors take an oath to do no harm, and thus the doctor is doing their job.
A more popular example would be that of Thanos. Let’s be honest, Thanos made some good points. There definitely exists a moral framework which justifies his actions, as well as most other actions (yes, even that one.) Thanos is the villain for a reason, even though he does good!
A real-life example of this difference would be philanthropic efforts from billionaires. Philanthropy from the ultra-rich is often regarded as a good thing; however, many fortunes are acquired through exploitation. How good is philanthropy when it both creates and solves massive societal problems? What good is mercy without justice? Khalil Gibran says in his book The Prophet, “…mercy is bestowed upon the guilty criminal, while justice is all the innocent man requires.” Philanthropic efforts are often viewed as merciful, but being exploited isn’t a crime, whereas exploitation is. What are we willing to accept in pursuit of our goals?
and in conclusion….
Therein lies the rift between “doing no harm” and “doing good.” In essence, the acceptance of collateral damages. To focus on “good” often results in the acceptance some harm, whereas to focus on minimizing harm requires more in-depth analyses on the consequences of actions and in-action. To pretend they’re the same thing is naive at best. The aim should be to do both.