Mini-Feature: Avoidable Harm

What causes the most harm in the world, but is completely avoidable?

Although it helps, you don’t have to be a Christian fatalist to sense that no source of great harm is completely avoidable, and that even nearly undetectable harms—for instance, the kind done to souls—can be among the greatest in adverse consequences.

Nor do you have to be a “deconstructionist” to pick away further at the question of avoidable harm by noticing that pain and suffering implicating others is often times essential to facing the challenges and evils of life and by that path defeating them.

Our given selves have weak buffers and strong cores, and while even many who think they agree with this do not recognize it properly and instead conclude that the wounded weak-souled should see themselves as superstars, the plain truth is that the strong-souled maintain life’s force and authority by taking on harm without the vanity of pride.

So I am tempted to say that, although we characteristically fail to avoid avoidable harms to ourselves, harms often worse than what we dare to inflict or even accidentally afflict on others, the most avoidable greatest harm is trying to construct an ethical system around harm being the worst thing there is and avoiding harm the best.

As we see today, the result of this kind of system is to spiritualize harm into a cosmic enemy, probably inevitably making an evil demiurge of nature as (mistakenly) the source of incarnate life, and therefore (another mistake) deconstructing God into a sort of plasma of pure consciousness—with which the harm-avoider seeks to be freed into perfect communion by the transformation of the body, the site of harm, into first a puppet-like proving ground for the “divine spirit” and then a corrupt shell to be discarded once the spirit is strong enough to be “free.”

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

One of my children once told me that she needed to come up with a “New Year’s resolution for the whole world” to satisfy an elementary school assignment.  

“Everyone should mind his own business this year,” I suggested. “That would be a good principle for the whole world to follow.” 

My daughter was momentarily non-plussed. “I don’t think that’s what they meant,” she responded eventually. 

Of course it wasn’t. No doubt her New York City public school teacher had in mind some proactive step everyone should take collectively to make the world a better place, such as universal recycling, or riding bikes to work, etc. 

But I maintain that collectively doing things to improve the world is the root of all evil and, if avoided, would immeasurably make things better, if only because there would be so little chance for error.  

“Mind your business” is a great adage, with two meanings: “Leave other people alone” and “attend to your own problems.” This is why the first coin minted by the United States, and designed by Benjamin Franklin, included these wise words stamped on their obverse. If only it had been adopted as our national slogan we may have avoided many of our contemporary problems. 

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind


St. Augustine thought that man would go through four stages by the time this whole cosmic drama was done. Before the Fall, man was able both to sin and not to sin. He had a choice. After the Fall, he was not able not to sin. Born anew through Christ, he became able not to sin, and once finally glorified he would no longer be able to sin. 

I have never been quite sure about all this, though it makes for some neat wordplay in Latin. In any case the second part seems right to me: a fact of our broken state is that we feel like we should be able to avoid doing evil, but we can’t. St. Paul of course put this more succinctly (and inaugurated what would one day become modern psychology) when he said that “what I want to do, I do not do, but what I do not want to do, I do.” 

The thing that causes the most harm in the world, though in some hypothetical sense it is completely avoidable, is willful human malice. I know I will hurt my mother if I say just these words in just this tone of voice; I know I love my mother and she does not deserve to be hurt. Still I say the words anyway. I want to, and the part of me that does not want to is not strong.  

Perhaps then another way to answer the question is to say: it is the weakness of the best part of us, the feebleness in our nature that falls asleep or turns aside at the crucial moment, that hair-trigger decision we make to torch the best thing in our life for no reason. That is what causes all the avoidable grief we cannot avoid causing. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind