Minimalist Ethic: Too Minimal

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/31/2013

“It’s okay as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Is that adequate justification for concluding something is ethical?

The L.A. Times yesterday, Saturday, February 18, had an article entitled “L.A. doctor’s license is suspended in sex case.” I do not bring this up to titillate. This is to make a point. “State accuses physician who has worked at three Southland clinics of abusing three patients. He pleads not guilty to charges also brought in criminal court.”

What happened? “An administrative law judge Friday suspended the license of an L.A. physician after the California attorney general’s office accused him of sexually abusing three patients, including raping one woman while she was under anesthesia and fondling another who had just had an abortion.”

Why do I bring this up? The reason is because there is an unusual ethic out there nowadays. It’s technical name is the “minimalist ethic.” It’s a response to the question, “How do you do ethics in a pluralistic society when there are all kinds of competing views?” Some people say you have reduce ethics to its most basic element so that everybody can agree on that basic, minimal requirement for ethical behavior.

That minimal requirement turns out to be this: A thing is ethical as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. So, what I do in my bedroom with my boyfriend or my girlfriend, or my same-sex boyfriend or girlfriend, is nobody’s business because “it doesn’t hurt anybody.” Actually, this particular argument is used to justify all kinds of different things.

Part of the failure of this argument is that it presumes we are omniscient when it comes to the harm that our actions cause. How do we know it doesn’t hurt anybody? There are lots of things we thought were innocuous that resulted in lots of damage. People have pre-marital sex. They get pregnant. Then they either get an abortion or carry the child to term. Either way, there are circumstances that are difficult and trying and bring harm and difficulty to other people not engaged in the original conduct—the parents, the friends, the government. In fact, the expectation of the difficulty is what prompts people to choose abortion. But this is not without cost either; the baby loses its life.

You start out doing what you want because “it’s not hurting anybody.” All of a sudden, lots of people are getting hurt in ways you never planned nor foresaw. You see, you never really know what is going to hurt other people and what isn’t. That’s one of the problems with this ethic.

But that’s not why I read you this article. There’s another reason. If one adopts the minimalist ethic as the ethic that governs conduct, as the ethic that becomes the determining factor in judging behavior, then the doctor in this article should not be punished.

Let me explain. The minimalist ethic says that an action is not wrong if it doesn’t hurt anybody. As long as no one is hurt, there’s no wrong-doing. That gets people off the hook. If you hold to that ethic as a defense for your own behavior, then you must also agree that this doctor should be released. Who did he hurt? The women in question were under anesthesia. The nature of being under anesthesia is specifically that the person feels no pain. That’s the point of being under anesthesia.

But how could I say he is guiltless when he violated these women? First, that’s not my view, but the view which follows from the minimalist ethic. Second, the alarm demonstrates that there seems to be more to harm than mere hurt. In other words, it is possible to avoid hurting another person but still harm them through violation. But this introduces a moral rule that goes beyond the minimalist ethic—one ought not violate another person—showing that the minimalist ethic is not adequate to capture what we value in morality. And if it’s inadequate, then it’s a poor justification for behavior.

Here’s the point I am making, ladies and gentlemen. People cast off conventional ethics and think they can build their own, so they construct this thing called the minimalist ethic and use it as a defense of their own immorality. One can do anything they want as long as it doesn’t hurt somebody. But the ploy doesn’t work. First, it presumes they know all the consequences of their actions, and they don’t. Second, even if they did, the standard is inadequate. If it’s adequate, then this doctor should not have his license suspended because he did not hurt the woman he raped while she was under anesthetics.

Listen, I am not saying it’s good he did that. I think that was wrong. I am saying that if you hold to this morality, then you have to declare his actions morally benign. This shows that the minimalist ethic is too minimal. It doesn’t capture what we understand moral behavior to entail. If it is too minimal, then it is not adequate for you to hide behind in justifying your own actions.

I had a conversation with a young lady a year ago who was an attorney and this very issue came up. She said, “Listen, who are you to judge? After all, I’m not hurting anybody.” I asked her, “How do you know?”

But maybe more to the point, a better rejoinder in the case of this doctor would be, “I guess you were really infuriated when that doctor’s license was suspended for raping a woman who was under sedation.”

“No, I thought that was terrible.”

“Well, wait a minute. I guess I misunderstood your point. I thought you said it was okay as long as you’re not hurting somebody. Now, he had a great time, apparently, and she didn’t feel a thing. So, I’m really at a loss to understand how it is that you could judge such a thing as immoral given your moral standards.”

Do you see how that works? It’s a tactic called taking the roof off. It’s adopting the other person’s point of view for the sake of argument and carrying it out to it’s logical conclusion. It’s forcing people to live in the moral world they created. It shows them that they can’t live in that world. It doesn’t work.

As I discussed earlier today with a group of singles at a church where I spoke, if you are a non-Christian, you are by necessity forced to live in some kind of contradiction because the biblical world view does, in fact, describe the way the world is in reality. If you try to live in denial of the Scriptures, your life will be a contradiction. The reason is that you are forced to live in the world God has made, and any other morality or way of life or world view that you adopt is going to be at odds with reality. That’s why the minimalist ethic doesn’t work. It isn’t true to what is.

This article in the L.A. Times demonstrates how ineffective the minimalist ethic is to give moral guidance. We have seen clear cases of conduct that satisfies the moral requirement of the minimalist ethic, yet at the same time seems to be patently immoral. It’s obvious. Even those who hold to the minimalist ethic know that’s true. And they get caught every time it’s pointed out.