Harm minimisation vs. harm elimination


It’s important to say what you mean and mean what you say.

If you don’t say what you mean and mean what you say, you will likely be misunderstood.

The trouble is, even if you do say what you mean and mean what you say, you will still likely be misunderstood!

Sad but true.

It all goes back to the Babel incident recorded in the Book of Genesis.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (NIV)

Later, much later … we have modern telecommunications technology. We have the Internet and language translators such as the Babelfish). Microsoft readies real-time language translator for Skype. Is anything we plan now possible for us?

No, it’s not. Our language is still confused! People can’t seem to speak clearly. Ambiguity is ubiquitous. Even if we do say what we mean and mean what we say … it takes two to tango. Communication is as much the listener’s responsibility as the speaker’s. People can’t seem to speak clearly, and they can’t seem to listen clearly either. They’ll hear you say what they thought you meant. Even before you said it.

Even if what you meant is what you said and what you said is what you meant, you will still likely be misunderstood!

Here’s a recent case study. It’s an edited snippet of a conversation I had on Facebook with a libertarian friend. (No prizes for guessing whom!)

Do you agree that a government should minimise the unjust harm the government actively inflicts on its own citizens? Yes or No?

No it must be absolutely eliminated…and it is *we the people* who do this…. not the government itself. *they dont make the rules. We do. They merely enforce the duties we delegate to them…. Government for the People… by the people.
Their Duty is to *uphold our rights*….. whether or not we Harm ourselves to a greater or lesser extent…. via ignorance or choice.
When you say Governments unjust harm should be ‘minimised’ rather than eliminated, you are saying that there is a tolerable level unjust harm that is allowable….

That’s not what I’m saying at all. Or is it?!

verb: minimise
reduce (something, especially something undesirable) to the smallest possible amount or degree.

To minimise harm is to reduce harm to the smallest possible amount or degree.

To eliminate harm is to reduce harm to zero.

To minimise harm or to eliminate harm completely? These come to the exact same thing if it turns out that the smallest possible amount of harm is zero! The question is, consistent with its ongoing role as a properly functioning proper government, what is the smallest possible amount of unjust harm the government can actively inflict on its own citizens? Is it, in fact, zero?

It’s not zero.

What is the proper function of a proper government? My friend says that government’s duty

is to *uphold our rights*

but what the hell does that even mean? Uphold? Wat.

According to my understanding of libertarianism, the government really has only two proper functions, viz., defence of the realm and administration of justice.

For defence of the realm, we have the Ministry of Defence … and (arguably) the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (but not Trade).

For administration of justice, we have the Ministry of Justice … and the subsidiary Ministry of Police and Ministry of Corrections (so-called).

The police are there to apprehend those who infringe our rights. The prison system is there to punish the perpetrators, according to principles of justice. To “uphold” our rights is merely to apprehend those who infringe our rights and bring them to justice … after the fact. Strictly speaking, according to my libertarian philosophy, the police have no business preventing crime. That’s what private security companies are for.

Now, let’s consider the government’s proper function of administering justice. Because of the very nature of earthly justice systems, it turns out that the smallest possible amount of unjust harm a government may inflict on its own citizens is greater than zero.

Sad but true.

In administering justice, earthly justice systems are prone to two basic kinds of error. Punishing the innocent and letting the guilty walk free. These two errors are not independent.

We could eliminate the first kind of error—punishing the innocent—by letting everyone walk free. But that would be a cop-out. It would not be administering justice at all.

We could eliminate the second kind of error—letting the guilty walk free—by locking everyone up. But that would be to unjustly harm the innocent en masse. It would not be administering justice at all.

In practice, our justice system is heavily weighted towards avoiding the second kind of error. As a result, very few innocent people are ever sent to prison. As a result, very many guilty people walk free.

Governments harm people. Even proper libertarian governments. Unfortunately, there is a tolerable level of unjust harm that is allowable. It’s just a harsh fact of life but one that we must accept.

3 thoughts on “Harm minimisation vs. harm elimination”

  1. I think the false positive rate reflects the bloodthirstiness of the citizenry. As we have seen with the cannabis laws, the justice system is a powerful weapon against those sorts of people.

    1. Good point.

      very few innocent people are ever sent to prison.

      I meant apart from convicted drug dealers and others found guilty of victimless crimes.

  2. Harm elimination on a large scale is desirable but unrealistic, even impossible. Harm minimization is a constant effort towards reducing potential harm done to zero. Difficult but not impossible. Just like the Hippocratic oath, it reminds us that individually, culturally, nationally and globally, we have a responsibility towards ourselves and others to “do no harm”. If each individual did their part, government intervention would become redundant. The real issue for me is when individuals make choices that have a knock-on effect that ultimately require government intervention. The buck has to stop somewhere. If you don’t like the government telling you what is ok or not……. Look at how your choices are impacting your life and the life of others. Think about the big picture and become the voice of wisdom in your own life. Change something…. It’s the only time harm elimination is possible. Peace.

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