What Does it Mean to ‘Harm None’?

“These eight words The Rede fulfill

An’ ye harm none, do what ye will”

But what does it mean to harm none? The world is far from being a black and white place and the situations we may find ourselves faced with reflect this. We may be in a situation where, no matter the decision we make, harm will befall someone by either our action or inaction. Is it even possible to live by these words at all times?

The best way to ponder this question and attempt to reach a conclusion is to examine a hypothetical situation. The situation is as follows: You are out with a friend when a man approaches and holds a gun to them with the intention of shooting them. This requires you to make a decision; whether or not to intervene. If you fail to intervene, your friend will be harmed. If you do intervene, assuming you must use force to disarm the perpetrator, they will be harmed.

No matter how you decide to react, you will be causing harm. If you choose not to intervene, you will not directly be harming your friend. However, your failure to act will result in them being harmed. When you have the ability to prevent harm from occurring, but choose not to prevent it, you are still causing harm by way of your inaction. Because you had the ability to prevent harm, but actively chose not to take action, this is no different from directly causing harm as you would be doing if you choose to intervene and attack the perpetrator. The end result is the same, it matters not if you were the direct or indirect cause.

Now that this is established, it becomes clear that no matter what you choose to do in the aforementioned hypothetical situation, you will be causing harm. If this is the case, you must now base your decision on new criteria. Because the perpetrator actively chose to put himself in a situation in which his intention is to cause harm, he becomes responsible for any harm that befalls him as a result of his decisions. Essentially, your friend is an innocent whereas the perpetrator is not. Under such circumstances, attacking the perpetrator to save your friend, an innocent, is the morally correct decision. Innocents must always be held in a higher regard and harm that befalls them seen as worse than harm that befalls a perpetrator of injustice.

In a complex world of complex situations and dilemmas, ‘harm none’ must sometimes be understood to mean ‘cause the least harm possible’.