“But, it’s not hurting anyone.” I used to use this as a “test” to determine if my actions were moral or immoral. As long as no one else was getting “hurt” I could do what felt best to me. However, there were problems with my approach that I was unaware of.
I was assuming that I had enough information and foresight to determine whether or not anyone was going to be “hurt” by my actions. I also had to form my own ideas about what “being hurt” actually meant. Ultimately, I was just making up my own morality to suit my wants and drives as I saw fit.
I failed to understand that there is more to morality than “not hurting others.” I also did not realize that there are ways of hurting others that may not be obvious or immediate. The consequences of some actions can be unseen or show up years later.
Lying is a good example. What makes a lie “bad?” It can’t be simply that it “hurts” other people. Some lies hurt, but some do no apparent damage to anyone. The reason a lie is “bad” is based on the “good” it opposes. The “good” is truth. Truth is a “good.” When we lie, we oppose that “good.” That’s what ultimately makes lying “bad.”
Stealing is another example. If I take $100 from a billionaire, who really gets hurt? That billionaire won’t even feel the loss. So, why is stealing “bad” in this case? What’s the “good” that is being opposed? The principle of private property is being opposed. Private property is a “good.” When I steal I oppose the “good” of private property.
Immoral behavior is not “bad” simply because others “get hurt.” It is “bad” because it opposes a certain “good.” Nevertheless, there is a chance that someone is being hurt, even if we can’t obviously see it.
Consider the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. In order to make the emperor feel good, everyone was commanded to pretend that his clothes were spectacular. The truth was that the emperor was naked.
Now, would it “hurt” people to tell the emperor how wonderful his clothes looked? Would it hurt them to pretend in order to spare the emperor’s feelings? Maybe not in the sense that people regard “hurting” someone. Yet, they are all being compelled to lie. They are opposing the “good” which is truth. They are being forced to be dishonest. They are being forced to say that the truth is bad and a lie is good. In this sense, it does hurt them. The “good” is actually better for all of them. “Honesty is the best policy” even when the truth is “uncomfortable.”
In order to recognize an immoral behavior, we first must recognize the “good” that it opposes. If all we do is ask ourselves if it “hurts” anyone, we are missing the deeper essence of morality. This is why it can be so difficult for even professing Catholics to understand and accept Catholic moral teachings. There is a profound lack of understanding of what is truly “good.” Without that foundation, we are left with only vague speculations about what may or may not “hurt someone,” and subjective feelings about “what’s best for me and my happiness.”
Unless we are able to truly see the “good,” we will fail to see the “bad.” Things eventually get “ugly.”