Why Are Progressives So Afraid Of Being Complicit In Harm?

Sophia Burns
3 min readOct 28, 2021
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If you’re a secular liberal, you’d find the approach to morality I was raised with both claustrophobic and alien. Progressive morality operates according to a beefed-up version of the Hippocratic Oath: doctors may swear to “first, do no harm” in their medical practice, but progressives elevate avoiding harm to a universal principle, the bedrock of all ethical thinking.

But I grew up in the church in Texas. The key word there wasn’t “harm.” Instead, it was “sin”— and just because an action doesn’t hurt anybody doesn’t mean it can’t be sinful. Bowing down to an idol doesn’t break anyone’s legs. If you take Christian theology seriously, it doesn’t even damage Jesus; would his power be diminished one jot by somebody’s refusal to recognize it? But it’s still a sin. If you do it, you’ll still earn yourself a trip to Hell.

I remember the first time I had the thought that it’s fine to do something just because it’s enjoyable, as long as you aren’t hurting anybody. I felt like I was entering uncharted territory — the notion that pleasure didn’t need to be justified by a larger purpose in order to be acceptable blew my mind. I had never before lived in a universe where insignificant choices were allowed to not matter.

Entering the activist community, I was heartened at first to see the emphasis on reducing harm (as opposed to guarding purity or pursuing sanctity). But think about the hardcore left-wingers you know, the intersectionalists and socialists and social justice advocates. Do they seem particularly willing to let low-stakes daily choices be unimportant? Do they take a don’t-worry-about-it attitude towards things that aren’t clearly hurting anyone?

Or are they prone to more, not less, moral scrupulosity than other people, examining their own souls with a microscope and condemning themselves for objectively-minor transgressions? Are they acting like people who don’t feel sin like a heavy weight, difficult to avoid and easy to get crushed underneath?

It’s admirable to want to avoid harm at all costs. But the activist mindset — despite coming from that positive intention — sets you up for failure. By treating every phenomenon and choice you come across, from what clothes you wear to what TV shows you watch, as deeply-embedded in…

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Sophia Burns

Paganism, Buddhism, Classics, philosophy, LGBTQ culture, and the art of living well. Former activist; I don’t trust culture war. http://patreon.com/sophiaburns