You would think that the first rule of medicine would be to do good, and in fact, beneficence is one of the core principles of medical ethics. After all, isn’t that the main activity of physicians – to alleviate suffering and to promote health?
The first rule above all else is to do no harm. It is the everpresent reminder that while we have a great capacity to help our patients, we may also cause them harm.
Our patients give us their trust and confidence. If these or the tools and technology of medicine are misused, they can cause grievous harm.
We can also cause unintentional harm in the course of trying to help. Virtually every treatment and procedure carries with it some risks and side effects. This is well known with any medication, including herbal and alternative remedies.
A key principle in ethics is informed consent. The autonomous patient must be given sufficient information about the potential risks and benefits of any treatment or procedure before they can give consent to proceed.
When you are prescribed a medication for example, you need to know the major (e.g. life-threatening) as well as the common side effects. You will then be in a better position to weight the risks versus the benefits and come to your own decision.
The double responsibilities of doing good while avoiding harm are not unique to the physician. Parents, with their calling to raise and protect their children and to nourish them physically and emotionally, can do great good and great harm. Trusted professionals including teachers and clergy carry similar responsibilities.
Each of us is intimately interconnected to countless others, and in our actions, carry an analogous duty and responsibility. We each have the duty to help others but the responsibility to avoid causing them harm, but like the nature of medicine, it is the nature of living a human life that we do cause harm intentionally and unintentionally.
We are all guilty of hurting others in our actions and with our words. Much of the time we do this without intending to.
We can however minimize the harm we cause and maximize the good we do by living more mindfully – by being more conscious of the impact of our choices. Whenever we must make an important decision, we should consider the balance of good versus harm not only for ourselves but for others and our world.
Your happiness exercise for today: Be mindful of the effect of your words and actions on others. While making a point of increasing the happiness in the lives of the many people you will come into contact this day by kind words or thoughtful gestures, do your best to minimize harm.
If you have hurt others intentionally or unintentionally, admit it first to yourself and accept that we have all done this. Then balance the harm you have caused by doing something good for the one you have harmed.
We all share responsibility for the wellbeing of one another and consequently their happiness.