Are people free to do what they want as long as they don’t hurt anybody?

by David Wright on December 11, 2006
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I heard someone say recently that people should be free to do whatever they want to do as long as they don’t hurt anybody.

I heard someone say recently that people should be free to do whatever they want to do as long as they don’t hurt anybody. As a Christian, how do I answer such a question?


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Thank you for contacting Answers in Genesis. As for how you can answer such a question, you will want to start by going on the offensive (but don’t be offensive!) by asking questions of your own and putting your opponent on the defensive. Jesus did this often (Matthew 9:2–8; 12:1–5, 9–12, 22–30; 15:1–6; 21:23–27; 22:15–33).

I know it must sometimes become tedious repeatedly rebutting the same tired arguments against the Bible put forward from different people. I am glad you do it, however, since each time I read a feedback article like, “Should Christians accept evolution because a leading skeptic says they should?” I gain new insights and understanding. I use what I learn, when I can, in my daily interactions with people. Thank you for doing this.

D.T., West Allis, Wisconsin

The idea that people are free to do what they want as long as they don’t hurt anyone else has many philosophical problems. I will attempt to dissect it and point out its errors. But before we point out the errors of others, we need to be firm in our philosophical foundations. Remember, since God and His Word are the final and absolute authority, if we stand on them, we cannot lose.

Now let’s look at this statement more closely. Person 1 says:

People should be free to do whatever they want to do as long as they don’t hurt anybody.

The first problem is that saying this statement can be offensive and hurtful to some Christians, who see it as an attack on God and the Word of God (since the Word of God sets absolute rules). So since this statement itself can be hurtful, then, according to the statement itself, it shouldn’t be said!

This statement implies there should be no absolute standard of personal conduct (except what hurts others), yet the statement is an assertion of an absolute. So really, when someone uses this, he is making his own absolute rule about what people should be allowed to do: anything that neither hurts others nor asserts that an absolute standard of conduct exists!

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Besides, by what authority does a person make this statement? How do they know this statement is true? What if person 2 says: “People should be free to do whatever they want to do even if it means hurting others.” Which of the two rules is the truth? What if person 3 says: “People should be forced to hurt others.” Which of three rules is the truth? Who is to say that the first person’s guideline is any more right than the other two? The absolute truth is God and He makes it clear throughout the Bible that He is perfect and man is not. So His rules are perfect; man’s are fallible.

Also, how does anyone decide what is meant by “hurt”? Does the individual decide? If so, each individual has made themselves out to be an absolute authority. But since each is human, and has finite knowledge and understanding, none can make absolute statements unless they come from an absolute source. In fact, without a belief in God and His Word, there is no basis for a consistent belief in “hurt.” Examine this imaginary dialogue:

Non-Believer [NB]: People should be free to do whatever they want to do as long as they don’t hurt anybody.

Believer [B]: What do you mean by “hurt”? Is it emotional, spiritual, mental, and/or physical hurt?

NB: Like when you hurt someone’s feelings, or hurt someone physically.

B: So you’re saying that the basis for right and wrong is whether or not it “hurts” someone?

NB: Well, yeah.

B: What about telling the truth? Sometimes that can “hurt” mentally and/or emotionally. What about physical therapy? That can “hurt” physically. If right and wrong are based on whether or not someone is getting “hurt” then telling the truth and doing physical therapy are wrong. Do you believe telling the truth and aiding physical therapy are wrong? Do you think it is wrong to throw someone in jail as a punishment for murder? After all, that would hurt the murderer!

NB: That’s not what I mean. Obviously, you would use common sense; if it hurts someone in a bad way, it would be wrong.

(If this is said by a non-believer, then they have just stepped into philosophical quicksand.)

B: What do you mean by “common sense”? What standard of “common sense” are you using to judge which hurtful actions are acceptable and which aren’t? One thing that you consider “bad” might be “good” to someone else, or something you consider “good” might be “bad” to someone else. Take, for example, terrorists. They think killing innocent people is a good thing. They might assert that it is “common sense” or “completely acceptable” to detonate bombs on a busy bus. How do you decide who is right about what is right?

(At this point the non-believer may start to get frustrated, but hopefully they will begin to think about what they believe and what their foundation is. They may try to go on the offensive, but try to make them answer the questions. By doing so we are actually following Jesus’ example in Matthew 21:23–27.)

NB: Well, society as a whole decides.

(This only shifts the responsibility to a group rather than themselves. Regardless, deciding what is right and wrong is still determined by fallible individuals.)

B: So society decides what is right and wrong?

NB: Yes.

B: Many living in Nazi Germany thought they were doing the right thing by exterminating Jews and other less desirable “races.” So if societies decide what is right, then weren’t the Nazis doing the right thing?

This may not be exactly how your conversation goes, but if you can take them back to their foundation of right and wrong and show them that their beliefs are inconsistent or illogical, then you’ve helped them understand the importance of presuppositions. As Christians, we have a logical and consistent basis for what is right and wrong. The Judeo-Christian worldview relies on God, who is the absolute source to tell us what is right and what is wrong. Therefore, the Bible is the source to explain morality, logic, and emotions consistently and correctly.

A great book that I have found very helpful is Always Ready. I highly recommend this book to help anyone defend his faith.

I pray this is helpful. Have a great day and God bless,

David Wright, AiG–USA


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