A pair of somewhat universally acknowledged ethical mandates set out the expectation that we should do no harm, and that where possible we should do some good. Terry Goodkind, author of the Sword of Truth series spells out 11 Wizards Rules. The second rule is that the greatest harm can result from the best intentions. It can be very hard to predict the consequences of our actions, even those actions we undertake with the best of intentions. … that gives me pause when I think about acting to bring about social change. It really gives me pause when I catch myself thinking that my way, my idea, my plan is better than someone else’s way, plan or idea.
Here’s Zen story that helps me to think more generously about doing well with the best of intentions.
Ludwik was a farmer in a small Polish village where my grandparents grew up. Ludwik worked his fields with all his energy for many years. One day his horse ran way. When the neighbors heard the news, they came to commiserate with the farmer on his bad luck. “Taka szkoda.” They said.
“It’s a pit! How awful for you” Ludwik just shrugged and said: “May be”
The next day, the horse returned, bringing with it three wild horses. “To wspaniałe! — How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” Ludiwk replied.
The next day the Ludwik’s son Pawel tried to ride one of the wild horses. He was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came saying “Taka szkoda” to offer their sympathy. “May be,” Ludwik replied.
Well, a few days go by and then the army passed through the village to draft young men into service. Because Pawel’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors again sought out Ludwig saying ” To wspaniałe!” congratulating him on how well things had turned out for his family. “May be,” Ludwik simple said.
What is doing good? What will cause harm? It’s hard to know beneficence in the short run may have profound unintended consequences in the longer run. What feels harmful today, well … if it doesn’t kill you it will only make you stronger?!?