In modern societies the moral principle of ‘do-no-harm’ is well established. Harm to the individual not only invades a person’s private domain but can have lasting life changing consequences for the individual concerned. Harm may well pose restrictions on a person’s well-being or ability to live life according to their own design. In our modern societies “to avoid harm” is a well-established moral “rule of thumb” in the interaction amongst people and organizations in any given circumstance.
Nevertheless “harm” does happen and comes to us all, in many shapes and forms. The big earthquakes in recent times here in Canterbury have caused harm to many. In the wake of those first shocks that rocked the City and its surrounds, Cantabrians lost their lives, thousands were harmfully wounded by falling debris, hundreds of thousands lost a safe place to live, many lost their assets and cherished heirlooms. Ongoing aftershocks destabilized the population mentally causing great distress and affecting how we feel about ourselves. Irreversible harm was done to prized relationships as some of us grieve over the loss of cherished companions, as we cope with permanent disabilities affecting our daily routines and activities. Many were out of work and lost their incomes. In those early days for most Cantabrians the “harm” done by the earthquakes was visible, accessible and experienced on a daily basis. The personal stories of many Cantabrians give a heartbreaking account of the extent of the harm experienced during the initial earthquakes and the subsequent series of aftershocks.
But harm is not only experienced as a consequence of natural disasters – harm is also inflicted upon people, by people. It is here that the moral principle of doing no harm comes into play. I know of a rescue worker who worked tirelessly on the site of the collapsed CTV building. He was engaged in a desperate attempt to help save the lives of those buried under the rubble. When he returned home after an exhausting 16 hour shift, he discovered that his home had been broken into and that others had robbed him of his electronic devices and an expensive collection of art materials. This home invasion required police investigation and prosecution, but the act itself must also be condemned on moral grounds because the buglers overstepped the rule of thumb not to inflict unwarranted harm on others. Morally speaking it was a despicable act.
Harm can also be done by the application of existing regulations, council policies, the enforcement of law or the handling of claims by insurers to name a few. Some of those institutionalized approaches are put in place to protect the interest of individuals or the common good of the community at large. To protect an elderly couple, who were adamant that they needed to stay in their collapsed property for the reason that everything they ever possessed was buried there under the rubble, Civil Defense nevertheless ordered them to leave the premises immediately for their own safety. The safety concerns of the representatives of Civil Defense and the risks to be averted by ongoing earthquakes were so significant that they overruled all other concerns and pleas by the habitants to let them stay where they were. However by doing so, Civil Defense unintentionally yet inevitably caused the elderly couple a tremendous amount of harm.
In similar fashion one can be sure that the many section 124 notices that have been issued have caused many Cantabrians harm. Those notices fundamentally disrupt the lives of those affected homeowners. Yet another example of how third parties intrude in the lives of Cantabrians in a harmful way is the reoccurring phenomenon of the “shoddy repairs” to earthquake damaged homes. On discovering that these shoddy repairs not only harm the value of the property but ultimately affect the home owner as they need to once again goes through the agony of having their asset properly fixed.
Finally, how about the assessment of the damage to a property by a loss adjuster or a structural engineer employed by the insurers, that proves to misrepresent the true nature of that damage and thus results in an underestimate of the costs of reinstatement, which in turn, may come to haunt the homeowner financially later on and may well have to ‘fork out’ the additional costs of the repair/rebuild!
So far we have demonstrated that “harm” can be inflicted upon people by a disaster out of their control, “harm” can be inflicted on individuals by other people, “harm” can be inflicted by authorities through existing policies or regulations. We have also alluded to the fact that harm can be inflicted by people who work for organizations like the insurers, implying these organizations themselves and the way in which they operate in any given circumstances can cause individuals harm and are, in doing so, in fact, violating one of the core moral principles of modern society.
The moral notion of doing no harm cannot only be compromised in an individual sense between persons, but also in the corporate sense, between persons and institutions. When the lives of people, recruited for a clinical trial by a pharmaceutical company, are adversely affected by side-effects, this becomes a serious breach of the no-harm principle. Although these side effects may not be anticipated by the company, the company is still held liable and must compensate for the harm inflicted. It stands to reason that all proposed clinical trials by the industry are ethically assessed before they can be executed. Today the do-no-harm principle is generally accepted by the industry and by most non-pharmaceutical industries as well, especially those industries which are consumer based. If organizations are found negligent in failing to take this principle into account while dealing with their clients, they fully understand that this will affect the way their customer base feel about the way the company operates and treats its’ clients. Companies don’t want to go there; it is a matter of survival in a truly competitive market. An example: over time the “deny, delay, defend” strategies in the tobacco industry have come to haunt them. Tobacco companies are now paying huge sums of money in compensation for the harm done to smokers worldwide. On top of that they have lost the esteem and confidence of the general public.
Many Cantabrians are now taking their insurers to Court. This is a very telling development. It reflects a situation that Cantabrians believe, that after four and a half years of struggling, they haven’t had a fair, honest and transparent solution to their claim from their insurance company. Instead what they have experienced is that their lives have been put on hold and that they suffered avoidable hardship. Many reports in the media reveal that clients feel fooled, abandoned and victimized by insurer’s tactics of delay, deny, defend. For some, the whole process was too hard to bear and they have opted out often accepting inadequate settlements as a way of no longer having to deal with this ordeal which has so adversely affected their lives. There are still 22,000 unsettled claims statistically equating to the disruption to some 50,000 lives.
Interestingly, the moral “no-harm” principle has become key to the libertarian way of thinking about how we deal with each other and how we go about doing business in our modern western societies. We can no longer go about our ways just as we wish. It is no longer “freedom for all”. To do no harm is the trade-off for exercising unlimited freedom. Today we accept that, in a moral sense, there are boundaries we need to accept in the way in which we treat each other and go about doing business. These self-imposed boundaries are legitimate and need to be respected. It is for the common good. When we, when companies, when insurers, for whatever reason, no longer abide by these self-imposed rules and these principles we live by are abused, we find ourselves on very shaky ground. It threatens the very fundamental norms upon which our societies are built and what we consider to be abuses of our human rights.
In conclusion and in light of the above, taking the insurance companies to Court for poor performance after the Christchurch earthquakes may well have a solid moral justification too. Given the present situation the insurance companies have themselves created, I too hold them morally liable.
West Melton, February 22, 2015