I have a cheat day, so to speak. On Fridays, I give myself a little more freedom from what are supposed to be my healthier eating habits. My wife and I have pizza and I have a guilty pleasure: cheap Chinese buffet. Don’t judge.

This past Friday, the waitress brought my bill and the obligatory fortune cookie. I gave her my card and popped open the package, eager to see what my future held after filling my stomach with a little too much sesame chicken. I generally don’t take the words seriously, but I like to read them.

Here was the sage advice waiting for me: “Do what you wish, as long as it does not harm anyone.”

The advice in my fortune cookie. (Source: Jonathon M. Seidl)
The advice in my fortune cookie. (Source: Jonathon M. Seidl)

Wait, what?

Sure, it’s not like fortune cookies are supposed to be trusted beyond a reasonable doubt. But this one, I thought, was pretty dangerous. Why? Because at first glance it doesn’t seem like something crazy.

That’s good. Not harming people is like the golden rule. That’s the thinking, right? And that’s true. But it’s the first part that we really need to digest: “Do what you wish as long as … .”

The only qualifier — the only reason it gives for not doing something — is if it doesn’t hurt someone. Here’s where it gets dicey: What if it hurts you, though? What if it’s not good for you?

Smoking three packs of cigarettes a day in your house or car doesn’t harm anyone else. Does that mean you should do it?

Going out to the middle of the woods and downing two bottles of Jack Daniel’s doesn’t harm anyone else. Does that mean it’s a good idea?

Not wearing a seatbelt doesn’t harm anyone else. Does that mean it’s smart?

In fact, there’s a whole school of thought that talks about “victimless crimes” — actions considered illegal, but which shouldn’t be because they don’t really harm anyone (prostitution, public drunkenness, and drug use are just a few).

I think that’s why the fortune cookie is so dangerous — it’s the idea that “no harm to others” is “victimless.”

I think that’s why the fortune cookie is so dangerous — it’s the idea that “no harm to others” is “victimless.” And that ignores a lot of other important factors. Who defines “harm”? Is it physical? What about emotional?

Think about this: prostitution is between two consenting adults. But what about the lifestyle it leads to? What about the women who have given it up who talk about how detrimental it was to them?

“As long as it does not harm anyone else” is the lowest of standards. It’s an argument used by people who have a very narrow view of consequences. In fact, it seems more like the argument of a little kid than a mature adult. I can remember using it growing up.

Mom: Why did you steal that treat from the jar when I told you not to? You’re grounded.

Me: But mom, it was only a cookie. I didn’t hurt anyone! 

The point isn’t always about whether an action hurts someone else or not. Sometimes we shouldn’t do things because they’re bad for us. Mom didn’t want me to steal a cookie because she knew that if I grew up thinking I could take whatever I want whenever I want, it would be to my detriment as a human being. If she didn’t set me straight then, maybe I would grow up and eventually try to take something much bigger, much more forcefully and hurt someone in the process.

That’s why measuring our actions by whether or not they hurt someone can’t be our only barometer. We have to ask ourselves better, deeper questions.

Is this morally right?

Will it have a negative effect on me?

Is there something better out there?

And that brings me to the question I would have loved to have seen in my fortune cookie. It’s one that’s been around in different forms for ages. It’s one I need to ask myself constantly.

Just because I can, does that mean I should?

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