Some problems with no-harm standards in human psychology

It is my understanding that there is a trend in modern psychology to move toward a standard for mental illness based on harmlessness.

Since it is so difficult to fashion a general standard of normalcy or deviance based on current criteria, psychologists want something that looks more objective, and harmlessness seems to be the best option.

Harmlessness is the core of Buddhist morality, as most readers surely know. Each of the Five Precepts is aimed at “taking it upon oneself” to not do the harmful behaviors of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or getting drunk.

Even Buddhism in just these Five Precepts recognizes the difficulty of gauging “harm.” Drinking in and of itself does not harm anyone. The reason it is the Fifth Precept is it is behavior that often leads to harm—violence, stupidity, heedlessness, or addiction. Some Buddhists interpret the Fifth Precept to mean no use at all of any “intoxicating” drugs or alcohol, while others interpret it to mean “no irresponsible use of alcohol” only.

The Buddha clearly indicated only alcohol in the Pali version of the Fifth Precept, but some today believe he meant more than just booze. When the words are changed to mean “intoxication,” one must wonder how to define that. Or why the Buddha didn’t say “intoxication” if that is what he meant.

What is “sexual misconduct”? Most modern Buddhists would define it simply as sexual behavior that harms someone, not as specific behaviors. The Buddha defined it somewhere, in part, as using the “wrong orifice” for sex acts, but most people today don’t think that way.

In Buddhism these various interpretations of harmlessness don’t cause too much trouble because the Five Precepts are for lay people, so there is leeway. And discussion of moral issues is usually beneficial.

In psychology it can be just as difficult to decide what constitutes “harm”or “harmlessness.” And it can be just as hard to figure out harmlessness as it is to decide what is “normal,” “deviant,” or “mentally ill.”

The well-regarded Hofstede Centre lists a number of variables, or “dimensions,” to help us understand how the cultures we live in affect our judgement of harm and harmlessness, normalcy and deviance, mental health and mental illness.

I think it is hard to disagree that our understanding of these matters is greatly determined by our cultures and that culture can be roughly analyzed based on the Hofstede Centre’s “dimensions.”

“Harmlessness” as a standard for “healthy” psychology  has other problems than just cultural variance, though, because “harmlessness” fails to consider psychological optimization, which arguably is the best sign of mental health. Our wanting to optimize our mental and emotional health accepts striving, a fundamental human quality, as an integral part of who we are.

But again the problem occurs—whose optimization? How do you define optimization? I would define it roughly as “positive extra harmlessness”—being proactive, doing things that help the self and others. But how do we define that?

Most of these questions will never be answered definitively. But as with Buddhism, never-ending discussion within the community is probably a good thing. Individuals can check in and out  of the discussion as they see fit. If you think you are doing your best to optimize your consciousness, your psychology, there is a good chance you are at least pointed in the right direction. If you think you are slacking, maybe you should speak with someone to get a different point of view.

Should psychology seek definitions of mental health that include optimization as well as harmlessness? I believe it should.

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