This is striking, as it is also a key moral principle of liberal modernity. The idea itself goes back a long way. Rabelais, a French writer of the Renaissance, wrote (in the 1500s) of an ideal community based on the principle:
Do What Thou Wilt, because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour.
The idea here is that gentlemen, at least, can be free to choose in any direction because they will by nature choose what is honourable.
John Stuart Mill, the English liberal, had much the same idea in the mid-1800s, although he added to it by suggesting that all social classes could be educated to the level of being gentlemen. He also emphasised the "no harm" principle that had been clearly stated by the French revolutionaries in their Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789:
Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.
History has made clear that John Stuart Mill was wrong. We have had high levels of education in the West for many decades, but the level of gentlemanly honour has dramatically fallen rather than risen. One of the reasons for this is that people are generally much more attentive to the idea of "do what you want" rather than the condition "as long as it doesn't harm anyone".
Why doesn't the "no harm" clause work in practice? One problem is that people are able to rationalise away the harm that their decisions create. A woman might choose, for instance, to divorce her husband, thereby dissolving her family. Clearly it has a considerable effect on those around her. But she might say to herself "the children will be better off if I'm happy". Or "we will still be a family, all of us, I'll just be living with another man." Angelina Jolie took this line recently about her decision to divorce Brad Pitt:
'I don’t want to say very much about that, except to say it was a very difficult time and we are a family, and we will always be a family,' she said, visibly emotional.
'My focus is my children, our children,' she explained to the BBC.
'We are and forever will be a family and so that is how I am coping. I am coping with finding a way through to make sure that this somehow makes us stronger and closer,' she said.
In her mind, she can choose to divorce but not dissolve her family, in fact the divorce will make her family stronger and closer.
But even when there is no rationalisation, even when the harm is admitted, the no harm principle is pushed aside. Dalrock recently had a post about an American woman who decided to divorce her husband and who justified her decision using the following lines from her favourite author, Cheryl Strayed:
Go, even though you love him.
Go, even though he is kind and faithful and dear to you.
Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his.
Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him.
Go, even though he adores you and your leaving will devastate him.
Go, even though your friends will be disappointed or surprised or pissed off or all three.
Go, even though you once said you would stay.
Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.
Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.
Go, even though there is nowhere to go.
Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough.
This is so interesting, because the last line clearly states that "do what thou wilt" is enough of a justification, that you don't need to meet the moral condition of "do no harm."
Obviously, the instinct to honour is not strong enough in many people to hold them to virtue or to moral duty. They follow instead an individualistic impulse to follow "their own good" even if this harms others.
And here's the thing. Rabelais defined honour quite well: "an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice." But why not then encourage people to act virtuously? If you tell people that the moral thing is "to do whatever you want" it suggests that standards of virtue don't exist and that one act or choice is as good as another.
In other words, the "do what thou wilt" slogan is "de-moralising" - it places people in a moral vacuum, an empty moral landscape. Little wonder then that people lose some of the moral strength to do the right thing by others.