Ruwen Ogien: but first, do no harm

Ruwen Ogien, French philosopher, restless advocate of minimal ethics, died last week. Ogien was defending a conception of freedom, anchored in the harm principle of Mill, that seems today more needed than ever.


Ruwen Ogien © Kristiina Hauhtonen

Ogien has highlighted a minimalist definition of ethics which one can (grossly) summarize this way: just do not harm others, the rest is (morally) irrelevant. In this conception, there are no crime without victims and individuals have no moral duties towards themselves. To illustrate this principle in its most extreme and perhaps shocking consequences, it implies that drug abuse, suicide, incest (between consenting adults) and even necrophilia, although not advisable, should not be forbidden or at least not on moral grounds. Such an extreme minimalist understanding of ethics is clearly not without flaws and sometimes arguably naive, but Ogien has finely harnessed it to propose a remarkably seductive and emancipating libertarianism. In my opinion, it gives the strongest case for gay marriage, the legalization of drugs and of prostitution, or against the headscarf ban.

croissants_ogienI have discovered the books of Ruwen Ogien too late, only roughly four years ago, with De l’influence des croissants chauds sur la bonté humaine (“Human Goodness and the Smell of Warm Croissants”), a profound yet entertaining book on experimental moral philosophy. Ogien made analytical philosophy cool. Philosophy is a game, you can ask questions, sometimes find answers, and even carry experiments. You need not let yourself smother by the bootstrapped bullshit of French theorists to attack hard questions: Ogien wrote in a sharp almost dry style, never hiding the weakness of an argument in convoluted prose. He popularized moral philosophy in the same way Dubner and Levitt popularized applied economics with Freakonomics. Extending the domain of ethics, he discussed pornography, love and ultimately illness. Ogien has greatly magnified my interest in moral philosophy and motivated my own vain musings on the value of life.

Just before dying, Ogien published Mes Mille et Une Nuits, an essay (that I have unfortunately not yet read) in which he discusses the cancer that ultimately killed him. According to the numerous reviews, this book is at the image of Ogien’s work: a quest to demystify and understand without compromise an issue usually deemed outside of philosophy. The conclusion: one does not reach any transcendence in illness, there is no beauty in suffering. This strikes me as similar to Houllebecq’s twist of Nietzsche’s quote “tout ce qui ne me tue pas me blesse et finalement m’affaiblit” (what does not kill me harms me and eventually weakens me). For individuals like me, intoxicated with the christian idea that you only ever strengthen yourself with pain, this is undoubtedly sobering.

There are very nice online resources to get a better idea of who Ruwen Ogien was. To mention only a few:

3 thoughts on “Ruwen Ogien: but first, do no harm

  1. Antoine

    J’ai appris cette triste nouvelle il y a quelques jours, et j’ai alors soupçonné que tu l’évoquerais (comme tu le sais, c’est par toi que je l’ai connu).
    Sur le fond, il est peut-être pertinent de souligner la légère différence entre l’anglais “do not harm” et le français “ne pas nuire”. Il me semble que la version française rend la théorie moins naïve que la seule recherche de l’évitement de la souffrance (physique et immédiate) chez autrui (ce qui serait une éthique vraiment trop minimale !). Ainsi, il est clair que même dans l’éthique minimale d’Ogien, il existe une dimension politique, une dimension économique, voire une dimension humaniste.


    1. Antoine Tilloy Post author

      Oui, oui évidemment, tu as raison de préciser. Le minimalisme éthique n’est pas aussi naïf que ce que cette formulation pourrait laisser penser.
      J’ai traduit “ne pas nuire” en “do no harm” pour le rappel du serment d’Hippocrate mais le sens de “harm” est évidemment bien plus large que son sens étroit de souffrance physique (la notice Wikipedia en anglais sur Ogien fait la même traduction).


      1. Antoine

        Oui, j’ai vu que Wikipédia donnait la même traduction (il semble que ce soit la traduction canonique, sans doute pour se placer dans la lignée de Mill).
        En tout cas j’ai été agréablement surpris de constater qu’Ogien est plus connu que je ne le croyais, je suis tombé par hasard dans une librairie sur la version espagnole de l’Influence de l’odeur des croissants chauds… !


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