Do What You Want (as long as you don’t hurt anyone)

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who suggested a good motto to live by is “Do what you want, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.”

On the surface, this seems like great advice. But something about it didn’t seem quite right to me, and I found myself thinking about it more. The question nagging me was this: Is it really possible to always do what we want without ever hurting anyone?

I finally decided the answer to my nagging question depends on what’s meant by “what I want.” The phrase what I want seems to disregard anyone other than me. Of course this isn’t always the case, and I know  it’s not what my friend meant when he shared his motto.

As it happened, soon after that conversation, as I was mulling over this idea of doing what I want (without hurting anybody), I picked up a book I was reading called “Awaken,” by Reverend Jaganath Carrera. And there, right on page 94, the very page where my bookmark was saving my place, was this quote:

The beneficial is one thing; the pleasant is another. These two, differing in their ends, both prompt to action. Blessed are they that choose the beneficial; they that choose the pleasant miss the goal.” ~Katha Upanishad

In the book, Reverend Carrera goes on to explain that when we do something pleasurable in the moment without regard to whether or not it is beneficial, there is no lasting value to that action for ourselves or for anyone else. “Beneficial acts improve someone’s material security, physical and psychological well-being, and advance spiritual growth,” he says.

We’re all connected, and our actions affect each other

Personally, I think the only way to live and “do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone” is if you have no relationship with others or with the planet in general for that matter. A more valuable and enriching philosophy, I think, is to make choices that are beneficial (including—maybe even especially including—those that are pleasurable).

Perhaps the most important person to consider when weighing whether or not an action is beneficial is not other people (though they should be included), but you.

I’m no authority on anything, but I do think we should do things that help us grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. That doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyable; enjoyment of life is part of overall well-being.

The problem is if our goal is simply to “not hurt others,” the goal has little value and (I believe) is almost impossible to reach. The reason is it’s often not obvious when our choices, pleasant and innocent as they may seem, hurt others—and ourselves—in the long run.

Try to think of something you can do that doesn’t affect anyone, either positively or negatively. There’s really nothing. As human beings, like it or not, we are all connected, and in some way, everything we do affects at least one other person.

So let’s just say for argument’s sake that what people mean when they say, “I’m not hurting anyone” is “I’m not hurting anyone that I’m aware of at the moment.” And just to cover all bases, let’s also say “I’m not helping anyone” means “I’m not helping anyone that I’m aware of at the moment.”

The only way the philosophy of doing what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone works as a general way of life is if no one cares about you. It’s highly unlikely that no one cares about you. It is possible you don’t believe anyone cares about you or that you don’t feel cared for. If that’s the case, it’s easier to understand why you would think you can do what you want.

Do What You Want as Long as It’s Beneficial

A better idea (I think) is to do what you want as long as it is beneficial. And remember that you can be the one who benefits.

Think about the things you would like to do that you don’t think will hurt anyone. Are those actions hurting you? Are you sure? They are hurting you if they are not adding something truly positive to your life.

The benefit has to outweigh, or at least be equal to, the pleasure. Notice the pleasure is still there. (Yes, there are times we need to do things that aren’t pleasant because they are beneficial, but those are not the things I’m talking about.)

Does it feel good to eat a cheeseburger and drink a six pack of beer when you are alone and there is no one around who notices or cares about whether or not that’s good for you? Perhaps, but what’s the benefit?

And here’s another wrinkle. I think there are times when our actions do hurt someone, but it’s still the right (more beneficial) choice. For example, if you’re the type whose friends rely on you to validate, support, and help them with all kinds of problems, no matter what the time of day or night or how realistic their expectations might be, you may need to consider how beneficial your “help” really is.

A friend may feel hurt or offended when you don’t come through or when you choose to do something for yourself instead. Is it beneficial to continue to play the role of “good friend” at any cost? In a case like this, it may be better to do what you want even though it hurts someone else.

I think deep down we would all like to spend our lives growing, which brings me back to the quote I mentioned a few paragraphs back. It’s a really great quote, and so here it is again:

The beneficial is one thing; the pleasant is another. These two, differing in their ends, both prompt to action. Blessed are they that choose the beneficial; they that choose the pleasant miss the goal. ~Katha Upanishad

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dan Cain
    Jan 31, 2014 @ 11:31:02

    I appreciate what you had to say. It reminds me of a Bible verse – 1 Corinthians 10:23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.”

    I love that – everything is permissable, but not everything is beneficial kind of thing.


  2. Maria
    Feb 01, 2014 @ 19:32:03

    Yes. Thanks for your comment, Dan. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”


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Maria Kuzmiak, M.A. is a health and well-being writer with a background in nutrition, psychology and education and a passion for yoga. She has written hundreds of articles, blogs and newsletters for clients in health-related fields, particularly those specializing in yoga, natural medicine, nutrition, and spiritual health and healing. Maria has also worked as a nutritionist, teacher and technical editor. Learn more about her writing at

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