The Most-Harm Principle

Eric Senseman leaned back in his chair. “Dakota, have you ever heard of John Stuart Mill’s ‘least harm principle?’”

I replied that I had not.

“Well, it’s a bit complicated,” he said. “But it amounts to a recognition that everything you do will create harm in some way, and so a person’s goal must be to try to do the least harm in everything they– ”

“Yeah, thanks, okay,” I cut him off. “Listen, that’s super interesting, please keep talking. But I need to go to the bathroom, so, um, maybe just finish telling this to Braz and I’ll be right back.”

I looked at Braz, who glared at me. Eric paused, taken aback, then said, “I mean, I’m happy to wait…”

“Oh no,” I exhorted. “Don’t do that. You’re on a roll. Just tell Braz, and I’ll be right back and then he can tell me later. Alright? Good.” I walked off to the bathroom.

When I came back to the table 10 or 15 minutes later, they were laughing about something. I stood above them and asked what they were talking about now. “Oh, we were just talking about tomorrow’s race,” Braz said. “Eric said he thinks he’s going to beat you.”

I laughed too. “Well, obviously that’s not going to happen.” I sat down, but there was something behind my jacket, which was draped on the back of the chair. I turned around to find a bottle of Smirnoff Ice looking at me. I stared, then slowly turned around to look at the other two, who burst out laughing even more. “Gotcha’!” Eric yelled. He pounded me on the back and took out his phone. “I gotta film this.”

Braz was the lawman. “You gotta’ drink it dude,” he said. I sighed and looked down. He was right. Because when you get ‘iced,’ it means someone has cleverly hidden a Smirnoff Ice so that you come upon it accidentally, and when that happens you have to immediately get down on one knee and pound the whole thing. And despite it being 10 p.m. the night before a fast marathon, I had no choice. So I did my best to get it all down in one gulp and only slopped a few mouthfuls on myself.

***

The Arkansas River Valley is in central Colorado. Salida is a town at the southern end right where the river exits the valley. Above Salida are many mountains, some of which are often dry as early as March. It was on several of these mountains that I ran during the Salida Marathon the next day. And 12 miles into the race, I was faced with a difficult choice.

Up to that point, I had been running on a steep backcountry road that led so far up into the sky that the town had completely disappeared from view behind me. All around were rolling brown mountains dotted by juniper and ponderosa pine trees. The great Collegiate Peaks shone white and enormous in the far distance, and a winter’s wind blew from them down into the alpine desert through which I ran. There were few birds and no animals; the road was a partially frozen track hacked from the weak rocks underlying the surface. There were no smells, and the only sound a lonely breeze. Occasionally a green flag hung from a tree, indicating the right path.

Behind me, several hundred other runners were in the race too. A few of them, Senseman included, were hunting me. I was trying very hard to win, and at that moment, I was winning. I wore very little; just some shorts, a shirt, and a running pack filled with all I needed. There was a dull ache in my back. As I continued to climb up the road, it wound out of the trees and into a bare, southern aspect in the sun. The summit was near, I knew, but I wasn’t sure how near.

I crested a hill and descended into a low point, where the road crossed an icy creek. Shortly farther on, a narrow band of singletrack departed from the road and angled up the hillside to the right, into the trees. Both the road and the singletrack were thoroughly marked with pink flags. But at the top of the rightward track, a green flag hung, offering the only logical connection with the path I had been on for the past few miles. Despite this being the middle of the race, I came to a complete stop at the intersection.

“This looks confusing,” I said aloud. There was no response. There was nobody around. Only me and the chilly wind rustling the evergreen boughs. But the moment was fraught with urgency; any instant now, second place would charge through the creek and up the hill behind me. I had to make a decision, and I had to do it fast. As I quickly considered my options, Eric’s mention of the least-harm principle passed through my mind. There was no way to make this decision without at least a little bit of harm, but I had to decide how to cause the least amount. I looked around, steeled myself, and ran up the hill to the right.

***

In the fall of 2014, Braz had agreed to help carry supplies to the race I directed in another town. I departed a day before him, and left about 20 water jugs for him to put into his pickup. But there was one more thing. “Make sure you have the drill,” I told him on the phone. “I can’t remember if I left it in the garage or put it into one of the jugs. Just look through them.” Never suspecting a thing, he inspected three jugs before opening a fourth to find, not a drill, but a Smirnoff Ice wrapped in a Christmas bow. “You dick!” Braz yelled at me on the phone.

That winter, Braz met Erik Skaggs early in the morning for a run. So early, in fact, that Skaggs had only just risen from his bed. Braz went into the bathroom for a short time, flushed the toilet, washed his hands, and emerged with a grin on his face. “Good one?” Erik asked conversationally. “Oh yeah. Very satisfying,” Braz replied. “I need to do that myself,” Erik said, and went into the bathroom. Braz sat at the table, shaking with anticipation. After several minutes, he heard a dull thud from the bathroom. “What the hell is this?!?” yelled Erik from behind the closed door. He had turned to flush the toilet, only to find that the handle was off the hook. Opening the top of the toilet, he found that the tank was filled not just with water, but with an Ice as well. “Dude! It’s 7:00 in the morning!” “I know!” Braz yelled back with glee. “I knew you wouldn’t suspect a thing!”

Several months later, Erik’s roommate, Aaron Keller, left for a long trip in another country. We threw him a going-away party the night before, and at one point, while he was outside, Erik slipped into his bedroom and surreptitiously inserted an Ice into Keller’s carry-on luggage. That evening we embraced warmly and said our goodbyes. The next morning we were all awoken by several hysterical phone calls from him. “I was nearly arrested!” he yelled at us. “They straight-up interrogated me! I missed my flight!” We were very empathetic, but there was one thing we needed to know: “You did drink it, right?” Keller sounded taken aback. “Of course I drank it,” he said. “You have to.”

The game had become an epidemic.

***

Far above Salida, I disappeared into the trees on the singletrack and then paused behind a tree to look back at the road. Before long, Eric Senseman came running up, breathing hard but looking determined. As he approached the intersection, he looked both ways, appearing unsure of which direction to take. He slowed briefly, and I sprung into action. “Eric! Up here!” I yelled.

He looked up toward me and then back to the turn. “Are you sure?” he asked. “I think there’s a weird figure-eight thing up here.”

“I know!” I yelled back. “That’s why there are two routes down there. We’ll come back that way! Come on!” He appeared to resolve to listen to me, and started up the trail at full speed. I was still out of sight, and I watched with glee as he came up the hill 100 feet and then turned a hard right on a steep switchback. At that moment he saw two things at the same time. On the trail in front of him was a Smirnoff Ice, and 20 feet further on I jumped out from behind my tree and flipped him off with both hands. “You shoulda’ read the map dumbass!” I yelled. Then I took off cross-country back down to the intersection, and turned back up the road on the correct course.

Looking back, I could see the third and fourth place runners coming up fast. I sped up the road, trying to put some time back onto them. Thinking back on everything that had just happened, I couldn’t help but regret the unavoidable harm I’d had to do to myself and my race by pausing to ruin Eric’s day. But on deeper reflection, I knew that Eric was right: there was no way to completely avoid doing harm in that situation, but if I hadn’t sacrificed some of my time in order to do more harm to Eric, he might have beaten me in the race. And obviously that was unacceptable. John Stuart Mill, I knew, would have been very proud.

What I learned later, unfortunately, was that the next aid station was in fact on the hill above the intersection. The wind noise had drowned out their yells of direction to both Eric and I, but they had nevertheless witnessed everything that happened. And while Eric dutifully knelt down and chugged his sugary wine cooler, then doubled over in a vomiting agony, they watched me bound down the trackless hillside and rejoin the course. And it turns out that this qualifies as “course cutting,” and that this practice is apparently “frowned upon.” They frowned pretty hard upon me, in fact. Hard enough that I was, um, not exactly allowed to finish. Or to ever come back.

I was disqualified and barred from all future races, to be totally straightforward about it. But I sure got Eric good, and that’s what really matters.

***

This rich tradition of screwing friends over as much as possible is a powerful cultural tie that keeps our group together. The bonds of negativity and revenge keep us inseparable in paranoia, such that our relationships now rest upon constantly one-upping each other in destructive ways. I don’t trust any of my friends in any way whatsoever, and I wouldn’t dream of helping them out of tough places, because I know the lows to which they would sink in order to ice me. It’s a positive feedback cycle that has developed into something beyond fear and mistrust. And as a citizen philosopher, I feel entitled to give this entirely new development in human relationships a name of its own. I call it the Most Harm Principle, and I can only hope it’ll inspire other people to step on all their friends and loved ones in search of a shallow glory. And that is what drives me to be my best every day.

[Author’s Note: This may have crossed the line from ‘exaggeration’ to ‘outright fiction,’ by the way.]

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Who drinks Smirnoff Ice anyway?

There are 7 comments

  1. Nathan Augustine

    Great writing! I hope this is true. Unfortunately, I’m too kind to “ice” anybody (thinks who would I get first). Nice job at Sonoma, see you at Western States.

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