2068 words about freedom and law - 1370°C
Aug. 2nd, 2005
02:13 am - 2068 words about freedom and law
Penn and Teller are infecting my brain. so, this is what i've been thinking about today.
I know i have some friends with deeply different views on these sorts of issues than i have. My own feeling is that our personal freedoms are of utmost importance. I've always supported people's right to do whatever it is they want. However, there's a limit, and perhaps the only thing i've ever taken from any religion i've looked into/tried to practice: do whatever you want so long as it doesn't negatively effect others. For this reason, your right to personal freedom does not, for me, allow you to gun down your co-workers. Also, I genuinely like social programs and laws that benefit the common good.
As a very simple-minded example, i support seatbelt legislation in cars, but do not support motorcycle helmet laws. Here's why: if the driver of a car loses control, a seatbelt will keep him properly positioned to drive his vehicle. It could make the difference between a donut skid and an accident that injures others. By the same token, buckled passengers are less likely to be tossed about in such a way that they interfere with the driver. I have seen the crash-test-dummy videos where a back-seat passenger is thrown forward so forcefully that it breaks the seat in front of them, as well as the back of the person in that seat. So, my feeling about seatbelt laws is that they are primarily designed for the safety of the other people around, and this argument is much stronger than the idea that you have the *right* not to put on a seatbelt because it's inconvenient. People who argue that seatbelts in accidents cause bruises clearly have a point, however, their position simply isn't convincing. What's a chest bruise or even a broken rib or two compared with being tossed so you can't reach the steering wheel or crushing the spine of the person sitting in front of you? Now, before you jump down my throat, oh devotees of Ayn Rand, i know some of you might just say that your own comfort is simply more important than someone else's life. To you folk, i have no response, but hopefully you can still see the contrast i'm trying to set up. Motorcycle helmet laws do not have any social component. A helmet protects the driver's own (or his passenger's) noggin in the event that she comes off that bike. Wearing a helmet is designed to protect the bike rider. Now, i'd never get on a bike without a helmet myself, but i do believe that if people want to take chances with their own skull, they ought to have the right, just as they ought to have the right to endanger or take their lives in any way they see fit. Legislation like the helmet law are designed to protect stupid people from injuring themselves which, to my mind, is clearly an infringement of personal freedom. It's your life, do with it as you wish.
Some of you out there are already pondering a slippery slope argument to try to say that if i'm willing to give up any personal freedom (that is to say, my right not to buckle up) in order to serve the common good, then what's to stop the government from using "common good" reasoning to take away more important freedoms, or...all of them? I don't doubt that there are people (many of whom are currently holding office) who would in fact try to take away one freedom at a time until there's nothing left but an Orwellian nightmare. But slippery slope is a logical fallacy for a reason. Just because i am willing to give up my "right" (if it even is a right) to be more comfortable in my car in order to prevent harm to others, doesn't mean that either myself or others would be willing to give up rights where the balance is different. Each instance needs to be weighed on a case-by-case basis to see if the social good that comes from these laws has more import than the bit of personal freedom that's being given up. And no, we're not all going to agree which way the scale will tilt, and neither will our legislators. but they need to be discussed, debated, mulled over, and supported with evidence.
Let me go into something more complicated. I believe that the idea of a smoking ban is a serious grey area. On the one hand, everyone should have the right to smoke if they so choose. If they want to trade whatever health problems might arise for the pleasure of smoking, it's their body, and they have a right to do with it as they see fit. On the other, smoking is annoying to many non-smokers. As someone who smokes sometimes, i still don't want to smell smoke when i'm eating, for instance, nor would i want to be stuck in the recycled air of a plane full of smokers for hours on end with nowhere to go. Yet the case that smoking ban supporters make is nearly always about the health hazards of second-hand smoke; the bans protect the health of non-smokers who work in bars, restaurants, etc.. This is a strange case to make. First, there's not a single proper scientific study that shows that second hand smoke causes cancer or other illness. A 1993 EPA study, cited by nearly all official smoking ban advocates, was thrown out as specious by a Federal District Court in 1998, while a WHO press release that indicated passive smoking caused lung cancer pointed to a study that actually stated that there was no link between childhood exposure to second-hand smoke and lung cancer and the link between the two in adults was not statistically significant. You don't have to buy into this premise. But for the moment, go with me here. If there's nothing that definitively proves second hand smoke actually endangers health, then the smoking ban goes back to one thing: other people find smoking annoying.
Ok. Fine. That's a perfectly lovely reason to stay away from smokers, to sit in the non-smoking section of a restaurant (and to expect a non smoking section to honestly be smoke free), and even to ask your friends if they wouldn't mind stepping away from you while they're indulging their habit. However, to me this annoyance may not be quite enough to warrant legislation. Moreover, this issue could easily be solved by certain bars and establishments specifically advertising that they are smoking or non-smoking. A bar owner/manager could make that decision on his own. Those who didn't want to work/recreate in places where smoking is allowed could simply visit non-smoking establishments, while smokers could stick to smoking friendly places if this issue was so important to them. Keep in mind, even in places where smoking is allowed in bars, clubs, and restaurants, it's almost always verboten in office buildings, retail stores...really, any place that you would reasonably expect that people not be smoking, and workers don't lobby their jobs for the right to smoke indoors. By the same token, i've honestly never heard a waitress or bar staff member who would complain that people smoke in their workplace, because it's simply expected. If you didn't want to work in a smoking environment, you could easily ask your restaurant boss to only let you staff the non-smoking sections (dunno if this is good everywhere, but i've known a lot of wait-staff and that request has always been honoured) or simply not work in a bar. I suppose it just seems to me that this is a thing that can be easily left to the individual businesses. Is the perceived "right" to breathe smoke-free air in any given place any more convincing than the perceived "right" to smoke where you like? Are either of these things actually rights or personal freedoms? Why is it ok to legislate to assuage the annoyance of non-smokers, but people would be outraged if i were to suggest that there ought to be a law to prevent people from wearing so much perfume or cologne that it causes an allergic reaction in those who are sensitive to chemical smells?
This is grey because we do have quite a lot of totally un-contentious legislation that boils down to annoyance. Many cities have pooper scooper laws, which pit the annoyance of having to carry around bags and shovels and handle your dog's waste against the sheer ickiness of having to smell, or heaven forbid step in, poo. I'm guessing there are plenty of dog owners who simply fail to pick up their dog's leavings but who wouldn't get into a heated debate about the loss of personal freedom due to the law, and i'm willing to actually bet that almost everyone would rather have poo-free parks and walkways.
So, when is it ok to legislate on the basis of annoyance? How great does the annoyance have to be, and how great the sense that personal freedom is being trampled? I'm torn. Because I really do wish that cities not only had pooper scooper laws, but genuinely enforced them, while i find smoking bans a bit silly. I would much rather be in a smoke-filled club than stuck in the office or the elevator with some chav drenched in Chanel No. 5. But even so, I wouldn't want the government to legislate that she not be allowed to wear it.
The line and the balance seem to always need re-adjusting. I suppose my own guidelines can be distilled to what i've said already above. If it's something that does not effect others (and i realise it could easily be argued that if you drive your motorcycle without a helmet, crash, and are killed when a helmet could have prevented it, your loved ones will be cracked up over it. But i'm hoping you all know that's not what i mean when i say this), your personal freedoms should not be infringed upon. Ever. But i don't want my grey area opinions to come down to mere Utilitarianism, because i'm really not a Utilitarian, i do think that the side of the scale on which personal freedom lies is already weighted before i add a situation to it. Then again, i do believe that the teeming masses *need* guidance and help to be better (or at least more socially and environmentally functioning) people. I'm not a one-issue voter, and i don't quite fit neatly into any political party's ideals. And sometimes, i think my tendency to take *everything* on a case-by-case basis renders my world view a little inconsistent. And moreover, too much Plato has invaded my mind and i genuinely believe that some people are better (though not necessarily by birth) than others.
Some people can be trusted with a far more vast set of personal freedoms, while most people would piss where they eat. My example would be that if _goodmanbrown_ somehow became supreme dictator, i'd be totally cool with that. He and i disagree on a lot of things, and i'm sure something i've said here has made him seethe, but i trust his judgement. I trust that it's well thought out, that he would protect my rights as well as his own and yet see that society as a whole still functions. And while i know that ilcylic would want all personal freedoms to take precedence, the world as a whole would likely fall apart if he gave *everyone* the rights he'd want for himself. As for myself, i'd probably have a Meritocracy, and end up giving carte blanche to a group of people carefully weeded out by harsh testing, and keeping just about the system we have now for nearly everyone else. Sometimes, i genuinely wish that i believed all people were created equal (hrm...maybe they start off equal and upbringing fscks them up, dunno), but they clearly don't end up equal as adults--there are plenty of people better and more competent to run things and handle responsibility than i am, and plenty who are totally useless. not a popular opinion, i'm sure, but i hope it tempers your wrath that i do wish i could buy into it.
unrelated Penn and Teller quote of the day "We belong to a club called the USA. As members, we pay taxes to support public, government-run schools. And those schools get run according to the club handbook, The United States Constitution. The Constitution says our club steers clear of religion. That's the deal we made; if we pay for it with taxes, it can't have religion in it. That's in the pesky bylaws. So as long as we're all paying, no religion in school. And no magic tricks in Church...ok...that's just a bad example."