Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The limits of individual liberty

The limits of individual liberty

A defensible limit to individual liberty would be to allow individuals to do whatever they wish so far as long as they are not harming other people or interfering with their liberty.  This is known as the “harm principle” that John Stuart Mill defended in his essay, On Liberty.[1]  I will defend this position in this paper by critically examining the oppositions to it, mainly the idea of paternalism and the forces that justify the use of it.  I will not however, use the utilitarian point of view that Mill used to defend it but a point of view that is anti-violence. 

The opposition to a libertarian style of law that allows for individual liberty is the concept of Paternalism.  It justifies the limitations of personal freedom by citing that the prohibitions of certain actions are in the best interests of people and society.  It comes from the idea of a benevolent parent who acts in the best interest of a child by coercively prohibiting the child from various actions.  In a modern liberal democracy, the part of the benevolent parent is played by the elected government.  Which makes the people it governs, the naive child.

Gerald Dworkin in his essay Morality, Harm and the Law, identifies 2 types of paternalism, pure and impure.  Pure paternalism restricts the freedom of someone, but it does not restrict the liberty of other people of whom the paternalistic restrictions were not intended.  It only intends to protect the well-being of an individual whose choice otherwise would have ended up worse off.  He gives the example of motorcycle helmet laws that restrict only those who ride motorcycles.  Impure paternalism restricts the liberty of not only those people that are intended to be protected, but it restricts the liberty of people who are not involved.  An example he uses is the paternalistic restriction of the manufacture of cigarettes.  The intent is to protect the health of cigarette smokers by cutting off people’s access to them.  But consequently, the liberties of non-smokers are also affected.  It restricts the liberties of peoples’ right to work wherever they choose, particularly of those who work in the cigarette manufacturing industry for example.           

Dworkin defines paternalism as “…the use of coercion to achieve a good which is not recognized as such by those persons for whom the good is intended.” [2] I tend to agree with Dworkin on most of his response to the notion of paternalism.  He seems to agree that most instances of government opting to restrict liberty for our best interests have been unnecessary and failures.  The fact that deadly substances such as alcohol and tobacco are legally sold and much less harmful substances such as marijuana are prohibited is a clear example that shows that government is inconsistent and incompetent in acting in paternal ways that have our best interests in mind.  He’s realistic in that he doesn’t say that paternalism is completely unjustified in all cases.  But he says that “better 10 men ruin themselves than one man be unjustly deprived of liberty…If there is an alternative way of accomplishing the desired and without restricting liberty although it may involve great expense, inconvenience, ect., the society must adopt it.”[3]

The main problem I have with a paternalistic or “nanny state” government is the question of what makes the government legitimate in making those decisions for us?  No matter how well intentioned they are, why is the government the default “parental” authority in a nation?  The answer is simply that the government is simply an organization with a monopoly on violence and theft.  Violence in this sense is the act of hurting someone or demonstrating physical dominance over another person that isn’t in self-preservation.   Essentially the government is able to legalize the use of violence on someone who is committing whatever non-violent act that happens to be prohibited in that area such as sodomy or possessing or consuming illegal drugs.  From a purely moral standpoint there is no way I can justify the government use of violence to stop a non-violent act. 

Our paternalistic behaviors should be demonstrated at an individual level.  Of course we want people to behave in their best interests but as something similar to what Mill said, we don’t ever really know about what another’s best interests are or what will make another person happy.  If we want to talk about behaving “paternally”, we know that parents really can’t coerce their children into doing anything (at least at an older age.)  All that parents can hope to do is to teach their children the best that they can and trust that they will make the right choices on their own when they are fully autonomous people.   As a civilization, we can only rely on properly educating each other to teach us about the risks of our choices and we cannot rely on a higher coercive power to force us to do the best thing.    

[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
[2] Gerald Dworkin, Paternalism IV from Morality, Harm and the Law
[3] Dworkin, Paternalism VI from Morality, Harm and the Law

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