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The pursuit of Happiness - Phil's Rambling Rants
July 14th, 2004
11:16 pm

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The pursuit of Happiness
If you haven't been under a rock lately, you may have heard about the escaped tiger in Florida shot by the authorities.

This story stirred up discussion on an exotic cat mailing list I'm on, which brought up the subject of the current trend toward laws which ban ownership of tigers and other exotic cats. If I had a little more ambition or it weren't past my bedtime, I'd re-write it, but for now, I'm just going to post it as I wrote it there.

The discussion about the escaped tiger in Florida and ban laws has stirred up a bunch of chaotic thoughts in my head, and I want to see if I can make a point here that makes any sense.

Laws banning ownership of exotic cats of course make us sick at heart, but there's a wider issue, one which I won't tell this group is more important (nothing is more important than our cats), but which is more likely to resonate with non-cat people if we could express it the right way. I'm throwing this out here in the hope that other people just might be able to take the idea and touch a few people with it.

The issue I'm worrying about here isn't exotic cats; it's ban laws. I think this country has become far too ready to react to any activity that someone doesn't like by trying to pass a law against it. When I was growing up, my parents and my schools and my experience helped me build up a mental picture of what America was supposed to be all about. Now, my mental picture may be a little different from most people's -- I know I don't seem to fit in very well with most of the people I encounter -- but the main idea at the center of my picture was freedom. Because I lived in America, I had the right to decide what was important and I got to decide for myself how I would live my life.

What is the most important document in our country, the foundation on which all the rest of it was built? It is not, as most people would guess, the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. It is not, as some people have been known to say, the Bible or the Ten Commandments. It is the Declaration of Independence. And there is one sentence in the Declaration of Independence -- the most important sentence in America -- which describes the freedom at the center of my mental picture.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That sentence is what America is for; if we as a people don't believe it any more, we ought to go back to England and ask them to start ruling us again.

The most important part of that sentence, not surprisingly, is the part that we probably understand the least. The pursuit of happiness. Just what does that mean? It doesn't mean it's someone else's responsibility to make us happy. It doesn't even mean that we have a right to actually be happy. What it means is that we have a fundamental right, built into being human, to try to find happiness. It doesn't say anything about only being allowed to pursue certain approved kinds of happiness.

Some people would read this far and think that I am arguing for anarchy, because any kind of government might get in the way of someone's pursuit of happiness. That's not my point at all, though. The right to the pursuit of happiness is not a license for anyone to do whatever they please without regard to the rights of others. Government can rightly place limits on one person's pursuit of happiness when another person's life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness are in danger, but limiting one person's pursuit of happiness more than necessary to protect another person's rights is wrong. To quote again from the Declaration, "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it".

Even when an activity could, if pursued irresponsibly or without forethought, lead to harm, a law which flatly prohibits it goes against the most fundamental principle our country was founded to enshrine. When the object of my happiness is banned, I can't exercise my right of the pursuit of happiness, and that is only acceptable if there is no way that I can do my thing without hurting other people's fundamental rights. Because a ban law, by its nature, has no flexibility or discretion, I have no chance to show how I could pursue my happiness without infringing on others' rights. And that is why ban laws are un-American and wrong.

For those who would twist what I said into something absurd, let me state clearly that none of this argument applies to laws that place reasonable restrictions on an activity, such as requiring training, licensing, or proper facilities to protect the public. However, for those who would jump on this idea to use extremely high licensing fees or impossible bureaucratic hurdles to justify a ban law in disguise, I must point out that the key word in the foregoing is "reasonable". An economic ban based on unreachable fees says that only the wealthy are allowed the pursuit of happiness, while a political ban based on requiring the personal approval of a bureaucrat says that only people who enjoy the favor of the bureaucracy are allowed the pursuit of happiness.

Notice that the last time I made any mention of cats specifically was in the first line of my third paragraph. I would like to think that this argument about freedom would resonate with any American, but I think it's especially likely to resonate with anyone who's ever had an interest that was enough outside of the mainstream that some politicians have thought it was a problem and that the solution was to make it illegal. And that's anyone that owns a gun, or drinks alcohol, or bets in the office NCAA pool in March, or rides a motorcycle without a helmet. Not just people like me who want to have a tiger.


I'm sure I need to polish my delivery a bit, but that's what I believe. Comments?

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From:billroper
Date:July 15th, 2004 11:40 am (UTC)
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Given my libertarian bent (with a small "l"), I tend to agree with you.

Now, on the other hand, if someone is going to pursue a risky activity, they should do so in a responsible fashion, since rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. Thus, we have mandatory automobile insurance laws that make it possible for someone who has been injured to recover from the responsible party, even if his or her assets wouldn't cover the damage. And we require training, testing, and licensing in the same way.

The ultimate question that anyone (myself included) who wants to grind an axe about their rights being infringed needs to answer is: How do you feel about Right X which is not something that you personally want to exercise, but that others do, despite the fact that their exercise of Right X might produce some non-zero level of danger to you? Do they have the right to do it or not? And how close to zero does the level of danger to you have to be before you are willing to let them exercise that right?
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From:tigertoy
Date:July 15th, 2004 02:20 pm (UTC)
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I'm not sure I have an ultimate answer to the ultimate question. Like all interesting complex questions, I don't think there is a good simple answer, no matter how much simple-minded people want to have one.

If X wants to do something, and Y expresses concern about the risk, I look at:
  • How much danger actually exists?
    There is often a great gulf between how dangerous something really is and how dangerous someone thinks it is. While it's arguable Y has a right to not feel threatened, it is a much less important right than his right to actually not *be* threatened. Y's ignorance does not justify limiting X's rights.
  • Is Y actually concerned about material harm, or is he only concerned about the 'harm' to some moral principle or sensibilities? Y's personal morality does not justify limiting X's rights.
  • In the credible scenarios where Y might be harmed, does the harm really flow from X's activity, or does it flow from Y's behavior, or from some other person Z's behavior? For example, if Y is only in danger when he is on X's property, then *at most* X has a duty to warn Y before Y comes onto the property. The doctrine of the attractive nuisance is a crock. X's activity should only be limited if there is a credible danger even if no one else is acting in a stupid or willfully dangerous way.
  • Is the danger from the activity an ongoing part of the activity (such as emitting toxic smoke), a risk that's an unavoidable part of the activity (operator error, or a single component in a well-maintained machine unexpectedly failing), or just the possibility of a freak accident?
  • Has X already taken reasonable precautions, or is he reckless?
  • Is Y's risk reasonable to worry about in the light of the other risks Y faces?

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From:billroper
Date:July 16th, 2004 08:15 am (UTC)
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I think that you're going to find yourself tripping over your second point about moral principles. A brief example follows:

So, there's an unscrupulous breeder of big cats who raises them in horrible conditions, then releases them on his ranch for staged "big-game hunts" where the animals are killed with no chance of survival and no real "sport" to it.

You've suffered no material harm. Does your personal morality justify limiting the rights of the breeder and "hunter"? (I put hunter in quotes since there's no real hunting going on here.)
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From:tigertoy
Date:July 16th, 2004 10:41 am (UTC)
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You're right that there's a sticky area here. I'll take a stab at defending what I meant, though I'll concede (again) that I don't have all the answers.

I could argue that this isn't a good example, because what's really at issue are the tiger's rights, but that would be missing the point. So I will stipulate for the sake of this discussion that whatever inherent rights animals have are well below a human's right to the pursuit of happiness.

I used the word personal with specific intent. In your example, the fact that my own sensibilities are offended does not trump the "hunter"'s pursuit of happiness. (The breeder's interests are economic, and his right to make money in whatever way he thinks of is a much weaker right than the "hunter"'s right to pursue happiness. But that's a whole nother can o' worms.) What I meant to imply by using personal was that if a large enough number of people's sensitivites are offended, at some point the activity offends society as a whole, which may justify a higher level of scrutiny.

That's what I meant when I wrote the previous comment, but it makes me uncomfortable. A large number of people's sensitivities are offended by a number of activities that I think should be permitted.

In my own personal worldview, it's self-evident that enjoying the suffering and death of other creatures is tainted, and pursuing such happiness isn't part of the unalienable right to pursue happiness. However, while I think that's a position a lot of people would agree with, I don't think it rises to the level of an ethical axiom. My believing it doesn't make it right. I think a sound argument, as objective as any argument on ethical principles can be, can be made, but I can't state it logically yet.

I also used the word moral in my previous comment with specific intent, in contrast with my use of ethical in this one. However, the distinction is based on my own personal definitions of those words. I will write more on the difference between morals and ethics, my own definitions of those words, and the problem of how my definitions are different from other people's and how I communicate what I mean sometime Real Soon Now.
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