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Phil's Rambling Rants
July 14th, 2004
11:16 pm


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The pursuit of Happiness

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[User Picture]
Date:July 15th, 2004 11:40 am (UTC)
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?
[User Picture]
Date:July 15th, 2004 02:20 pm (UTC)
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?

[User Picture]
Date:July 16th, 2004 08:15 am (UTC)
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.)
[User Picture]
Date:July 16th, 2004 10:41 am (UTC)
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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