Public Health - A Gray Issue in Political Philosophy
by Scott Hughes
My political philosophy rests most of all on the support of freedom
on amoral utilitarian grounds. In other words, I believe that insofar as interactions between people are voluntary they tend to be more beneficial towards the interacting parties. So in yet another set of words, I oppose offensive uses of force, violence or coercion, such as murder, rape or assault. But like most people I still support self-defense or defensive uses of force to stop or neutralize others from committing those offensive acts of aggression. In short, I support freedom including the right to self-defense.
That general, theoretical and simple ideal is very agreeable, I think.
However, even when we agree on a general, theoretical ideal, that still leaves many questions left open when actually attempting to put that ideal in practice for specific political issues such as all the various public health issues.
For the general ideal of freedom, when attempting to put it in practice, we have to wrestle with the fuzzy, gray line between freedom and self-defense. When judging interactions between people, we often find ourselves asking who's really the victim and who's the aggressor? Does a certain act of force or violence fall under the category of self-defense or under the category of infringing on another person's freedom? Is a person protecting their own freedom or infringing on another person's freedom?
Issues of public health raise those questions and difficulties very much.
For example, consider common reactions to potential outbreaks such as SARS, the Bird Flu or now the Swine Flu. Some people start suggesting hypothetical quarantines or forced vaccinations; other people decry quarantines as a precursor to martial law. At what point does protecting public health via quarantines become a way to protect people's freedom to not be made sick rather than an infringement on people's freedom to not be quarantined or involuntarily vaccinated? We wouldn't let a mentally ill person run around in public wildly firing off a machine gun, but what about a contagiously sick person with the same potential to kill? Where do we draw the line?
For another example, consider laws or suggested laws that force people not to engage in behaviors that puts others at risk. For instance, take laws requiring car insurance for drivers, laws requiring employers to provide paid sick days, laws requiring tall buildings to meet safety requirements so the buildings have less of a chance of suddenly falling onto other buildings or people. Are those laws infringements on people's freedom or are they ways to protect people's freedom, i.e. protect one set of people from being involuntarily put at risk by another set of people?
Consider pollution and laws that regulate pollution. At what point does polluting our shared supply of air, water, or food constitute an act of violence tantamount to kicking someone in the shin? What about if pollution kills? Then is pollution tantamount to murder?
Many political public health issues have practical complexities to them. While it may be almost impossible to resolve those practical complexities without agreeing on some fundamental principles, even when we agree fundamentally that still leaves room for debate on the practical application of those principles. So let's keep in mind that these public health issues are not black and white. Let's keep in mind that complex gray issues such as public health not only call for a general philosophical analysis but also a specific, detailed, practical analysis for each individual issue.
What do you think?