Public Health - A Gray Issue in Political Philosophy

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Public Health - A Gray Issue in Political Philosophy

Post by Scott » May 2nd, 2009, 1:35 pm

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?
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Nice post...

Post by vperalta » May 3rd, 2009, 2:01 am

Nice post, Scott.

The dilemma is probably not freedom versus freedom, or but freedom versus other values like health or so, but a problem of determining whether one has a right to remain untreated and also free to move into public spaces or spaces to which he is not the full owner without any further commitments such as normally ones house is.

Freedom is one side of a twofolded concept. The other side would be 'responsibility' I would say. So, a person can decide to remain untreated of ébola, for instance, but by losing his right to move out of his house, and with the right of the rest of the community to isolate her.

(Is it?...)

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Post by Belinda » May 3rd, 2009, 5:44 am

I agree, a very nice post from Scott. For me, the better idea of what constitutes individual freedoms is not personal liberty but personal knowledge of as many circumstances as possible and the projected effects of those circs. This implies that freedom does actually include responsibility to others, and not merely that freedom should include responsibility to others.

Unfortunately many people don't know much about public health issues and so government, or in past times religious, experts have to be uncharmingly paternalistic towards the masses.

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Re: Public Health - A Gray Issue in Political Philosophy

Post by garrettis1 » May 3rd, 2009, 2:07 pm

wow what the hell is coming about in this world, what commits one to do such evil act and ruin the good of all? look at the government we have today, and they are nothing but crooks and the corrupt except mainly Ron Paul! we the people must make that change and quick!

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Re: Public Health - A Gray Issue in Political Philosophy

Post by whitetrshsoldier » May 4th, 2009, 2:13 am


I agree with everybody else - outstanding post, and thanks for making me think!

One of the first things you mentioned during your post was the right to self-defense. If you think about it, isn't the government depriving the individual of their right to defend themselves when they quarantine others? Create building regulations?

I would say that it is MY RIGHT to defend myself from an outbreak, or a falling building, by not subjecting myself to the conditions in which I would be more highly susceptible to risk. I am a rational being, and can judge this risk for myself. I should have the right to defend against this risk without the government doing it for me. So are they actually taking this right FROM me when they mandate certain things?

I also very much agree that it's a very grey issue, and that generalities shouldn't be applied imprudently (is that a word? :wink:).

BUT, I am very much against government regulation, especially in a situation such as this, where the sensationlization of an extremely mild event has caused some politicians to FURTHER push their agendas related to expanding the government's control over health care.

Some are using this most recent event to advocate a federal health care system, which would deprive the individual of another right: FREE CHOICE.
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