Saturday, December 22, 2007

Public and Private Behavior

The world as a whole will never agree on everything. We will never even agre on the fundamentals of right and wrong. I think the best we can realistically hope for is some form of order which allows large groups of us to get along relatively peacefully. As I've remarked before, I think the rules governing society, whether enumerated or tacit, will not and should not be universal.

Personally I would prefer to live under very libertarian laws, but experience has taught me that most people would prefer otherwise, and that this is not going to change, almost certainly not within my expected lifetime, probably not ever.

Fundamentally, there's no good reason why they should.

The idea that people act rationally in order to achieve their goals is potentially highly misleading. People will often do things which seem appealing to them at the time but which they will later regret, and in some cases this later regret is predictable in advance. A person who has problems resisting the urge to drink or gamble, for example, might quite sensibly prefer to live in a community where he would not be subjected to constant temptation.

The concept of a right to free speech essentially refers to the right of people to converse among themselves without fear of reprisals. It has never been absolute in the sense of permitting anything which might be considered speech or symbolic speech. Threats, criminal conspiracies, fraudulent business offers, and slander all contain a speech element, but they aren't only speech. It seems to me that deliberate attempts to offend go beyond being only speech in the same way. I'm talking about something like this. Asshole had it coming, Buzz is a hero.

In general, the strict libertarian people have an absolute right to cause emotional harm to others, whether inadvertently or deliberately, provided no physical harm is done to person or property, seems to me unreasonable. Certainly a negative emotional state represents a reduced quality of life. Given that the value of property is largely subjective anyway, why shouldn't one treat emotional harm as being as real as property damage? I can certainly see a strong pragmatic argument against legislation attempting to prevent emotional damage. Since in principle anything could be emotionally damaging to someone, giving a government agency blanket authority to protect people's fragile emotions would be giving it unlimited power to micromanage everyone's lives. But a pragmatic argument cannot justify a moral principle, and the fact that the most extreme examples of something imaginable would clearly be bad does not indicate that it is always bad in any degree.

On the other hand, it strikes me as being absurd that people would take it upon themselves to invade other people's privacy in order to root out behavior which would tempt or offend them if it were done in public. I understand that people do, but I can't understand the mindset that encourages it, and I think it's a fairly rare one. I suspect the main reason it has infested our legal system is that people have been fed a false dichotomy between draconian private enforcement and public tolerance; that it's necessary to break down doors in the middle of the night and gun down grandmothers on the possibility that there might be a joint in the house, because the only alternative is to have the streets littered with semi-catatonic junkies and their disease-infested needles.

It's a straightforward consequence of economics that the more intense the efforts to suppress "victimless crimes", the more potentially profitable they become. Conversely, the more discrete "victimless criminals" are in their activities, the less the public is interested in suppressing them. It seems natural that societies would protect their sensibilities by either regulating the times at places at which "vices" can be indulged, or ostensibly banning them but making no real effort to enforce the ban provided that the law is not publicly flouted. I think historically that's what most socities have done, aside from outbreaks of puritanism.

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