How far should the government interfere in people’s private lives?
How far should the government interfere in people’s private lives? Should activities that many people think are wrong still be legal?
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Clearly no one should be allowed to harm another person. This is why stealing and hurting people ar...
Clearly no one should be allowed to harm another person. This is why stealing and hurting people are crimes. But liberals believe that we should be able to do as we wish in our private lives, as long as what we do doesn’t harm anyone else. Doing something that only hurts yourself should not be banned, and that also goes for activities between consenting adults. If the government thinks an activity is bad, it can try to educate people about it so that they choose not to do it. But in the end, people who know the risks should be allowed to ruin their own lives.
The liberal principle sounds clear, but it doesn’t work in the real world. So for many issues, there are clearly others who may be directly hurt by the activity. Examples include women in prostitution and pornography, helpless old people in assisted suicide, the unborn child in abortion, and animals in hunting. Hurt can also be caused to families when someone behaves in a way that harms themself – for example, the children of a drug user. And in a modern society, we all pay the cost of self-harm through taxes to pay for healthcare. We also lose out if other people choose to behave in ways that mean they cannot make a normal economic and social role in society.\
It is also often doubtful whether people undertaking risky activities are in a good position to choose freely. They may be too young, or too stupid to understand the risks. And people who are addicted have lost control over their will power. \
Everyone should have the right to live their life as they choose, without having their freedom to ac...
Everyone should have the right to live their life as they choose, without having their freedom to act restricted by the state. This is the principle of liberalism, famously outlined by John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century. It can also be seen in modern charters of Human Rights, which give every human equal value and declare that we should all have rights to speak and act as we choose. Mill thought it was vital for well-being that each person was able to express their own unique personality in their way of life. He also thought that society as a whole can only make progress if men and women are free to make choices that go against what most people think is normal. Otherwise better ways of living will never be found and nothing will ever change.
Society has a rightful interest in controlling how people behave, otherwise there would be chaos. In a democracy the state has the moral authority to do act. So if the government really feels that what some people want to do is wrong, it is right for them to ban it. Banned activities are often very dangerous, leading to addiction, poor health, not being able to work usefully, and a shorter life. \
People do have human rights, but rights don’t mean they can do anything they want. Sometimes to protect most people’s rights, the state has to stop a few people doing what they want. And rights often clash, so that the government has to decide which one is most important.
It is worth asking how harmful the activity being banned actually is. Often it can be argued that t...
It is worth asking how harmful the activity being banned actually is. Often it can be argued that the activity is not really very dangerous, or at least that it is no more harmful than other things that are perfectly legal. There may even be benefits. If any of these apply, why ban it? After all, crossing the road is risky and almost everything we eat could be bad for us in some way. We cannot reduce all risk and people should be allowed to decide how much risk they are prepared to take on in their lives. If people enjoy something, even though it is bad for them, then maybe it is better to live a shorter but happy life, rather than a long boring one.
Banned activities really are harmful, both to the people doing them and to society as a whole. Often they give someone a short-term thrill, but create long-term damage – society is in a better position to decide about this than a lone person. And even if some other dangerous behaviour is still legal, we should not increase the overall harm by allowing everything. By legalising the activity, we can expect many more people to do it, so the problems will become much larger and more serious for society.
Even if the activity is bad for people, banning it is not the best way to reduce the harm it does. ...
Even if the activity is bad for people, banning it is not the best way to reduce the harm it does. Many people ignore the ban and break the law. This means that they have to deal with criminal gangs to get what they want, which brings extra danger. It will also be difficult for them to get help for an addiction or injury resulting from the banned activity. People will not want to go to a doctor, teacher, or counsellor for help, for fear that they will be arrested because what they were doing is illegal.
Lifting a ban simply because it cannot be totally enforced would be to give into despair. If people insist on breaking the law, then we need smarter policing and stronger penalties to discourage them. And it is possible to crack down on the illegal activity and still offer treatment to those who are suffering from doing it. This already happens in lots of areas, because of the idea of “client confidentiality” – where doctors, lawyers, etc. have a duty to keep private information safe.
If a harmful activity is banned, then the government cannot pass rules to make it safer. Keeping th...
If a harmful activity is banned, then the government cannot pass rules to make it safer. Keeping things legal allows the activity to be regulated in order to reduce the harms. For example, tobacco and alcohol are regulated to make sure they are not mixed with other dangerous stuff, and so that consumers know what they are getting. But buyers of illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin don’t know how pure their dose is – often they have been padded out by dealers with stuff that is cheap but even more dangerous. Illegal, “backstreet” abortions are much more dangerous for women than ones in regulated clinics. And making prostitution legal makes it possible to check that the women involved are not being forced into it, and for them to be given regular health checks.
Trying to legalise and then regulate an activity will not work. If a simple ban was hard to enforce, then complicated rules will be even harder to police. And regulations may make it harder to do the activity, or raise its price (especially if the government also taxes it). This will mean that criminal gangs will still be able to offer it on the black market, with all the dangers regulation was meant to avoid.
It is usually impossible to put in force a ban on something people want to do. Millions of people d...
It is usually impossible to put in force a ban on something people want to do. Millions of people drive too fast, take drugs, or pay for sex, even though all these things are illegal. In fact banning an activity gives it glamour and adds to its appeal, which may even encourage thrill-seeking young people to take it up. Trying to police a ban will be pointless but very expensive. This is likely to make the law look stupid and will encourage people to break other rules too. And enforcement will mean that the police have to poke their noses into people’s private lives, for example stopping them on the street and searching them, or raiding their home. This state intrusion is a greater harm than the activity itself, even if police powers are not abused (as they often have been). In the end, heavy-handed policing may make people see the state as their enemy, and lead to attacks on our society.
We may never be able to completely get rid of a banned activity, but that is not a reason to legalise it. Laws aren’t just to catch people who break them, they also have normative value. This means that through the law society is sending a message about how things ought to be, and what it considers to be right and wrong. This makes people think twice before they try the banned activity, and even if they do it they usually admit that it is wrong. All this discourages people from the activity, but lifting the ban would normalise it, sending the message that the government thinks it is OK.
Legalising the activity will bring other benefits for society. Firstly money will be saved that now...
Legalising the activity will bring other benefits for society. Firstly money will be saved that now being spent on policing, and it will also free up police time to focus on more serious crimes like rape and murder. Secondly, some of the money saved can be spent on treating any harmful effects of the activity. Finally, if an activity is legal, it can be taxed, and this again will raise money for treatment, as well as for government services more generally.
Banning a dangerous activity does not mean other ways cannot be used as well. As well as a ban governments can follow a range of positive policies to reduce the harm. Most importantly, the state can educate people about how dangerous the activity really is. This can be done through advertising and health message, but lessons in schools are the best way of reaching young people before they think to try it. The state can also fund treatment for those suffering as a result of the activity, and research ways of helping them stop it. Finally, policies such as better care for people with terminal illnesses will mean that fewer people will feel the need to consider assisted suicide, while access to contraception and support for unmarried mothers will reduce the demand for abortion.
Making or keeping an activity legal is not the same as allowing anyone to do it. The liberal princi...
Making or keeping an activity legal is not the same as allowing anyone to do it. The liberal principle relies upon informed adults making up their own minds about an activity. Children lack the maturity to weigh risks properly, and may not be physically ready to try the activity. This means it is quite proper to place age restrictions on a legal activity. But it would be quite wrong to try to ban it for everyone just because a few teenagers try to do it “underage”. And of course, if something is legal, businesses selling it will want to enforce age limits because otherwise the government may fine them or shut them down. Once it is banned, then the government has no means of control at all, and criminals will happily sell it to anyone of any age.
Allowing an activity but having age restrictions doesn’t work. It sends the message that the government thinks the activity is OK, so young people will want to try it as soon as they can, because doing so will be part of “growing up”. Age limits are also hard to police, as shown by problems with alcohol, smoking and adult films. And age limits also work on the idea that adults are capable to deciding for themselves. But many adults are no more able than children to make these sorts of decisions. They may already be addicted, they may not be very clever, they may lack information needed for a fair choice, or be so poor that all choices look bad. It would be better to totally ban the activity.
Just because you are offended by knowing other people are doing something you dislike, that is no re...
Just because you are offended by knowing other people are doing something you dislike, that is no reason to ban it. The person who is stopped from doing what they want has a much greater right to feel offended than the person who objects to others doing the activity. Allowing public opinion to control how people must behave in their private lives makes for a very repressive society. Instead the state should promote tolerance for people of different views and lifestyles, as part of a diverse and lively multicultural society.
Sometimes most people in a society don’t just think an activity is wrong. They may find it very offensive that it is done by other people – perhaps for religious reasons. Surely if a large majority of people feel so strongly about it, the government should ban the activity to avoid giving offence. There may even be public order problems if the activity is allowed to go ahead, as those who find it offensive may try to take the law into their own hands to stop it.
What do you think?