Friday, December 20, 2013

Liberty or Safety first?

As anyone following my blog knows, I love investigating situations where people clearly hold opposing views at the same time and experience no internal conflict.  So I found the recent ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court as a good lead in for a new post.

Think about this general philosophic question:  When the government is considering a regulation that would constrain some kind of freedom, should the burden of proof be on proponents to prove that there is no harm or opponents to prove that there is harm?  In other words, do you believe in a “better safe than sorry” standard where we should prevent anything that isn’t proven safe?  Or do you believe in a “liberty unless proved otherwise” standard” where we should allow everything, in the name of liberty, unless there is a clear government interest in banning it (e.g. it is dangerous)? 

It is important to think about this in in the abstract because of the human irrational thought processing that I blog about so much.  Once we focus on a particular topic, we first think about what we want to be the policy and then rationalize that it is the proper philosophical stance.

So before you read on – make your abstract decision.  Which is the correct philosophic stance?  Better safe than sorry?  Or liberty unless proved otherwise?  Who has the burden of proof?

OK, now think about specific examples and see if you are indeed a real human – i.e. a hypocrite (which is our natural state – sorry to break it to you).   I know you will say, "but there is evidence for #1, there isn't evidence for #2!!!  But I am asking the question in the abstract.  What would have been your starting point before the evidence was in?

WARNING – these are touchy subjects.  You will definitely have emotional reactions just to asking the questions.  That is my point!  Emotional reactions trump your philosophic stance.  You will rationalize contradicting what you said earlier on at least one of these? 
  • Do we allow genetically modified foods until there is evidence of some kind of harm?  Or do we ban them until there is evidence that they are safe?
  • Do we allow new pharmaceuticals on the market based on efficacy trials until someone proves they have long term harms?  Or do we require drug makers to do long term studies, holding drugs that could be helping patients, off the market until they are proved safe? 
  • Do we regulate greenhouse gases just in case we are destroying the world with them, even at the expense of economic growth?  Or do we wait until the evidence is clearer?
  • Do we allow the NSA to collect telecommunications metadata until we can prove it doesn’t combat terrorism?  Or do we prevent it until they can prove it will help?
  • Do we allow same sex couples all of the rights and freedoms of heterosexual couples until there is evidence of harm? Or do we hold off until there is clear evidence there is no harm.

In case you were wondering about the earlier reference to the NW court ruling, they found that the state could not ban same sex marriage until they could prove that there was a clear government interest.  In other words, liberty first.