What Should Be the Limits of Personal Choice?

A common catchphrase is that people should have the right to do whatever they want with their lives as long as it doesn’t hurt others. While it sounds great in the abstract, in the real world it creates a lot of problems – namely tacking on an arbitrary condition (“as long as it doesn’t hurt others”) that, so far as true freedom to act on personal choice goes, contradicts itself. Either you think the rights of the individual are worth more than the rights of others or you don’t.

If a person ought to be truly free to act on his or her personal choices, then that person should not have to worry about how his or her acts effect others. The usual response is to add the phrase “as long as it doesn’t hurt others”. However, if it’s true that the right to act according to one’s personal choices is the most important right there is, then I see no reason to qualify this with any admonition against hurting others if it is to his or her advantage to do so, no matter how slight that advantage to the person who performs the act. This is even more true if assuming that obtaining pleasure for one’s self is more important than avoiding pain for others.

Even were that add-on legitimate, it does not help matters. The phrase “as long as it doesn’t hurt others” still has interpretation problems, particularly if you claim the other person also has rights of to have their own personal choice honored as well. If the individual’s exercise of personal choices is the paramount right that individual has, then if that person hurts others, it is the person who commits the action who decides what is hurtful for the other person – at least while remaining consistent with the notion that a rightful act is defined by one’s subjective personal choice. This is especially true when making a distinction between the tangible and non-tangible realms (hurt with immediately visible or quantifiable results versus hurt that lacks one or both elements). In this case the actor has the right to decide what kind of damage is valid to consider and what is not. When the damage is immediately visible and obvious (evidence of physical attacks, stolen or damaged money or property, etc.) it is harder to deny that damage to another might be “bad enough”*. At best, the add-on as portrayed here, is merely a general rule that effectively glosses over the idea that the act’s recipients may have rights at least equal to the individual agent. At worst, it renders meaningless practically the entire field of ethics and even the notions of right and wrong.

So personal choice advocates, to be truly consistent, have to concede that the rights of the individual committing any act are always paramount to the right of the recipient individual (no matter how horrible the act may be). This more or less legitimizes anarchy in the most negative sense of the word. If they insist on adding the qualifier “as long as it doesn’t hurt others”, then they admit that sometimes the rights of others do indeed supersede the right of the individual. This includes the right of those others to have at least equal (perhaps even more) say in how hurtful an act would be, especially one that negatively effects themselves or others they may rightfully speak for.

Therefore, the whole idea of acting on one’s personal choice being paramount above all others, including the qualifying add-on itself, is not the most important right there is, unless one seriously believes that any justification for rules, morals, ethics, even laws, rest on no solid ground at all.

*Even “bad enough” is not particularly valid here, for “bad enough”, from the agent’s perspective, implies the agent will choose to stop doing the act. When the issue is “bad enough”, that usually implies other people would have a legitimate say in when the agent should stop performing the act (or not perform the act at all). This runs contrary to the notion that individual choice is paramount.

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