Tuesday, January 29, 2008

**Shahar/Allport DrugWar Smackdown!**

So I wrote an article about restraining people from using drugs, which received a rather hostile response from a number of Strike-the-Root readers. Fellow Root-Striker Glen Allport also responded rather heatedly a few days later. Unfortunately, I honestly don’t have the time and energy that this debate deserves, so I won’t be releasing a reply in the form of another article (at least not any time soon). But I didn’t want to just walk away in the middle of the conversation, so I figure I should address some of the concerns expressed by Glen in his article, and by Rob (the editor of Strike-the-Root) in personal correspondence. I apologize in advance if the style and readability aren’t up to my normal standards, but I just want to get this posted so I can devote my energy elsewhere. And Glen, I liked your original title idea better, so I stole it. Thanks!

My article did operate on the premise that we have reason to believe that the jogger doesn't want to run off the bridge, and we would be able to convey the relevant information to him without imposing any significant harm upon him. I maintain that if these things were true, then we would be justified in grabbing the jogger. And so far as informing someone about the risks of drug use is analogous to the situation involving the jogger, I think restraint could be justified there, too.

But perhaps by grabbing the jogger, we would unintentionally harm him significantly. Perhaps he had already been told about the bridge, and would have avoided it, but needed to be allowed to jog uninterrupted for the rest of his run in order to obtain some desired health benefits. Would we not violate his rights by impeding his course? I think in this case, we clearly would. So how do we know that in grabbing the jogger, we wouldn't violate his rights? Perhaps we don't.

I suppose I'm less troubled than some other people with saying that some action would be just if certain things were true, but we may never be able to know whether those conditions were true in advance, and therefore would never know if the action would be just. I guess I sort of see it as being like leaning in for a first kiss; it's often difficult to know whether or not it's the right thing to do, and if it isn't, then leaning in is a bad idea. But in my opinion, that doesn't mean that it's always wrong to lean in. In the same way, we risk violating the jogger's rights when we stop him, but that doesn't mean that it would always be unjust to stop the jogger. It just means that we have to accept the possibility that our good intentions will end up leading to bad outcomes.

Another important possibility is that we may be wrong about the bridge, just like we may be wrong about drugs. Perhaps between the time we passed by the bridge and the time we see the jogger, the bridge was repaired. In such a scenario, grabbing the jogger would not actually prevent any life-threatening outcome, and so the justification for using force would evaporate. Again, I don't think that this makes real trouble for my argument, because if the bridge were out, we would be justified, and the only problem is a lack of knowledge.

A third possibility is that we may not be able to properly communicate the dangers to the jogger (or the prospective drug user), and so our use of force might not accomplish the desired task. Perhaps the jogger didn't speak English, and couldn't understand our attempts to explain with hand motions and sound effects. If he wanted to keep running, what could we do? Would we be entitled to restrain him completely and indefinitely? In the case of drug use, would we be entitled to prohibit drugs if we didn’t have any good way of getting through to potential users? This is especially important when discussing drugs, since it would be extremely unclear whether or not someone would choose to use drugs if she possessed accurate knowledge of the costs and risks, where it might be less controversial to say that the jogger probably would prefer not to run off the bridge if he properly understood the circumstances.

To be honest, I'm not sure what would be right in such a case. I can certainly see why one would want to say that we must err on the side of freedom, especially since it would be impossible to know that we weren't forcefully preventing the jogger/prospective drug user from doing what he or she would have wanted to do, even with perfect knowledge. Also, in the case of drug use, it probably wouldn't be a death sentence to let the drug user find out for herself. I'm just a little squeamish at saying that we would absolutely have to immediately let the jogger go to his death if he didn't speak English. I can't really offer a substantive argument for that; it just seems like it's not completely unjust for us to try to do something to save his life (assuming that he would want to avoid jogging out onto the broken bridge if he knew the truth). Perhaps we could base something on the idea of what the jogger would want us to do if he were looking at the situation from the outside, but the epistemological problems there seem fatal. The short of it is that I don't know what to say about this possibility, but I'm hesitant to say that it should be used as proof that my conclusions are wrong, and that we could never justify using restraining force in a scenario like this.

The final issue that needs to be addressed is the fact that restraining force imposes costs on those who are restrained, and these costs seem like infringements (if not violations) of the rights of the people being restrained. To clarify, a person's rights are violated if the person who infringes upon them acts wrongly in doing so. Grabbing the jogger (in the ideal scenario where the jogger doesn't want to die, and can’t be warned in any other way) seems beneficial to the jogger in almost any scenario, because the benefit of avoiding death is almost certainly preferred by the jogger over the costs imposed by the grabbing. But would the jogger have the right to be compensated for the grabbing anyways, since it would indeed constitute an infringement of his right to not be grabbed? I’m honestly not sure.

Ultimately, I’m sure I’ve just raised more questions than I’ve answered. But hopefully in light of this discussion, it’s clear why my position shouldn’t be discarded as casually as was done by Glen. That is, unless Glen wants to say that in the ideal case where we have perfect knowledge, we wouldn’t be justified in grabbing the jogger. If that’s what Glen thinks, then I’ll have to leave it to him to explain why.

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