Yesterday I was interacting with one of my friends and I told her that there must be strict laws on consumption of alcoholism and smoking. She gave me a strange look as if I am still living in my own “conservative, moral world.” She told me that in this epoch, every one is rational and smart enough to choose if they should drink or smoke or not.
After this conversation, certain questions came to my mind.
1. Is human nature rational and do we always know what is in our best interests?
2. Sometimes we talk about ‘real’ and ‘felt’ interests. What if our choices are influenced by media, cultural globalisation, and thought control sometimes seen as a phenomenon of democratic dictatorship where ideologies and media manipulate us silently?
3. What is the purpose of Law? Does it create a distinction between what ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ be done?
4. Why do we need morals? To create a distinction between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’?
5. If humans can take the responsibility of their choices and consequences, why do we strive for certainty and why uncertainty and fear of unknown drive us towards addictions?
6. If humans are guided by reason then why even in 21st century, we refrain from consuming alcohol on certain supposedly religious days of the week?
7. What really is freedom, Is it about freedom from external constraints or freedom to do something?
8. When we say we want freedom to do something, what do we want it for? Even at the most simple level, if we want it for our basic pleasures, what is pleasure? As it is said that human beings look for choices that seek to maximise pleasure and minimise pain.
9. What pleasure, Pleasure just to please our instincts or the distinction that is created by political theorists between higher and lower pleasure?
10. As John Stuart Mill remarked that, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
At the heart of these questions is the issue of individual liberty and the balance between those moral choices that should properly be made by individual and those that should be decided by society and enforced through law.
The classic contribution to this debate was made in 19th century by John Stuart Mill, who, in On Liberty asserted that ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against against his will is to prevent harm to others’
This harm principle implies a distinction between actions that are ‘self regarding’ and ‘other regarding’.
Law has no right to interfere with self regarding actions; in this realm individuals are entitled to exercise unrestrained liberty. (Though it brings in to question current laws on suicide, drugs, alcoholism and smoking)
Mill’s idea reflect a commitment to individual liberty, born out of faith in human reason and conviction that through the exercise of personal choice, human beings would develop and achieve ‘individuality’.
Here, I take a pause and ask
What is meant by harm? Does harm mean physical harm or can the notion of harm be extended to include psychological, mental, moral, social, and even spiritual harm?
Second, who counts as ‘others’ who should not be harmed? What about the distress caused to the family and the healthcare costs incurred by society when it comes to drugs and alcohol abuse?
Thirdly, A problems relates to individual autonomy, free will and human reason.
If we argue that smoking should be banned on the ground that nicotine is physically and psychologically addictive and those who endanger their health through smoking, are they in a state of mind to exercise reason and ‘free’ will or are they already controlled by a substance?
Again even if we are doing it in a reaction to conservative, orthodox, moral principles who believe that it’s better to have an authority who can guide us because experiences, values and morals are important to protect the social fabric of society. We need to figure out what our stand is? If it is human reason, choice and free will, we will have to address this debate a little more carefully and cautiously because currently there is some contradiction.