Bhrigu's question

कभी जो याद भी आता हूँ मैं तो कहते हैं के आज बज़्म में कुछ फ़ित्ना-ओ-फ़साद नहीं - मिर्ज़ा ग़ालिब

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Bay Area, Strategy Manager, Haas- U. C. Berkeley, Marathons

Friday, April 08, 2005

An illiberal act?

In a thought provoking post, Amit Varma asks:
Do you prosecute Man One for doing something that was agreed upon by mutually consenting adults? Under strict libertarian principles, should they not be free to do whatever they want as long as they don’t infringe on the rights, or the free will, of anyone else? (And if you hold that either or neither man was in sound mind, how are we to define “sound mind” and who is to define it?)
The answer is Yes. You need to prosecute the man. As civilized humans, we have arrived at a set of universal moral values. Values that cut across religions and borders. No criminal act can be justified using the consent of the victim as an excuse. In other words, any act that violates another's rights should be disallowed, period. This question is similar to the questions; Should Dr. Kevorkian be punished for helping consensual adults commit suicide? Should slavery or bonded labor be considered fine as long as the slaves sign on the contract out of their own volition?

The murderer should be prosecuted, even if the act was consensual. The act is inherently amoral and criminal.

Whle referring to Theodore Dalrymple's article, Roger Kimball considers Mill's arguments and writes:
Some people like their steak well-done, some like it rare. Some, apparently, like it cut from the flanks of their friends. So long as the friend doesn't mind, who are we to judge? You see what Stephen meant when he observed that "Complete moral tolerance is possible only when men have become completely indifferent to each other--that is to say, when society is at an end."

18 Comments:

Blogger amit varma said...

Arun,

Thanks for the links.

Let's stick to the thought experiment I posed and forget the real case for a moment (which is why I didn't link to that). Is there really a crime and a victim? The case has two components: one, person two wants to commit suicide; two, person two wants his flesh eaten after his death and person one wants to eat human flesh.

As regards component one, I believe that every person has the right to commit suicide. If we have the right to our lives, and to live it the way we want, then we should have the right to take it as well. If you don't agree with that, we can agree to disagree. (And I agree the issue is nuanced, but the thought experiment contains the assumption the person is of otherwise sound mind and is not mentally disturbed or unbalanced.) If you do agree with that, then the instance I pointed out is not wrong uptil the point person two commits suicide.

Is it wrong after that? Person two has the right to bequeath his body to whoever he wants, and I can't see how person one's eating his flesh, much as it disgusts us, is infringing upon the rights of anyone.

I'm not saying the act is right; in fact, I feel repulsed by it. But I'd like to understand, within the conditions of the thought experiment, why it is wrong. As Dalrymple said, from first principles only.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Quizman said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:12 PM  
Blogger Quizman said...

Amit,

My argument is that man is not a self-sufficient atomic entity. Therefore, the use of first principles may be difficult in this case. Dalrymple uses the word 'society' rather carefully in the quote that I cited. Each human has a mother, friends, relatives and associates. Even if a person were a hermit, his actions (and those that befall him) impact society. Thus, society through ages has created some universal values to define civilized behavior. [Which is why I put another poser in my blog about infectious diseases. I wanted to see people working that out through first principles.]

11:13 PM  
Blogger amit varma said...

Arun,

So you're basically saying that I do not have a right to commit suicide and/or bequeath my body to whoever I wish because those acts impact society? Does it not then follow that any right that I have lies subject to the influence that has on society? That reasoning could be used for the curtailment of just about any right, couldn't it? Such as the right to free expression. It could even be used to justify censorship. No?

11:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Feeling repulsed by something does not make it wrong. I feel repulsed by people eating cats and dogs but I realize it's nothing wrong because certain cultures in east easia relish it as food.

12:22 AM  
Blogger Gaurav said...

As civilized humans, we have arrived at a set of universal moral values. Values that cut across religions and borders.

Exactly what are universal moral values? Could you list them? And by what methodology have we arrived at them?

5:16 AM  
Blogger MadMan said...

Oooh, that's a very slippery slope, Arun - that one about affecting other people and especially "society". You really shouldn't go down that route.

Given that smoking has been shown to have a definite impact on the chances of getting lung cancer, should people be allowed to smoke since they have a higher chance of dying, which in turn affects their loved ones? Just one example out of a few hundred I could give you.

Law based on "morality" is fraught with dangers. Some people consider sex before marriage "immoral". You don't want to outlaw that, do you? ;)

5:24 AM  
Blogger Quizman said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Quizman said...

Amit, Gaurav,Anon

I refer you to Mill, Kant and Kohlberg, since they have articulated answers to all your questions.

Madman - not really. The curtailment of rights in a selective manner is a moral virtue. Mill, the modern day father of individual liberty has written on the subject of curtailment of rights (see "the corn farmer is a thief" example in On Liberty.)

2:15 PM  
Anonymous Sahana Sharma:) said...

I agree with what quizman has said. Yes, censorship is required in certain cases because it may have certain adverse effects on society. Now the words " rights" and "society" are very relative. But Amit's argument is quite vacuous.

"Does it not then follow that any right that I have lies subject to the influence that has on society? That reasoning could be used for the curtailment of just about any right, couldn't it? Such as the right to free expression. It could even be used to justify censorship. No? "

Amit, a self proclaimed sycophant of the republican party and someone who blindly believes that anything in america is good should understand the fact that his beloved administration here( i live in the usa) has a long list of censorships .

It is true that what is right for the society and what is not is a very deabltable issue as madman has pointed out. But the impact and magnitudes of such events can differ. Sex before marriage is a quite trivial offense compared to the topic in contention here. It can trigger of a chain of such similar events which are bound to affect soceity. Suicide pacts on the internet are quite common in Japan . Their government makes an effort to discouarge such efforts, as any sensible government would do.Any sensible government would therefore would try to prevent such things.

There are so many things that i want to do, but which might be offensive to you. So such things should be decided on the opinion of the people in a democratic and unbisaed manner. Censorship is an inevitable part of our lives. The question is is it dastadly like the ones imposed by the Taliban or sensible ones keeping in mind the lerger interest of the society.

2:35 PM  
Blogger amit varma said...

Amit, a self proclaimed sycophant of the republican party and someone who blindly believes that anything in america is good...

Ad-hominem isn't neccessary if you have an argument to make, and nor is ignorance. Self-proclaimed? What's that about? I don't see how being an atheist, a supporter of gay marriage and of stem-cell research, and an opponent of farm subsidies (all subsidies) could possibly make me a "sycophant" of the Republican party, even if I agree with them on some issues. Nor do I understand your caricature about me blindly loving America; aren't you the one who lives there?

Let's keep the discussion on issue, ok?

11:12 PM  
Blogger Quizman said...

Sahana,

I agree with Amit. I don't think Ad Hominems are a civilized way of engaging in a lively debate.

And btw, I do not support censorship. I was merely implying that each action is dictated by virtue. The highest virtue is to preserve individual liberty. While doing so, one may have to curtail liberty!. Shocking? Not at all. Philosophers have discussed that at length and cited fabulous examples. Check out the corn farmer example by Mill or the Heinz (thief or virtuous man) by Kohlberg.

11:58 PM  
Blogger MadMan said...

Arun, I'm afraid I'm not going to be rushing to the bookstore to pick up three books before I can figure out your argument so please do provide some idea of what you're talking about.

I'm going to ignore most of Sahana's diatribe, even though the bit about sex before marriage being characterised as an "offense" and triggering off a "chain of such events" had me in the splits for quite a while.

6:27 AM  
Blogger Quizman said...

Madman,

You don't have to buy them. Just click on the links. :-)

8:34 AM  
Blogger Quizman said...

This is another of those many cases where the absolute application of first principles fail. [Pre-emptive action is another. I've already indicated this in another post.]

Aside - this is why I believe in solving problems on a case-by-case basis instead of adopting an "-ism" and then being doctrinaire about it. Remember Yazad's Sonagachi post? A similar problem was encountered there.

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that I only see this referred to as a "thought experiment". An incident identical to the "experiment" occurred in Germany about 2-3 years back and was widely reported in the media. The cops actually recovered portions of the killed man's body from the Man One's refrigerator freezer .. ugh.

http://news.scotsman.com/latest.cfm?id=4392174

2:23 PM  
Blogger amit varma said...

Anonymous, yes, as I mentioned in the post that started this, it's a thought experiment based on a true story.

Arun, would I be correct in assuming then that you're an act utilitarian?

3:44 PM  
Blogger Quizman said...

Amit,

Not an absolute one. :-) I dislike labels - as I've said before, I like the approach of solving problems while ensuring that liberty is not encroached upon. The utilitarian concept of "greatest good for the greatest number" lands into some problems as well.

4:50 PM  

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