The ethics of protecting ourselves from ourselves


What fun I had, standing on a machine much like a scale and looking at the bones of my feet lit in green fluorescence. Fortunately, my children never could indulge in such whimsy. These shoe store  x-ray fluoroscope machines have long been banned as a health hazard.

I also enjoyed my father’s De Soto. Seat belts? Unheard of. Shatterproof glass? No such thing. Air bags? They hadn’t been invented yet. Now you can’t buy a car without these items.

The number of once acceptable activities now outlawed is large and New York Department of Health’s ruling this month added to the list of activities that put children at “significant risk of injury” by bringing indoor day camps under the same regulations that govern outdoor day camps. In addition to horseback riding and rock climbing, red rover, tetherball, kickball, wiffleball and capture the flag have been deemed “potentially dangerous.”

Three objections have been raised to the new regulation. The economic argument comes from those who say it will be costly for small indoor day care camps, which will have to pay $200 for a state permit.

The second objection comes from the news followers who see the regulation as so patently silly that it deserves no more than ridicule.

The sustained objection is philosophical. As articulated by Lane Filler, a member of Newsday’s editorial board, this is “this is a great example of how, in the long run, nanny-state liberalism becomes a snake that must eat its own tail to survive. . . . We demand government make our lives perfectly safe—and leave us alone. We have to pick one or the other. Insist on both, and we end up forcing officials to parse the relative safety of boccie, ga-ga and spud. It’s little wonder, faced with such impossible tasks, that steal the bacon becomes the only game with much appeal.”

Filler is right to point to the tendency of government to abuse its power. This is why we have constitutional protections and need more transparency in all organizations that affect our lives—corporations, as well as government.

But that isn’t to say that laws that limit our behavior are never justified. Government does have a legitimate role in helping to protect us. I wish that fluoroscopes had been banned before I routinely stepped on them (my mother thought they were perfectly safe), and I am glad that my father never had an accident in his De Soto and even happier that airbags and shatterproof glass are standard when my wife had her accident a few years ago.

How far the government should reach to protect people needs to be judged by particular cases. To dismiss all regulations as “nanny-state” intrusion is a position that few would accept.

The basic argument used by those opposed to the “nanny state” is that government should stay clear of regulating self-regarding behavior. ‘If it affects only me, keep your hands off,’ is the basic point.

But much of our behavior affects others and we have a duty to make sure that they aren’t unduly harmed by us. So I am responsible for injuries suffered by a person hurt on my property, if it hasn’t been kept properly; smoking is banned in public spaces because secondhand smoke is harmful; restaurants are subject to health inspections because people get sick from contaminated food.

Safety regulations need to balance a number of factors, including the possibility of injury, the seriousness of the injuries caused, the cost of implementing the safety measure and how invasive enforcement would have to be. This is the discussion that should be taking place now around whether to ban smoking in a car or home when a child is present, for example.

Society can’t protect against all contingencies and it shouldn’t. Everything we do is risky, including stepping out of bed and standing in the sun. We have to evaluate each particular on its own merits.

It is easy to have readymade answers, a one size fits all approach to problems. No thinking is required when you start knowing the answer—government regulation is bad in all cases. This way of looking at social issues has the virtue of consistency; it has the vice of being a foolish consistency, “the hobgoblin of little minds,” as said by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The rest of us will have to use our discretion—‘yes’ to banning fast foods in schools, for example, but ‘no’ to banning red rover in day camps. This is the use of judgment, a component without which there is no ethics.

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5 thoughts on “The ethics of protecting ourselves from ourselves

  1. It’s not only government that must use sound judgement. Parents must take responsibility as well. There are calculated risks in almost every activity a child engages in, and it means weighing those risks versus rewards for your child. Is learning to swim worth a scraped knee? Or learning teamwork worth a few bumps & bruises?

    We have become a society of lawsuits. The only “winners” in all of this are personal injury attorneys. That’s not to say safety guidelines are not needed – but it’s become beyond ridiculous — we can’t sue everyone every time little Johnny stubs his toe. Whatever happened to common sense? Kids need to be kids. They already grow up too fast. Let’s not take more of their childhoods away from them because the adults are playing CYA.

  2. All I know is: “mile-high” aluminum slides that burned your legs in the summer, which we “polished” with wax paper to make more slippery, where we waited our turns to take that fast exhilarating trip to the mud hole at the bottom (carefully straddled with school shoes), where for 5 whole seconds we conquered our fear of heights and embraced an almost-flying… well, that is gone. Playgrounds now are boring, yet so, so safe.

  3. Liz makes a good point. The reason why permits etc. are so high is that they must presumably provide insurance against lawsuits filed by the most litigious citizens on Earth, Americans. It is not only a matter of weighing risks in terms of physical harm unto others and self, but also a matter of weighing potential monetary risks to others and self should something happen that causes enmeshment in a legal imbroglio. Perhaps a step in the right direction would be for the US to adopt the British system, where the loser in a suit has to pay part of the legal fees of the winner, instead of the current “everybody pays her way” deal. Fewer unnecessary suits might lead to a more rational assessment of what is truly harmful to ourselves and society, versus what is mildly harmful but potentially profitable.

  4. The problem with the British system is that it discourages lawsuits from the poor and favors companies/governments that can afford lawyers, win or lose.

    Putting a cap on personal damages is probably a good idea, although not a cap on punitive damages. Additionally, punitive damage awards should be put into a public trust, not enrich the party that sues.

    Those who recklessly disregard safety should be on notice that they may have to pay out big sums if they don’t change their ways. Punitive damages is the way to do this.

  5. Political debates in the United States are routinely framed as a battle between conservatives who favor market outcomes whatever they may be against liberals who prefer government intervention to ensure that families have decent standards-of-living. The difference between them is the goal of government intervention and the fact that conservatives are smart enough to conceal their dependence on the government..

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