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Monday, October 31, 2005

Choice and liberty

Is choice necessary for individual liberty?

This topic came up in response to our discussion of abortion and the "right to choose." It was suggested that looking at the "right to choose" was perhaps not the best way to frame the issue from the perspective of liberty. However, I think that the right to choose is inseparable from the idea of individual liberty.

I want to equate the right to choose with the notion of free will. It is said that God, in all his glory, gave man the gift of free will. Man's fall from grace came as a result of his free will. Some would say that the apple was only the beginning of man's fall and given man's propensity to misuse this gift it is a wonder that God gave him free will at all. After all, if it is within God's power to make us all do the right thing then why doesn't he?

The answer is that, whether you are talking about religious virtue or individual liberty, choice is the only way that actions can be judged as right or wrong. If we do not have the right to choose as the starting ground for actions, how can they be judged as right or wrong? For God, it is not enough that people do the right thing, they and they alone have to make that choice.

The example of hitting someone over the head with a baseball bat has been broght up numerous times in class. It has been said that no one has the right to make the choice to hit someone over the head with said bat. I don't want to confuse the idea of having a right and being right. In this context I see a right as the freedom to take some action. Therefore, it can be said that a person has the freedom to hit someone with a bat. Because this person has the right to choose to take that action, we can then say that the person was wrong and they can be punished according to the standards of individual liberty.

However, what if that same person did not have freedom of choice? What if he were being coerced, say by another man holding a gun to his head? Could we still say that the person swinging the bat was wrong? I think it would be much more difficult to draw the line between right and wrong in such a case. We see this a lot in self-defense murder cases. A person who commits a murder in self-defense is rarely held liable for their actions. They are not liable because they were denied the right to choose. The agressions of another denied that person the right to choose, therefore they cannot be considered "wrong".

The right to choose, or the freedom to choose, is necessary for individual liberty because it is the only way that actions can be judged. Individual liberty boundaries can only be defined and protected (esp. through establishing punishments and reconciliation) if we assume that everyone has the right to choose.

Comments:
"The answer is that, whether you are talking about religious virtue or individual liberty, choice is the only way that actions can be judged as right or wrong. If we do not have the right to choose as the starting ground for actions, how can they be judged as right or wrong?"

I like your post alot. I still don't think the "right to choose" is the best conceptual approach.

Our questions are really about government and what we think is a justified use of government coercive power to interrupt or intervene in the choices of individuals.

I don't think we should think that we get our individual rights from government, but instead that we grant government some power over our individual rights. It seems to me that the use of the phrase "right to choose" fits with the view that we are petitioning government to give us this right to choose.

I think a better view is that we have an inalienable right to choose, but we (as WE THE PEOPLE) may choose via our Constitution to grant government the power to constrain our inalienable right to choose in certain areas of our lives with others. In my view, we each start with the inalienable rights that Jefferson penned into the Declaration of Independence, and discussions of the right to choose don't like to rely on that perspective of government versus the individual.

Finally, I agree there is no moral virtue in being forced to do the right thing. Virtue comes from voluntarily choosing to do what is right, and especially when what is right is not personally perceived as best for the person choosing. But government's purpose is not to insure we each have the right to choose to do what is wrong, or to insure we each have the right to choose to harm another. Government's purpose, most fundamentally, seems to me to be to protect each individual from harm that another might wrongly choose to do. I suspect emphasizing "the right to choose" moves us away from thinking of government in this way.
 
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