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Where is the Line?

March 11, 2011

Although there are many different ideals in the United States and around the world today, it is not a stretch to say that the government is in place to make the environment we live in better for the whole. Where the political theorist John Locke believes that the end of government should be in its protection of peoples right to life, liberty, and property, how do we know how far this should be taken? Mentioned in the following video are some examples of the grey area associated with establishing just what these limits should be.   If the government’s main goal is to save lives, then moving the national speed limit to 25 miles/hour will also do the trick. Road traffic accidents account for approximately 2.09% of all deaths per year [Wikipedia], a lower speed limit would, without a doubt, reduce the number of lives lost on the road. Why do we not push for this then? My opinion is that, even though it may seem crude, there are benefits to being able to quickly get from point “A” to point “B” that outweigh the increased risk of death. Some may argue that the seat-belt laws or smoking bans do not affect the routines of our day-to-day lives such as that of the theoretical speed limit law, but consider where the differences are made. Is it the government’s job to promote life or is it its job to promote the right to life? If we consider the seat belt law, when a person does not wear their seatbelt, they are putting only their own life at risk. This law is then claiming that it is the government’s responsibility to promote life because they are not allowing the passenger to chose whether or not they want to accept the higher probability of dying in an automobile accident that goes along with  not wearing seat belt. Now, considering the smoking ban on the University of Michigan’s campus, we can observe where this would fit in. Second hand smoke is bad but in the outline of the smoking ban, it appears as though the new restriction is for the health of the smokers as much, if not more, than that of bystanders. If this is so, we see another case of a governing body promoting peoples life and not their right to life. Smoking is a nasty habit but people accept these risks every time they light up.

According to a CBS article, 14 percent of all deaths in the United States were caused by problems stemming from obesity. If the government were to require all people to eat only carrots and peas, this number would fall and lives would be saved. Why wouldn’t we do this? Because this doesn’t allow us to live a life that would best fit our desires. I will note that it would not be easy to determine this line. People that are for or against either side are that way because they believe that their stance is what is right. However we believe though, we should consider where the trade-off is between life and the good life. Socrates could have lived after facing trial but he chose to die because the life in his future was one that he did not want. There are many things that the government can do to protect more lives, but is it really worth it? Does this allow us to live an enjoyable life that we want to live?  

  1. emjaffe permalink
    March 12, 2011 8:31 AM

    I would like to comment on the section of your blog in which you discuss the American government having control of the diets of their citizens. Although I do not believe that they should have the ability to completely dictate what citizens should be eating- I do believe it is partly their responsibility to take action to slow down and turn around the obesity epidemic. Of course, consumers must make the healthy and lower-calorie choices while grocery shopping, cooking and eating at restaurants. But the consumers, especially those that have not had the opportunity to be educated on nutrition and health in schools, need to be informed about their dietary choices.
    For example, I believe it is completely appropriate for government regulation to require restaurants to list the calories/fat %/grams of sugar/sodium in their dishes. Although this New York Times article,

    acknowledges that many Americans still make the unhealthy choices, I believe it is realistic to believe that some consumers will make healthier choices when they are aware of the nutrition (or lack thereof) that they are eating. Nutrition labeling in restaurants will also force restaurants yo be more aware of the caloric dishes they are cooking- and will likely have to adjust for the consumers who ask for healthier options.

    America needs to decrease the troubling statistic that you stated, that “14 percent of all deaths in the United States were caused by problems stemming from obesity.”
    And just as the government took responsibility to discourage smoking throughout America- they need to take similar actions to discourage obesity.
    And yes, it would be worth it- and I think Locke would agree.
    Why would he want people’s lives to be taken from them because they mistreated their bodies?

  2. jasonkraman permalink
    March 12, 2011 12:31 PM

    Your post brings up a very interesting question. It made me think of the current debate in my “moral principles and problems” class. Whether freedom is having the right to do whatever you may please with your freedom or whether freedom is ensuring that within certain limits one can act free. For instance on a hypothetical basis, should the government allow someone to sell themselves into slavery? This is similar to many of the debates your bring up because if one simply believes freedom is choosing as you may, they would approve this action. However, if you believe the government must promote life, one would believe that government must intervene and not allow a person to sell themselves into slavery.

    I personally believe the government should strike a balance between its role of promoting life and promoting the right to a life of freedom. This balance is not easy to achieve but I think its crucial to having a just society. However, I think Locke would believe that the government should intervene more than not. If the government needs to protect the peace, health, and safety of its people according to Locke, then the government must use all means to ensure this is achieved. Therefore Locke would think the government has an obligation to decrease obesity, traffic accidents, etc… no matter the minor infringements on one’s personal freedom or natural rights, which they partially gave up when entering the governed society.

  3. davidpadalino permalink
    March 14, 2011 8:17 PM

    I really liked this post. You bring up a good issue that is constantly being debated in Congress. As we know, and there is probably no debating this, the government has an unequivocal duty to protect our “right to life”, that is, we are safeguarded from others forcibly taking our lives. Beyond that though, how far can government act to make sure we stay alive? This is the great question that you raise, and one that I have a strong opinion on.

    I believe that when the government begins to encroach in our lives, even in order to protect them, they are simultaneously taking away our right to liberty, one of the three core duties as defined by Locke that government is assigned to do. Take the obesity issue that you raised. In order to curb obesity, government would naturally take aim at fast food and soda producers. Even if they didn’t eliminate them alltogether, they would raise exorbitant amounts of taxes on them in order for the prices to skyrocket and then production to cease. This would indeed help stop obesity. If there are no suppliers of grease filled Big Mac’s or 32 oz. Cokes chalk full of sugar, obesity would start to go down hill. But think about what this does to those now exiled food companies, and moreover, who they actually represent.

    These companies are made up of people like you and me; people who have found a way to make their lives better, while at the same time creating a product that people actually enjoy consuming. So what is the government actually doing when they step in because they supposedly know what is best for us? The answer is that they are destroying our right to liberty. They are saying that we can no longer operate in the free market system, because in the end, they deem our products, products which people willingly and with full knowledge of their consequences choose to consume, would prevent us from living how long they want us to live.

    In the end, government shouldn’t have the option of determining which products we choose to consume, simply because we should meet some standard life expectancy, because when they do, they inherently attack our right to liberty.

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