Feeling vulnerable?

How much should society do to protect the unusually vulnerable? For example, how much effort should be put into making sure that nut allergy sufferers can avoid nuts? We probably agree that society should insist on food products containing nuts being clearly labelled. But few would say society should ban nuts outright in all food products. Although it’s statistically inevitable that some nut allergy sufferers will die of their condition, and although we could prevent those deaths by making sure that all food production is wholly nut-free, such drastic action would surely “go too far” by placing too great a burden on everyone else.

As a preference utilitarian, I think we should decide such questions by balancing the satisfaction of preferences against the thwarting of preferences of everyone involved.

There are two components to that sort of balancing: how many and how strong the preferences involved are, and how confident we can be that this or that course of action will in fact satisfy or thwart this or that preference. Although allergy to nuts is rare, it is “normal” in the sense that it is a recognized condition forming a fairly distinct category. It is a “typical” condition which would appear as a local “bump” on a distribution graph. We know the effects of eating nuts on those who fall into this category – they are always serious and sometimes fatal. We can also be quite confident that most of these allergy sufferers have a strong preference to continue living a healthy life. So we can be confident that making sure they can avoid nuts will satisfy strong preferences. But we also know that nuts are an important part of many valuable foods, and many more people have a weaker preference for nuts to remain available. (In fact most nut allergy sufferers probably want nuts to remain available to those who do not suffer from the allergy.)

So even with as clear-cut a condition as allergy to nuts, answering the question of how far society should go to protect unusually vulnerable people is a delicate balancing act, involving some quite subjective judgement calls.

With less clear-cut conditions, this balancing act becomes even more delicate and subjective. For example, people whose bones are brittle with osteoporosis are prone to suffer quite unpredictable injuries, from the merely painful to the crippling or life-threatening. These injuries might involve other people, whom we might or might not hold morally responsible for them. If the injuries involved seem inevitable, we may deem the other agents’ involvement to be irrelevant. Suppose an osteoporosis sufferer is politely ushered off a bus, say, but breaks a hip stepping onto the hard pavement. We should say that the hip was bound to break sooner or later anyway, and that the polite fellow-traveler was in no way responsible.

The least clear-cut conditions involve mental vulnerability. Some people may be living their lives “on eggshells”, or on the brink of suicide, and they seem to be “pushed over the edge” by an insult, or personal slight, or invasion of privacy.

Mental vulnerability involves two wild cards, which correspond to the two “components” mentioned above. The first is that it’s much harder to tell how strong the preferences involved really are. The second is that it’s much harder to predict whether preferences are satisfied or thwarted by action such as passing a new law. I’ll deal with them in turn.

The first wild card is that a preference is not simply what we enjoy, but what we opt for in action. Often, we make painful choices – we literally opt for the more painful alternative. We deliberately choose to undergo experiences that we do not enjoy at all. For example, most of us want to know if our spouses are faithful. Finding out that they are not faithful is not at all pleasant. But we opt to find out, because we prefer to know the truth. Much the same applies to education in general – and indeed to any sort of personal growth. Very often, “no pain, no gain”.

However, we often protest most loudly against what we enjoy least rather than what we opt for last. That is because the very act of protesting can affect the outcome. Children who wail loudly about the horrors of eating broccoli might persuade their parents to not insist that they eat broccoli. Transgendered people who complain in the strongest terms about use of the wrong pronoun might be engaged in an act of persuasion rather than honestly expressing the strength of a preference. Bereaved parents may hope journalists will be less invasive by expressing the grief they feel for the loss of a child as if it were the anguish of a breach of privacy. And so on.

I would go so far as to say that we are systematically misled about the actual strength of preferences by the vehemence with which people tend to express them.

Now for the second wild card in balancing preferences for mental (as opposed to physical or material) well-being. It is very hard to predict whether a given act will result in the satisfaction or thwarting of such preferences. The mind is complicated, and so is the law. It is very hard to predict the effects of any law that affects minds. So a cautious conservatism is appropriate when we consider changing laws that we already know work tolerably well in practice.

For those reasons, I would argue against any law that restricts press freedom in the hope of protecting the mentally vulnerable. People who are mentally vulnerable are like people who suffer from osteoporosis, only more so. Their condition is even less “normal” in the sense that each mental vulnerability is unique, unlike more “typical” conditions such as allergy to nuts. Although it sounds callous, we might have to say “the harm was bound to happen sooner or later, and the agents who caused the harm are not morally responsible for it”.

Even if you do not agree with that conclusion, I hope it’s clear that I remain a preference utilitarian in reaching it.