Friday, August 14, 2009

Whose obligation?

A few conversations I've had lately have made me think about society's obligation to its vulnerable members. To what extent should we all change our behaviour to accommodate the needs of individuals? I am writing this because I don't know the answer to that question. I'm hoping writing it might help clarify my view, at least.

The starting point is ideological - society has an obligation to protect the most vulnerable. I am stating that as a fact, and if you don't agree with me on that point, we're probably not going to find any common ground. In fact, society has an obligation to protect all of its members.

The corollary* to this is that the needs of the more vulnerable outweigh those of the less vulnerable. This was proposed by a friend (I hope I haven't paraphrased it out of its original meaning, Twitter ain't the best forum for philosophical discussion!) and I'm pretty sure I agree with it in principle, it's just that I have no idea what it means in practice. Which needs and who determines them?

I suspect part of the answer is that negative consequences for someone already more vulnerable than most outweigh those for the less vulnerable. The problem is how to determine the magnitude of the negative consequences.

One example that has in part triggered this line of thinking is that of allergy-inducing foods in schools. It seems completely reasonable that one child's risk of death or serious illness outweighs the other children's inconvenience of not being able to bring a certain food to the school. However, it becomes less clear cut when you start considering the range of foods that can cause allergies. If you get to the point that nuts, seafood, eggs, dairy, strawberries, kiwi fruit and wheat are all banned, it's starting to get more than a little inconvenient to feed your kids at school. This isn't a far fetched thought experiment, this is last year's list of allergies that I know of from a school of 60 kids. Not all of them were banned at our school, but some were. It doesn't take an extreme set of circumstances in a school of 500 to see a long list of foods dangerous to at least one student. How do you then decide which kid gets to be protected and which doesn't? Obviously part of that answer is anaphylaxis - which would be an easy line in the sand if it was that simple. Unfortunately people don't always know exactly what kind of allergy they have, and there doesn't seem to be a defined list of "only these foods can produce anaphylaxis". And anyway, what if a food causes a painful rash that is prone to infection? Does that count higher or lower than a risk of anaphylaxis if the latter is likely to be only a 30% risk?

My point here is not to answer any of those questions, it is to highlight the possible incompatibility of the most obvious solutions to protecting the vulnerable. It is also not to say that we shouldn't ban problematic foods if this practical issue doesn't arise.

The other issue that is raised in my mind is that of the best method of protection. To what extent should society shield the vulnerable, and to what extent should we help provide the means for them to protect themselves? In the allergy example, to what age is it useful to protect kids, and at what point would it be better to teach them to avoid any food they are not completely sure of. Again, I don't know the answer to this, but it seems a valid question. And it's not just the practical question, it's also the moral one. Should society make the decision about which answer is correct? Who has the best judgment? Doctors who specialise in allergies? Parents who will live forever with the consequences of their decisions, but also have the strongest of emotional involvements, which can both enhance and damage decision making? Administrators worried about being sued? OK, the last one was gratuitous, but sadly I suspect that is actually what's happening in many cases.

I think my major objection to protection by means of changing society's behaviour is that the well being of vulnerable people is dependent on other people not being stupid and/or arseholes. In some cases, it only takes one of them to cause catasrophic consequences. While I completely understand that from a social justice point of view, asking the vulnerable to protect themselves is repugnant, from a practical point of view it seems like a more robust solution.

So I guess my answer is that we need to use both approaches. We need to ask people to make reasonable changes to accommodate needs they may be lucky enough to never have considered, and at the same time we need to help those vulnerable to learn to protect themselves.

The balance point is going to be different in different circumstances. For kids and food allergies, it is likely to be a point in time - when they are very small we keep dangerous foods away, but by some time (arguable no doubt, and probably not by me) these kids need to be able to protect themselves. The whole world simply cannot be made safe for them.

For the (*wince*) breast watching example, I am still not sure exactly where the balance is - there are so many layers of complexity that need to be sorted. I think the balance is strongly in favour of expecting society to change its behaviour in deference to those who are strongly negatively affected by such attention for women now. However, the inter-generational focus should be on changing other things such that women don't have the experiences that lead to such harm. Actually, the reason I really can't get my head around this (from a long term optimal solution perspective), is that so much about the way men and women interact needs to change that I just can't guess how women would feel about men having a quick squiz at their boobs if all that extra baggage went away. If sexual violence disappeared (or even became incredibly rare) and women were no longer physically threatened by men except in the rarest of circumstances, the world would be so different I can't quite imagine what would happen next. So I don't know where the balance would lie if we solved all the other problems. I guess we'll just have to solve them all and find out.

There are other less convoluted examples though. The balance clearly needs to move in the case of disability. Society needs to be making much more sweeping changes to stop implicitly excluding those who don't meet the current template for "abled". So far we've managed to move from demonising disability, to ignoring it altogether to grudgingly and sparingly assisting disabled people to help themselves. I think it would be fair to say that society changing its behaviour is long overdue. Going back to a pragmatic view, I also think that no-one has anything much to lose in doing so (except possibly certain commercial interests, but I find it hard to care much). I don't mention this to justify why it should be done, just to point out how insane it is that it hasn't already.

Hmmm, I didn't exactly come up with a general answer. Quite the opposite in fact. Huh - whodathunk it, social justice alone doesn't find the solution, any more than psychology on its own.

Apologies for putting you through this, but if you made it this far and have some more coherent thoughts, please let me know. :)

*I have a total blind spot in spelling this word for some reason. I'm sure you needed to know that.

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