Sunday, October 16, 2005

Freedom to Obstruct Others

This post from "The Whig" is an excellent example of the failure of Rightists to identify the form of freedom worth having. He implies that the example of a Catholic doctor who refuses to prescribe contraceptives shows that we "live in a free country". But when medical professionals refuse to do their job properly, that can potentially obstruct the substantive freedom of their patients. As Elizabeth Anderson writes:
In a free society, it is impossible for private individuals to avoid supporting the freedom of others to do things of which they disapprove...

The package [I'm free to travel to the church of my choice; I can't prevent anyone from travelling to the church of their choice] is superior to the package [road operators are free to block me from using the roads needed to travel to the church of my choice; I am free to block others from using my road to travel to the church of their choice]. To those private road operators who would find it unconscionable to facilitate others' travel to the church of what they regard as a false religion, the proper response of a free society is not to let them block the travel, but to advise them that they had better get out of the road business...

This argument generalizes. The operators of a private telephone system should not be able to claim a right of religious conscience to eavesdrop on telephone conversations, so they can cut off blasphemous phone calls. The operator of an ambulance service that takes public calls, who is a Christian Scientist, may not claim a right of religious conscience to refuse to transport any emergency case to the hospital, unless it is for the treatments permitted to a Christian Scientist (bone setting, pulling an infected tooth). A Talibanesque taxi driver may not conscientiously refuse to serve women unaccompanied by male relatives, on the ground that he might thereby be facilitating their sinful consorting with the opposite sex. And similarly, a pharmacist may not claim a right of religious conscience to refuse to fill a prescription for birth control to women, or to single women, on the ground that he might thereby be facilitating the sin of fornication.


  1. Richard (I hope you don't mind me being informal),

    I think I agree with you, and am confident that I agree with Elizabeth Anderson, but lets have alittle fun anyways. I have a few questions for you:

    On what grounds do you extend Mrs. Anderson's argument to include doctors? Isn't the doctor's role significantly different than that of pharmacist?

    I know I said I had 'a few questions for you', but I think I'll wait for an answer to this one. A discussion of this would be very interesting.

  2. Hi Zach,

    In what respect is the difference in roles significant? Part of the doctor's role is to provide prescriptions (including for contraception) for those who need it, and the pharmacist's role is to fulfill the prescription. A failure on the part of either could consequently obstruct the patient in achieving their goals. Anderson's argument is a general one, and there doesn't seem any reason not to think that it applies in this case.

  3. The second half of my question was phrased in a hostile manner, I apologize. I really did want your take and not the answer my phrasing suggests (that it does). My thinking was that there is a genuine right to have prescriptions filled, but not to have them written (maybe I was a bit to hasty in my assumption).

    That aside, I do think that Anderson's argument cannot be applied to the specific case you cited. This doctor not is not making his patients subject to his "arbitrary will", but is no longer claiming to offer a service to the public (i.e. prescriptions for contraception) and is therefore excluded from this extended version of the "common carrier rule". But please prove me wrong.

  4. No need to apologize, I didn't sense any hostility.

    I'm still not sure what the basis for your distinction is. Isn't the picky pharmicist, or the discriminatory private road owner, likewise merely "no longer... offer[ing] a service to the public"? What's the difference?

    (And what good is a right to having prescriptions filled if you cannot get them written in the first place?)

  5. Well, they aren't just no longer offing a service to the public. The assumption was that the road owner was providing a service necessary to take full advantage of the freedom offered by a society without unreasonable inconvience, but then discriminated against some. This means that some were given greater freedom than others. Like Anderson said "they had better get out of the road business." This is what the doctor did.

    The first question, I admit did not have any relevence to the case. I wanted to point out that we can't universilize the right to have a perscription written, eliminating a doctors discretion completely.

    How did I get put on the defensive? I am still not sure where I stand on this... I would just like your position clarified.

  6. It is getting late over here in america. You can make a fool of me while I sleep :-)

  7. the substantive freedom of the paitent is limited in part by the choice of the doctor and in part by everyone else who permits the doctor to limit their freedom.
    1) doctors who do not take advantage of this to provide a service in that area
    2) the government that makes contraception a restricted substance and doesn't allow nurses (or anyone else) to sell it.

    Also I would look at the total package (as EA did) but that doesnt mean I can just reject the idea that the doctor might be right. I am a little concerned any restriction you might place on the doctor could out weigh the freedom you offer to the paitent.

  8. I think point 2 is the stronger. I still think a road owner could rightly close down one of his roads (if done completely, and for good reason) assuming there are public roads that could be traveled. Contraceptives are easy and cheap to get, but the best ones are restricted by doctors who provide them. Perhaps they shouldn't be?

  9. Nobody has a right to contraception any more than they have a right to a Ferrari. We're not even talking about your (flawed) well analogy here. We are talking about a luxury of Western civilisation which did not even exist until just over forty years ago. Even if this doctor was the only one on earth providing the pill, you still couldn't conjure a right out of it.

    If you insist on persisting with this nonsense, I shall have to demand access to your bank account, as your continued protection of it severely curbs my basic right to strippers and champagne.

  10. Whig, my post was about freedom and opportunities, not absolute rights. The latter is a useless concept that I have no time for. Now, as Anderson points out (and you have studiously ignored) we get more real freedom if everyone keeps their private moralities to themselves, rather than obstructing others whenever they try to act against one's own beliefs (and then having others obstruct you in turn when you go against theirs).

    Your Ferrari analogy is inept for two main reasons. (1) I never suggested people have a right to contraception. I simply said that we would have more real freedom if doctors or pharmicists couldn't arbitrarily choose to withhold it on the basis of their personal moralities. (2) Contraception has a far greater impact on people's lives than Ferraris, and a narrow-minded focus on "rights" obscures these important distinctions. In particular, different people's (potential) freedoms can come into conflict, so we need some way to balance them against each other. (The point of the quote from Anderson is that the freedom to pursue our own goals is more important than the freedom to obstruct others from achieving theirs. We should all be willing to give up the latter freedom in order that others not use theirs against us either. Thus we can better achieve the former.) An absolutist notion like "rights" is utterly unhelpful here -- as is demonstrated by the "nonsense" of your final paragraph.

    (As you don't appear to understand the notion of substantive freedom, you may find it helpful to read my response to Nigel: Freedom and Fallacies.)

    Of course, if at some point you manage to come up with an actual argument against my position (as opposed to sloppy false analogies and straw men), then I would be happy to hear it.

  11. you are not just asking them to keep their morality to themselves you are asking them to act contrary to it. you could, of course, force them to cease being doctors but all of this constrains their free will. things that I think are worth considering.

    I am not sure how you can make the clear distinction between the freedom to achieve ones own goals and the freedom to obstruct othersand clearly define the doctors actions as the latter. And then declare one as not worth worrying about. that soulds like a poor methodology.

    The doctor for example may just not want to be an accesory to killing a egg/human irrespective of he effect that might have outside his own mind. If I considered an egg to be the equivilent of a person (I don't) then I would not want to be an acessory to killing it. it would cause considerable distress FAR exceeding any distress you could put on me by my local doctor not selling a pill.

    Note I am not taking a position on it - that requires further analysis.


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