Err on the side of Oppression


Many decisions in life are difficult, largely because the future is hard to predict. To protect ourselves, we often make choices that are safer than we expect to be necessary. We aim to arrive early to meetings so that a chance delay won’t make us late. We carry umbrellas on cloudy days because it is better to carry something extra to than to get caught in the rain. We carry more resumes and business cards than we think we need because we would rather have too many than run out. Such examples show how we “err on the side of caution.” As it often happens in Ethics, things become more complicated when other people are considered. Especially when authority is concerned, there often needs to be a balance between safety and freedom. Often, that balance is not met.


Children today have no rights. There’s really no reason to specify “today” since it has been happening for pretty much forever, but it is nonetheless a significant problem. Essentially, they are not allowed to make choices for themselves. They cannot vote for their representatives. They cannot sign contracts. They cannot consent to sex. They cannot enjoy movies or video games that others deem inappropriate for them. They are required to attend schools where their behavior is tightly controlled. Their parents or other authority may demand what they must do and where they must be and punish them with impunity. One may argue that such measures exist to protect naïve children, but what about the children that are intelligent, that value freedom, that are able to make informed decisions? Do they have a right to autonomy, or should society err on the side of oppression and treat them as incompetent slaves?


On a message board I frequent, I sometimes see a guy argue that we should “err on the side of life” by not performing abortions. It is his view that if we are uncertain whether the fetus has human personhood, we should go with the least damaging choice (assuming that having an unwanted child is better than murder.) I don’t want to get into an abortion debate here, but I am surprised by how totally he seems to disregard the people already born. That is, if a fetus does not have human personhood, then the requirement for a woman to go through an unwanted pregnancy or the requirement for parents to have unwanted children is unreasonable oppression. Other significant examples of questionable government protection include drugs and censorship. Like the children who are told they are not capable of making legally-binding agreements, all of us (in America) are told we may not decide what we can put into our own bodies. We are told what is obscene, and therefore may not be seen or shown in many settings. These injustices should not be allowed to stand. When an authority prevents an individual from doing actions that are good to him or herself and harmless to others, it is an agent of oppression.