Re: Tough Questions
Tue, 31 Aug 1999 19:36:29 -0700

Patrick Wilken, <>, writes:
> Many people on this list rightly fear and loath the tryanny of the majority
> over that of the minority. One aspect of this is the tryanny of government
> over peoples lives. The counter-problem has not had as much air time
> (perhaps because the rights of an individual are seen - rightly in my
> opinion - as so important).
> The tryanny of the minority over the majority is not as easy to deal with.
> Do we allow everyone the right to have a pound of plutonium each and ready
> instructions on how to build a bomb? Do we - as individuals (let's not get
> into Statist distractions) - have an ethical right to stop this? If yes,
> then what about nanotech, high powered AI all of which seem to pose even
> greater risks. Do

One possible position is to say that people can do anything at all as long as they don't actually hurt other people. They are responsible for exercising caution with whatever dangerous materials they are using.

This solution is attractive because you don't have to go onto other people's property to inspect whether they have anything which might be dangerous, and if so, whether they are using it safely. It allows the maximal degree of local control over resources. Any approach which requires inspections from outside is going to be costly and inefficient, and will lead to "gaming" in which people try to hide their illegal activies, leading to more wasted effort.

Now, the cost is that there may be additional death and damage by people who intentionally or accidentally use their hazardous materials in a destructive manner. I think we would need to evaluate the actual costs of such damage. How often do we have deaths attributable to the possession of dangerous materials by others? How effectivelly could we have prevented such deaths, and what would the costs be? These are not easy questions either, but in principle we can move closer to answers (with the recent scholarship on gun control, for example). We can then be in a better position to judge whether controls would be beneficial.

> Or a completely different example. What if 90% of people want a particular
> unique forest to remain. Then someone who claims the land (perhaps through
> theft - at least in Australia the original 'owners' were killed last
> century) - and starts destroying it. Do individuals have a right to protect
> their rights? Do they have any rights? Perhaps people could buy the land,
> but what if this simple solution is not open and the land is not for sale?
> If forests aren't your favorite things take this example: say I've just
> uncovered some missing works of Plato or Aristole of Shakespeare and now I
> want to burn them because I don't agree with their ideas and I don't want
> anyone else to ever read them (echoes of Eco). Do the majority have any
> rights here?

In practice, such extreme cases seldom arise. There are few resources so unique that nothing similar exists anywhere in the world. If you want to preserve forests, there are almost certainly some you can buy. Furthermore, almost all resources can be purchased at some price. Paradoxically, the more rapacious and uncaring an individual, the more likely he is to be swayed by monetary considerations. You are in more trouble if the forest is owned by an ideological anti-environmentalist than a greedy industrialist.

Likewise with your example of the discovery of missing works, after all, there are a number of other ancient documents. It would be tragic for one to be lost but we've gotten by without it for all these centuries. And again, such a discovery would be tremendously valuable, so it is highly unlikely that the discoverer would act in the manner you describe.

Such artifically constructed cases may seem unfortunate, but they are so rare in the real world that we should not arrange our philosophy in order to accommodate them. Rather we should adopt principles which will serve us well in the majority of cases, and accept that no system is perfect.

Hal Finney