Friday, April 04, 2008

Brother's Keeper, Loser's Weeper

It is often said, now almost tritely, that "your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins." Yet extending this maxim to a general rule for recognizing the boundary between individuals on other matters is more difficult.

For instance, just as you have a right to an unbroken nose, you have a right to unblackened lungs. So clearly I must not blacken them by sticking the exhaust pipe of my car down your windpipe. And holding my exhaust pipe an inch from your face is hardly better.

But just as clearly, you would be hard pressed to show a difference in the blackness of your lungs if I drive my car in the next town against if I don't, or even if I drive it in the next town or your own. Somewhere between these extremes is a point at which my injury to you is too great to allow my production of pollution in your proximity.

But not only in distance or difficulty of detection of the injury caused is there a boundary point on one side of which my behavior would be acceptable and on the other not, but you also have a similar boundary. Our boundaries may not be the same, but for each of us one exists.

There arises thereby a bargain, by which you and I agree to allow each other activity which is mutually injurious on some level, but from which we derive some benefit. It may be that you directly derive some benefit from my activity and vice versa, but in the least we accept one another's activity so as to obtain permission to engage in it ourselves.

A similar situation exists for the wearing of perfume or cologne, noise polution, use of foul language, the use of offensive speech, and so on. In each case, there is a range of activity from innocuity to assault, and the line separating the two is difficult to place. We allow each other some leeway so that we will have leeway in turn.

In each of these instances there is the use by the individual of some common resource. Clearly we are each entitled to use common resources to some extent, or we could not breathe the common air or make any noise if we wandered off our own patch of dirt. But we also must not make the common resource unusable.

But differing opinions on usability are possible, just as individuals differ in their tolerance for injury. Some may prefer to allow more use of common resources than others, either so that they in turn may have more use, or because they don't want to use the common resource at all. Some, of course, do not consider the rightness or proprietary of their use of the commons, they simply use what they want, or what they can get. Similarly, so wish to keep the commons pristine.

We are passed by tradition or custom the expectation that we are permitted certain activities and denied others that were innocuous or harmful, respectively, but with the crowds of modernity have become less restricted or more so.

It is reasonable to suggest that there are some actions I could take which would not be injurious, or be minimally injurious, to another individual, but would be of greater harm to some group of individuals taken together, or to society as a whole. If I overuse or ruin some common resource, my overuse or ruination may not affect the next person to use it or the next fifty, but eventually my share or corruption will be felt.

So where does the interest of society in our behavior enter?

That, and any satisfying conclusion to the foregoing, will have to wait for another day.

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