Deciding For Ourselves

by Michael McGinnis

Each of us is a mixture of traits: sometimes we insist on doing things our own way and being independent, while other times we seek other people's approval before feeling something is acceptable. In our society we have unfortunately developed a strong tendency to look for approval from authorities, whether governmental or judicial, before doing something unusual.

There are some good reasons for this tendency. As our technological society has become more complex, the amount of organization required to keep all the parts not only in a somewhat balanced state, but also away from new types of disasters, has increased greatly. For example, until the middle of the twentieth century man only used a few thousand chemicals; now there may be over a hundred thousand chemicals in use around the world -- no one person can be informed about them all, so government organisations, laws and regulations are vital in controlling chemicals and informing the public about the uses and hazards of many new substances. Entire new industries, such as nuclear energy, have been developed with their own necessary body of government regulation. At the same time, science has advanced to the point of starting to understand the interrelationships between different parts of the natural world -- one that is topical for us is the relationship between placer mining and fish habitat. Government resources are used to collect information that we hope will result in a set of regulations which balance different interests, rather than protect one interest at the expense of others. We sometimes forget that our present state of knowledge is not perfect, and what we often trust to be infallible is only a reflection of our current -- developing and incomplete -- understanding.

Other areas of growth in government have produced some less palatable changes to our self-reliance in making decisions. The growth of social programs such as Unemployment Insurance and the Old Age Pension have a dark side which we tend to ignore as we clutch these government goodies close to us for the apparent security they offer. An example of this is the difficulty with using UI benefits with enough flexibility, based on decisions by UI recipients, such as in using UI benefits for educational purposes, whether approved by the government or not. Another case of unnecessary government interference is forced retirement of people who would prefer to keep working. While establishing health or competence criteria for older people who wish to keep working might be reasonable, forceable retirement is another example of the government believing that it knows better than the individual what is best for him.

Problems are magnified when we start to believe this. Over the past year or so, we have had the case of the B.C. lady with a terminal illness who was petitioning the Supreme Court of Canada for the "right to die", that is, the right to be assisted to commit suicide when life became virtually unlivable. Ethical problems of this sort are difficult enough for individuals to deal with: to expect the population of a country to come to a consensus on this issue is unrealistic. Some questions, especially ones like this which affect only the individual, should remain the responsibility of the individual alone to deal with. This is not to say that the courts need to condone suicide. When a person is terminally ill, and near death anyway, the courts should realise that deciding life and death for this person is not in its proper range of activity. The court would show wisdom in refusing to decide a question that it realises only the person herself should be dealing with. Individuals should take the responsibility for difficult personal decisions like this for themselves, and act on them without seeking approval from society.

When we hand over too much power to the courts, bad decisions will sometimes result. The Canada-wide ban on any publication of details of a notorious murder trial in Ontario, for fear of prejudicing potential jurors who live only in Ontario, is an example of this. The growing realisation of the bankruptcy of the government in finances is forcing greater self sufficiency on Canadians. With this, I hope, will flow a greater determination for people to make their own decisions and be less beholden to the government for answers.

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