Thursday, September 28, 2006

Dependent origination and restrictions on unhealthy vices

I recall a small lesson in civics when I was a child that discussed the nature of individual liberty weighed against the rules of society. It was readily summarized in the following familiar axiom:

"Your rights end where the next person's rights begin."

Now, when it comes to restrictions on smoking, this makes clear sense. Your right to smoke ends when the next person's right to be free from second-hand smoke begins. This also makes sense of the surrounding debates - to what degree is it "your choice" (strict individualism) and to what degree do "your choices" affect those around you?

This calls to mind the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination (or interepdent coarising, or interbeing) - no one choice nor its affects exist in a vacuum. Your ego is contained within the greater whole, and substantially favoring either at the expense of the other leads to disharmony at the personal and societal level.

Which brings us to the tobacco/smoking tax. The idea here is that because smoking is known to directly contributed to the development of health problems, and because the cost of these problems is a burden on society, those who choose to smoke should pay upfront for behavior which will ultimately cost money to those who had no choice in whether or not you chose such a risky behavior. The same argument is now being floated for fast food.

Unlike smoking, where smokers have won class action lawsuits against tobacco companies for their smoking-related illnesses, the US Congress passed a "Cheeseburger bill" to keep fast-food junkies from suing for obesity-related illnesses. Still, that doesn't address the idea of taxing fast-food or banning certain types of food preparation that may be deemed unnecessarily unhealthy. The trans-fat ban in New York is only one of the more visible examples of this emerging debate.

I wonder what abuses might come from such reasoning, depending on how products and/or behaviors are judged to be similarly risky?

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