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There are a huge number of laws which are intended to eliminate some "dangerous" situation so that society is safer (e.g., food & drug laws, speed limits, helmet laws, gun registration laws, drunk driving laws, etc). Most of these are obvious intrusions on individual rights, and would not be permitted in a free society. Many more are things which would be covered by rigorous enforcement of existing laws against fraud; for example, the only proper functions of the FDA could be covered by saying: "You may not market spoiled or unhealthy food as fresh produce." However, there are some "preventative" laws which seem to be reasonable on the surface, but for which I can't think of a solid principle on which they can be justified. Here are two concrete examples:

  • A man has been drinking in a bar, and decides to head home. As he gets up, he sways, staggers, and is barely able to navigate across the room to leave. He manages to reach his car, turn it on, and starts to drive away. As he leaves the parking lot, he damages several other cars, and when he makes it to the road, he pulls out directly in front of another car causing a moderately serious accident.
  • A young man is routinely teased and roughly handled by a group of bullies at his local community college. After enduring this for over a year, he decides he can't take it any more. One day, when he is returning home, the group stops him in their usual place, he removes a pistol from his bag and shoots one of his tormentors as they begin to close on him. The rest of the bullies run off, and the man lets them go. The man is later arrested for murder.

In these two cases, I'm most interested in figuring out both what the proper law should be, and at what point a police officer would be justified in stepping in to stop the situation. For example, in the first scenario, it's clear that we should have a law against damaging other people's property, and we should have some laws about how to properly enter a roadway. Should there be a law against drunk driving? It increases the likelihood of breaking the law, but doesn't demonstrate direct intention to do so. Would a police officer be justified in preventing the man from leaving the bar? From entering his car? From turning it on? At what point would be it proper for him to intervene?

Edit: Just to add a bit of clarification, what I'm looking for with this question is whether there's a clear principle which allows for police to act before a violation of rights has taken place. If so, what is it? I don't recall ever having come across it in Ayn Rand's writings which directly says so, although there are some places where it seems to be implied that such would be permissible under some circumstances. Given how rampant laws restricting even mildly dangerous activity are, I'd like to understand if there's any circumstance where it's proper for a merely potential violation of rights to be regulated, and if so, what principle should rightly govern such regulations.

asked May 02 '11 at 12:49

Andrew%20Miner's gravatar image

Andrew Miner ♦

edited May 08 '11 at 15:17

In a free society, roads would be privately owned. If a road owner's rules clearly state - 'drunk driving is allowed, proceed at your own risk', your 1st example would constitute no crime. No different to being in a bar full of drunk professional fighters. In a free society that may even be an attraction - that this bar is uniquely known for its allowed fist fight breakouts ala ole western days. No different to a demolition derby on steroids at 75 MPH. You get my drift.

All you need to do is apply the 'did I violate another's rights' clause.

(May 02 '11 at 13:19) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

How would the police know what road he intended to drive on in order to be pre-emptive? Since most likely road owners would have the opposite clause, he is wrong because he is breaching contract.

Re your 2nd example: this is clearly self defense in imminent danger. It is reasonable to assume the gang's behaviour, a real and imminent physical threat to his life based upon his past experience. Rights are violated by force or THREAT OF FORCE. When a man points a gun at you, he has not yet applied force but that is sufficient threat to litigate and engage in self-defense.

(May 02 '11 at 13:28) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

Should drunk driving only be a breach of contract, and not a violation of criminal law?

(May 03 '11 at 15:56) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Correct. Why exactly is it different to Nascar?

(May 09 '11 at 09:54) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

"Should drunk driving only be a breach of contract, and not a violation of criminal law?"

Should burglary only be a breach of contract, and not a violation of criminal law?

You enter my property with the intent to do something I haven't allowed you to do. That is a violation of my rights, and thus, criminal.

(Oct 03 '11 at 06:34) FCH FCH's gravatar image

"Should burglary only be a breach of contract, and not a violation of criminal law?"

If it rises to the level of burglary, then by definition it is not only a breach of contract. OTOH, wearing shoes in someone's house, when they have a rule which says "no shoes", is probably not burglary, especially if you don't know about the rule.

"You enter my property with the intent to do something I haven't allowed you to do."

What if you don't know you're drunk, or don't know that drunk driving is not allowed on that property, or don't know that you're entering the property, or don't intend to enter?

(Feb 03 '13 at 09:06) anthony anthony's gravatar image

After thinking about this a bit (especially considering the comments of "dreadrocksean"), I think I have the answer. A dangerous act should be illegal if 1) it recklessly creates a substantial risk of harm to another; and 2) that other did not give consent. Consent can be express or implied. Both consent and risk are judged by objective standards.

(Feb 03 '13 at 09:49) anthony anthony's gravatar image

How does one judge risks objectively? Is 45% too much or too little?

(Feb 03 '13 at 14:21) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

You judge risks objectively using the scientific method. And 45% is way too much.

(Feb 03 '13 at 22:15) anthony anthony's gravatar image
showing 2 of 9 show all

The original question was fairly well answered in the comments. The following update to the question raises a more complex issue:

... what I'm looking for with this question is whether there's a clear principle which allows for police to act before a violation of rights has taken place.

Philosophically, Objectivism analyzes questions about rights in terms of physical force, on the principle that "no man may initiate [start] the use of physical force against others." A very extsnsive discussion of physical force can be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Physical Force."

Initiation of physical force includes a broad range of actions, both direct and indirect. Indirect initiation of physical force includes unilateral breach of contract, fraud, and extortion, as noted in the final excerpt in the Lexicon topic of "Physical Force."

Certain kinds of dangers created by some toward others also constitute initiations of physical force that can and should properly be stopped before further harm is done. Someone driving a motor vehicle negligently (or while drunk) falls into this category. The danger that he creates to others is very real and constitutes physical force against them. Laws relating to possession of certain kinds of weapons (machine guns and heavy artillery) also fall into this category, as does bomb making in a residential neighborhood, and other kinds of what American legal theory (common law) refers to as "ultra-hazardous activities," especially if negligently performed.

The broad philosophical principles do not resolve the issue fully. The field of law is also needed to work out the details. Following a discussion of indirect physical force, OPAR notes: "The task of defining the many forms of physical force, direct and indirect, including all the variants of breach of contract, belongs to the field of law." [pp. 319-320]

Initiating an indirect use of physical force against others is just as surely an instance of initiating physical force as is a direct initiation of physical force -- and just as much a violation of the rights of the victim. If retaliatory physical force is invoked against a force initiator, it is not because of a potential violation of the victim's individual rights. The iniation already constitutes physical force, whether direct or indirect, which constitutes a violation of the victim's individual rights. In retaliating, a proper government is not acting prior to a rights violation; the violation of rights in some degree has already occurred.

Again, however, philosophy deals only with the broadest essentials. More specialized fields, such as law, need to work out further details as the need arises, within the broad context identified by philosophy. A rational philosophy can "veto" any law that goes beyond the bounds set by the philosophy, but philosophy can never be a substitute for the specialized fields such as law.

answered May 09 '11 at 04:35

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

Phrases like 'in some degree' and 'certain kinds' bely a misunderstanding of the principles involved. Technical law need not be applied in order to adjudicate such a simple matter. The principle - Threat Of Force - deals with it quite adequately. This principle denies the victim the freedom to act on his rational thought. No one will deny this being true in the case of a point being pointed at him. What makes a car racing circuit different to a highway? Can a man be drunk on his mile long driveway? Where exactly is the threat of force? And when does it occur?

(May 09 '11 at 10:09) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

A car racing circuit is different to a highway because it isn't open to the public. That would be the relevant difference when it comes to the DUI law of most states.

But if we're talking about proper law, I'm not sure a car racing circuit is any different when it comes to DUI. The relevant similarity is that the drivers/pitcrew/etc did not consent to the drunk driving.

Either way, under current law and under proper law, a charge of reckless endangerment seems appropriate.

Following the track rules wouldn't be reckless endangerment because those endangered have consented.

(Feb 03 '13 at 09:26) anthony anthony's gravatar image

An activity should be illegal when it creates a real danger, i.e. a real risk of harm, to other people.

To endanger a person is to put their life at risk, by your choice. You have no right to risk another person's life.

As to what constitutes "real danger", that's a question for the law courts.

answered Sep 24 '11 at 22:34

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

I agree, and am not sure why this was voted down. An individual should have the right to choose a dangerous activity - riding a bike without a helmet (as I do, legally I might add), mountain climbing, surfing in a tsunami, and so on.

At the point you create a risk of harm to another individual, without their consent (drunk driving), you are violating their rights, no different than stealing or initiating physical force against them.

(Feb 10 '13 at 15:32) Ripside Ripside's gravatar image

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Asked: May 02 '11 at 12:49

Seen: 2,135 times

Last updated: Feb 10 '13 at 15:32