At What Point Do You Intervene?

As libertarians, we all have well defined views on the role of the state, the importance of individual freedom and so on. We believe that you can not make a decision on  behalf of another.

But how do we act when this intersects with our personal life?

Allow me to give a simple example, one which many of us would have faced. You’re out drinking, and a friend of yours, who is obviously over the legal limit, decides to drive home. You are worried about their safety, but your appeals to them not to drive fall on deaf ears. What do you do? Do you recognise their individual freedom, or do you take their keys – violating their private property rights, and placing your judgment above theirs, but quite possibly saving their life in the process.

What if I take this even further. You receive a phone call. Someone you know is planning suicide and calls you to say a final farewell. Do you call the police and invoke the power of the state to violate their freedom of choice, but save their life in the process? At what point do you impose your judgment over theirs? Does it matter if you know they’ll thank you for it in the morning?

Such questions have troubled me for quite some time, and I personally can’t come up with any satisfactory answer. So am quite interested in how others would act.

Over to you.

35 thoughts on “At What Point Do You Intervene?

  1. In your first example, your friend is also recklessly endangering the lives of others and as such it’s a bit more black and white than you’d like it to be.

  2. I agree – that is a valid point. However, you could still argue that you are only assuming that that is the case firstly, but secondly, and more importantly, it’s their decision to endanger someone elses life – why is it your responsibility/right to interfere?

  3. Case #1: Endangerment of others – falls into the same category as calling the firebrigade if you notice a fire starting (unless you’d only do it for your own place – or a neighbor’s because of the risk it would burn down your own, and a committed full-on non-hypocritical libertarian wouldn’t call the socialist-inspired firebrigade even for their own house, but rely only on themselves and friends to put it out).

    Case #2: There are two scenarios here, and responses might vary:
    * an acute situation that will probably disappear soon (e.g. just split up with partner) – I’d treat this no different from them having a heart attack
    * terminal illness and/or intolerable pain – I’d ask if they wanted anyone with them for company, or to arrange necessary things afterwards.

  4. Tim, In the first case, I don’t believe libertarianism is against authority as such, but against the monopoly authority of the state. Taking keys away from your friend would be you protecting others on the road and also your friend. I think you do have the right to protect others (road users) even if they do not ask you to. In any case, if your friend is drunk, he may be in no position to make decisions for himself.

    If you found your friend lying on the ground, drunk after a hard party, would you not insist that you help him to the shower, or send him to bed? Or would you leave him lying there and wait for him to give his consent? A drunk is in no position to give consent. I think in this situation, that as his friend you would be assuming a type of guardianship over your friend while he is drunk.

    The second case is related to the first, and I do believe you have the right to protect them as in the first case. The additional element in this case is that you are calling the police, an arm of the state. In a free society, we could have private provision of law and order, and emergency medical services. If this example happened in a free society, you might call those private agencies. However, with the state monopolising those activities (or crowding out private competition with heavy subsides for the state provided service), you cannot call a private agency, so I think it would be all right to call the state agencies for assistance. If your house were robbed, would you not call the state police to catch the thief, or would you insist on paying a private agent? In my view, the use of state police and medical services is legitimate if the objective you are using them for is legitimate. I think it is legitimate to protect the life of your friend.

  5. I come from a South African background and in South Africa, law and medical services have basically been privatised and it’s not as great as you might think. The suburb that a lot of my family live in got sick of all the crime there and the fact that the corrupt police force did nothing that the citizens literally built their own police force. There are now cars full of big men with assault rifles driving around “dealing with” any criminals. I can tell you that there is no longer any crime in Glenhazel, but I wouldn’t really want to live in a country where this became the norm.

    So what I’m trying to get at is that absolute libertarianism is as much the answer as absolute state control. At some point there needs to be a central regulatory body for law enforcement, otherwise whoever has the bigger guns will be safe and everyone else will live in constant fear.

    In examples such as you gave, where one or more lives are at stake, I think that calling the relevant authorities is indisputably the correct thing today because it saves said lives. Where the line is drawn is another issue, but when we are talking life or death I don’t think there is much ambiguity.

  6. All valid points. The question then becomes.

    At what point does the individual act of interventionism become interventionist?

    From the examples given, it probably also becomes a case of personal judgement. This allows one to apply personal-philosophical morality to the situation at hand.

    For me the self-preservation rule will apply regardless.

  7. Mmm they are troubling moral questions. As Justin said, the first scenario is a lot easier to deal with than the second so I’ll skip straight to it.

    The answer is, I HAVE NO FUCKING IDEA! I have a relative with pretty severe mental illness (turns out crystal meth isn’t the best of choices), and I face this question often. I guess the distinction I make would be between a rational choice to commit suicide and an irrational choice. That merely raises a further question of what is rational and what is irrational? Who am I to judge? Can you ever make a rational decision to commit suicide? David Hume thought you could.

    Anyway I apply a two tier system to issues of ethics. There is a society wide ethical standard which would be the non aggression axiom. Under that though there are many personal choices where I would initiate force. For example, I would steal medicine to save my dying wife. I might think it moral to punch someone in the face if they said something offensive. I would also accept that there are valid consequences for these actions; both my action would be moral and so would my punishment.

    Perhaps I could view the scenario presented in such a fashion. I could save my loved one from suicide. That loved one could either thank me or seek restitution.

    …or try again.

  8. I’d say that the majority of libertarians I know have very poorly thought out views on the role of the state. There’s a lot of catch-crys and Cliff’s notes, but it’s pretty much blind adherence to a litany. Kind of ironic when you consider their mockery of traditionalists for much the same.

    Some of the stupidest people I’ve met have been Liberals.

    Anyway – my opinion is that the answer is in the question. If you go by your statement that you “cannot make a decision on behalf of another” and make that a universality, you’re practicing a deontological kind of libertarianism and can’t violate that rule. Personally, I don’t see any compulsion for that rule or its universality, which I think is borne out by the situation you describe above.

    Would you kill one to save a thousand? It’s not a question written to be solved.

  9. but it’s pretty much blind adherence to a litany

    Sef, the thing about litany is it’s recited because of tradition or faith. If I make a point derived from reason, and you keep denying it but can’t disprove it, and therefore I repeat it – it’s not because of tradition or faith, it’s because you’re stupid.

    For example, I can say that, more often than not, people are happier when they are given freedom to make their own decisions because, despite our common humanity, humans all have different hopes, aspirations and desires and the ability to follow these increases personal happiness. Plenty of people will deny this despite empirical evidence. I can repeat this statement but that’s not litany – it’s stating the obvious. Just too obvious for some people.

  10. Come on guys. This is taking ideology to a silly point. If a friend is too drunk to be on the road, you ought to persuade him from driving, not only to protect him, but to also protect innocents on the road. You’re doing the potential idiot a favor an no amount of agonizing about libertarian philosophy would change that. Drunks have no place on the road where they pose a danger to themselves and others.

    If a friend call to inform you they are suicidal you try and seek them help and dissuade them.

    These arguments are similar to the way non libertarians attacks us about our position on drugs. They seem to think that we all support the use of hard drugs when in fact that’s not the case with a lot of us. The thing I have an issue with is the state criminalizing their use.

  11. Libertarianism doesn’t mean “people can do whatever the hell they want and fuck the consequences”.

    A libertarian state would asbsolutely encourage people to stop their friends from driving home drunk.

  12. Ummm, he’s your friend. Does your version of libertarianism make your approach to friendship different?

    Even if not your friend, should you call the police if you see a person about to commit a dangerous crime? Well derr! Should you personally act if necessary to prevent a crime? Sure, nothing anti-libertarian about that. We all have an interest in the maintenance of law and order.

    What should you do if you see someone about to commit suicide? Again a no-brainer. What about being a libertarian stops you having fellow feeling for friends and strangers?

    Exactly jc, we are not for drugs so much as against the criminalisation of self-harm.

  13. When people are too drunk, or have made up their minds to kill themselves, good luck convincing them otherwise.

    I would intervene, with force if necessary. It’s totally justifiable and appropriate. I have a very strong feeling that they will still die in a flaming wreck or on an overdose of painkillers.

  14. An amazing question, because it seems to indicate the author (the great Tim Andrews) has a statist mentality.

    I think the fundamental difference in the underlying mentality of a liberal and a statist is that the statist doesn’t recognise the difference between “moral philosophy” (what makes a good life) and “political philosophy” (what should the government do). Consequently, a statist jumps very quickly from “x is good” to “the government should support x”… and they also jump quickly from “y is bad” to “the government should ban/tax y”.

    The liberal understands that the personal is not necessarily the political. It is strange then that Tim refers to libertarian political philosophy and then asks personal questions. I suggest that the answers to these questions have nothing to do with political philosophy.

    As to my answers…

    With a drink-driving friend, it would depend how drunk they were. If I thought them a real threat to themselves and others, I’d try to take their keys (or otherwise prevent them from going). If I thought them relatively safe as a driver and only facing the threat of losing their license, I’d let them go.

    With the suicide, I would go there myself and try to stop them, including using physical force. If they really want to kill themselves, they’ll learn not to call me in the future.

    I don’t think there is any absolute answer to these questions… but I also don’t think these are political questions. Moral philosophy is in some senses a much more difficult (and perhaps more important) part of philosophy. But the question of whether the government should enforce your moral choices is a totally different issue to the question of what your moral choices should be.

    In conclusion, Tim = Commie.

  15. I have kids and I routinely violate their freedoms. They know my political philosophy so they criticise me on this point endlessly (which I’m delited about). However it does not stop me violating their freedoms (partly because kids are different to adults in my political philosophy but mainly because my political philosophy is not my moral philosophy). Unlike the government I really am a benefactor and I pay for their roof and food out of my pocket not theirs.

    A drunk friend would get the same treatment if the circumstances dictated. John is right that political philosophy and moral philosophy are separate issues. Or at least they ought to be even though most people mix them up routinely.

    People also get confused in thinking a belief in the rule of law means you should obey the law. Often as not the law is an arse.

  16. “We believe that you can not make a decision on behalf of another.”

    Taken to its literal extreme, that statement implies that should A decide to make a decision on behalf of B, a ‘true libertarian’ should not care, because what A decides for B is between A and B, and it’s not up to ‘you’ to decide that B should make their own decisions.

    As other people have more or less said, a drunk driver is effectively deciding for other people that they will have to share the road with the drunk driver. As such, there is no non-interventionist option open to us. The least interventionist option is to remove the car keys.

    In the case of a depressed/suicidal person, for me, the question becomes: is this person capable of making their own decisions at this point in time. If so, their decision should be respected. If not, intervention becomes not just justified, but morally appropriate.

  17. Most of you guys (unsurprisingly) have been brain washed by the state into thinking that drink driving actually has a massive chance of killing someone etc. Please keep in mind that based on the number of drunks caught, the number of drivers tested, and the number of total estimated trips only about 1 in every 500 drunk drivers is caught and there are millions of drink driving trips per year, which only result in about 200 deaths and 300 serious injures. So whichever way you spin it, the truth is the probability that something will happen to the friend or someone else is actually quite low – lower than most people would typically assign to it.

    That isn’t to say however that he should be allowed to go. This comes down to a matter of property – specifically the road. If he owned the road and he made it clear to users of his road that he was going to drive drunk on it, then he can drive. But if this was a road owned by everyone, then these owners would instituate their own rules for driving on the road – in our case, despite goverment ‘ownership’ we really still own the roads and our democratic rule is to stop drink driving and we should do so. I believe the only question here is that between what is the goverment rule compared to what would the rule be in a libertarian socity where the roads are privetly owned in a community setup. I have no doupt at all that we would still disallow drink driving on our own roads and almost every road would be arranged like that. So I would justify stopping him. Some people would run their roads differently and maybe wouldn’t stop him. Until the ownerhsip or the road is defined there is no clear answer to this question.

    As for the suicide, I think this is pretty clear cut. Yes intervening would be violating their freedom. Yes you should do it anyway and accept the consequences – which would be to be judged and be required to make it up to the victem – which I don’t think would be much to make up for.

    In our socitey however we would not be required to do anything, and the person is likly to have the state violate many many more of their rights. So your responsibility would be to bring yourself to justice at the hands of the victim and try to limit the state intervention where ever possible.

  18. As a minarchist, the county should control what happens on its’ roads, so my brand of libertarianism can provide an answer for that- the police have the right to enforce the road rules. And I doubt if your drunk friend would remember all the details, and so would not sue you for violating his rights in the morning.
    As for suicide, if you know the person has volatile moods, then you might decide to intervene in the hope that the mood will quickly pass. However, I generally support the right to Euthanasia.

  19. Hi all,

    Slightly off-topic, but some new videos featuring former NSW Treasurer Michael Costa speaking at the TCCI small-business expo the week before the last have appeared. In it, he talks about the role of the state’s in governance and touches on issues like healthcare, energy and the stimulus.

    There are eight parts and they start here,

    It is in part 4 the discussion turns to the stimulus and mentions the Freidman and Hayek views on monetary policy.

  20. Suicide is not the logical extreme of the first drink driving example.

    Drink driving is an act of force on the innocent. Putting other lives at risk.
    I think it’s OK to use force to stop someone drink driving.
    It’s a tough one because I’ve driven drunk many times especially when younger without incident. Even though I still to this day think this was a low risk activity (generally short distances, no cars around, good knowledge of roads), it was still wrong to do this and if caught I should have faced the legal consequences.

    Suicide does not impact the right to life of others.
    However there is no rational reason to suicide in everyday life and it should be recognised as the ultimate extreme example for victimless crimes.
    I certainly think you should do everything you can to persuade someone against committing suicide.
    I also think I would definitely use force to stop a friend or a stranger for that matter, killing themselves in the heat of the moment if I had that unfortunate (and unlikely) experience. They are most likely not capable of exercising their rational faculties for whatever reason and force would be jusitified in this context.
    Some depressed people have chemical imbalances. This is a sickness and therefore the person’s normal human processes are not operating properly. I’m certainly open to the possibly of situations where force is required to deal with certain sicknesses – especially mental sicknesses.

    But ultimately it would be wrong to stop someone who has the mind set on suicide. That would involve straight jackets and mental assylums. I do think it’s important for the law to recognise that people have the right to their own life and therefore have the right to suicide.
    Afterall there are even some situations (eg/ concentration camp or just terminally ill) where suicide could be perfectly rational.

  21. Re TimR@22
    “Suicide does not impact the right to life of others”

    Ummmm… and assuming you also include “harm others”, unless merely beating someone up isn’t a crime while murder is.

    Consider: Single mum with severe post-partum depression and a dependent neonate is probably the most obvious counterexample – especially if the infant is in the house with the mother and no-one has access to the house or is checking up. The infant will probably die.

    But ever spoken to somebody close (parent, spouse, whatever) of someone who has committed suicide because of a severe reactive depression? What’s the chance this causes severe reactive depression in others?

    Lefty me wonders if the “no harm to others” notion about suicide (especially in the hypothetical case I mention) is common among libertarians, is just your idea, or whether you simply had an attack of the fat fingers while typing fast and pressed “submit” before you meant to.

  22. Your reaction in both cases really depends on what sort of mate you are, not what sort of libertarian you are.

    If you are really a friend you take his keys and get him home safely, or try to talk him out of doing something he wont have a chance to regret later.

    If you need to engage in an hours navel gazing on libertarian principles, or set up a conference call to Humphreys, Terje, David L, Pommy, and a few others to decide what to do, you are less than useless.

  23. Consider: Single mum with severe post-partum depression and a dependent neonate is probably the most obvious counterexample – especially if the infant is in the house with the mother and no-one has access to the house or is checking up. The infant will probably die.

    Dave, firstly, the mother is committing a crime against the infant. She is being willfully negligent. (And, anyway, if there was ever a reason to live simply for another, this has got to be it). You can argue she has a mental illness, but a rational person is guilty of a crime in this instance.

    Secondly, in reality there probably isn’t a libertarian on earth who would actually leave a mother in that situation. Libertarians claim that rational people have a right to choose to end their lives. Your example above is not what they are talking about.

    But ever spoken to somebody close (parent, spouse, whatever) of someone who has committed suicide because of a severe reactive depression? What’s the chance this causes severe reactive depression in others?

    Firstly, despite the constant left-wing whine that libertarians are heartless baby eaters, libertarians acknowledge that how we live our lives can effect others. That’s why libertarians insist on any tangible effect on others be limited to something approaching zero, by upholding universal rights to life, liberty and property. Secondly, for the social/emotional/mental effect, the key is to promote a greater sense of individualism, so people a sure in their own minds that their lives are worth living for themselves, regardless of what others do. Hence they have the strength to carry on after tragedy, in their own right, for themselves. Thirdly, libertarians promote civil society. I’m willing to bet that there would be a greater network of caring people – and more importantly, caring people who are capable and willing to act in a positive way – in a libertarian society than in any lefty based society.

    Lefty me wonders if the “no harm to others” notion about suicide (especially in the hypothetical case I mention) is common among libertarians, is just your idea, or whether you simply had an attack of the fat fingers while typing fast and pressed “submit” before you meant to.

    All libertarians believe that individuals own their own lives – it’s kind of the whole point. And that doesn’t make them uncaring as lefties would like to make out. Left-wingers are the ones calling for ‘quality end-of-life decisions’ in the name of ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’. They’re happy for people to kill themselves, and sometimes want to encourage it, just so long as the state has warranted that they’ve lived the appropriate amount of years. In other words, the lefty ideal is that state assisted suicide is OK, just so long as it’s done equally and with state sanction. Now that’s heartless.

  24. Michael@25
    I /certainly/ wasn’t accusing /all/ libertarians (or even the majority)… and was even being cautious about the intent behind the comment@22 (hence my “attack of the fat fingers” bit).

    And remember, I said “severe post-partum depression”. It was the “suicide doesn’t harm others” reading of the @22 comment that got to me, caused me to give the extreme counterexample and it seems from your reading and labelling that as criminal, that we agree. (Wiping brow and heaving sigh of relief) I was hoping that a native libertarian would say what you did so I wouldn’t go all apoplectic!

    And on your last point, you certainly haven’t characterized the “lefty ideal” on end-of-life decisions very well… at least as far as I’m concerned. It’s the state (and organizations with undue influence, such as certain religious groups) INHIBITING a rational person (uninfluenced by an acute condition) from acting in a way that they want and causing a net benefit to others, that annoys the hell out of me. But that’s a discussion for another time.

  25. Drink driving is an act of force on the innocent. Putting other lives at risk.

    By that definition driving even without the drinking is an act of force. Probably walking and dancing also.

  26. Lefty me wonders if the “no harm to others” notion about suicide (especially in the hypothetical case I mention) is common among libertarians

    Twelve years ago I had a flatmate who commited suicide. As far as I know nobody else was physically harmed by what happened but it sure as heck had a big emotional effect on a large number of people.

  27. Something else to consider, and you might want to tell this to depressed people to dissuade them from suicide- when would-be suicides are brought back to life, by stomach pumps, etc., those who claim to remember what happened to ‘them’ when the body was dying said that they remembered over and over again what it was they were trying to escape from. They were in a hell of their own memories. Now we have no way yet to tell if this is what happens to suicides all the time, but the possibility could certainly be raised so as to persuade people not to do it.

  28. Dave Bath, I said “suicide does not impact the right to life of others”. And I stand by that comment. I never said suicide doesn’t have negative effects on others.
    To think that negative effects on others should be the standard for legislation is ridiculous when taken

    The case with the infant is more complicated and unfortunate but this doesn’t mean suicide should be illegal.

  29. That really is a dishonest reading of my comment Dave. That’s not good enough.
    And your unfounded cheap shot at libertarians is pretty low and transparent too, although I’m sure that’s obvious to anyone reading.

  30. Terje, the terms of use of driving on the road is that you do so under 0.05 % blood alcohol.
    If you do not comply, you are engaging in an act of force against others, similar to fraud.
    If you have a better way to word this please comment.

    Obviously this issue would be ideally determined by property rights. ie: Privatised roads with conditions of use.

  31. The libertarian principle is not “no harm to others”. While a sometimes useful short-hand, if you look into the concept it is too fluffy to be a principle.

    The libertarian principle is “voluntary human interaction”.

    You’re all still missing the points that Tim asked a moral question, not a political question. Bunch of commies.

  32. John, I think we’re all shocked at how easily you found out our secret. What gave us away? Was it the calls for people to worship Mao? the group activities? Or the jokes about capitalist running dogs? The correct term for ‘a bunch of commies’ is probably ‘any political party’ though.

  33. You’re all still missing the points that Tim asked a moral question, not a political question.

    No we’re not. Were just choosing to talk about the moral question.

    Bunch of commies.

    I always thought it was “collective of commies” and a “bunch of bananas”.

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