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Can you please assist me to understand this "categorical difference between saying"

  1. I abhor X.

  2. Prohibiting X benefits the area.?

Bingham exemplifies with X = the death penalty, in the last sentence. But isn't there still a contradiction? If you abhor death penalty, but argue that prohibiting the death penalty WON'T benefit the area, then you're allowing the death penalty to persist. Then the possibility of more death penalties contradicts your abhorrence in the death penalty.

I quote Sir Thomas Bingham MR in R v Somerset County Council, ex parte Fewings [1995] 3 All ER 20.

There is, however, as I think, a categorical difference between saying “I strongly disapprove of X” and saying “It is for the benefit of the area that X should be prohibited”. The first is the expression of a purely personal opinion which may (but need not) take account of any wider, countervailing argument. There are, for example, those so deeply opposed to the capital penalty on moral grounds that no counter-argument (however cogent) could shake their conviction. The second statement is also the expression of a personal opinion, but involves a judgment on wider, community-based grounds of what is for the benefit of the area. Both statements may of course lead to the same conclusion, but they need not. There is nothing illogical in saying “I strongly disapprove of X, but I am not persuaded that it is for the benefit of the area that X should be prohibited”. Thus a person might be deeply opposed to the capital penalty but conclude that it would not be for the benefit of the community to prohibit it so long as its availability appeared to deter the commission of murder.

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  • Are you suggesting that if you truly abhor X, you would lie and say that X does not benefit the area, in order to get X banned? Some people are more honest than that. Certainly it is not a contradiction, to refuse to lie in order to get what you want.
    – causative
    Commented May 19, 2021 at 5:19
  • One can abhor tobacco smoking, but it would be silly to claim that prohibiting it would benefit the area where tobacco growers reside. Why there is no contradiction is explained in the quote, the two opinions are based on assessments of costs and benefits with different scopes.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 19, 2021 at 5:31
  • In the case of arriving at a "seeming" conflict personal opinion, since they are derived from different scopes they're not exact opposite, you may use Hegelian dialectic logic to have a way to sublate this contradiction at least in philosophical theory... Commented May 19, 2021 at 6:21

2 Answers 2

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Try taking it apart from the other direction:

(Sorry if this is oddly oversharing. Substances do not figure prominently in my life, they are just a source of good examples here, because compared to violence or punishment, they produce a lot of ethical subjectivity and counterintuitive experiences.)

I really love MDMA. I was lucky enough to be able to freely use it while it was still legal, and before we knew what it does to your overall serotonin system -- but not long enough to ever experience those effects. It makes you love the universe, and that is something that is just really hard not to fall in love with. On an individual basis, it is an experience of which I am reluctant to deprive others, and which I would suggest those with enough discipline should try.

But I do think that prohibiting it works to the benefit of my area. Most people drawn to using it will not be able to handle it appropriately. And even the people who can benefit from it will be drawn to use it to a degree that reduces their overall mental health slowly over time. There are not enough people who could use it responsibly in the universe to make its existence worthwhile.

These two things are not logically connected, at root. One is an emotional reaction and the other is a cost/benefit question, even if it is done subjectively. Ethically, there is an obligation toward damage control that might not apply to everyone, and particularly may be inconvenient for you personally.

Likewise, I abhor alcohol and marijuana. The one just makes me into a horrible person, and the other has historically made people around me dependent, whiny and useless. (My family just should not have any kind of depressants at all. And just in case, I don't suggest them to anyone. I don't see where less self-control ever improves life, even if your biology makes you capable of handling it in ways we can't.)

But we have seen the damage that results from prohibiting the former, and I understand the argument that the latter is similar enough that the same argument generalizes to it: Because alcohol is so easy to make that you can't enforce laws against it, and unenforceable laws empower criminals, legalization (and high taxes) may be better for your population than a prohibition. Al Capone created a network that would remain as the hub of organized crime in wealthy countries for the next fifty years out of Chicago's inability to enforce the American liquor laws of the 1920s. Marijuana is doing the same thing for other gangs now. But as noted above, I don't think all abusable substances have that particular kind of problem.

Again, the perspective needs to be broader than what is optimal or destructive in your personal experience.


Sticking with the subject and challenging the question, it remains ambiguous when 'the area' will also have to be overlooked. At a different level, these two cases may need to generalize to just the second case.

Making various substances illegal in rich countries currently funds criminal organizations much worse than Capone's in poor countries with deeper black markets... Europe and the US might be ethically obligated to legalize cocaine at some point for the sake of Columbia and Mexico, or heroin for the sake of Afganistan and East Africa. Ethically, everyone may need to have to take the hit locally for the global imbalance in regulatory power.

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As said by other posters, there is no logical connection between 1. and 2. : one could abhor death penalty, the idea of a human ending another human life, or the idea of the state killing one of its citizens, the possibility of executing innocents, etc, but still be convinced based on actual data that its effect in disuading people from crime is real and the trade off is overall beneficial to society (except data actually does not show that, but for the sake of the example let's say they take all their data from pro death penalty facebook groups).

But I think the main difference here is on the effect each argument has on the listener.

  1. Simply states self centered feeling of the speaker, a fact that involves this person only. We, as listeners, are totally separated from this fact that doesn't touch us in any way. Let's ignore the case where all the audience also abhors X, because then there is no discussion to be had. Some people in the audience will either
  • be indifferent to X
  • like X.

In both case, any agreement on their part to prohibit X will be done in order to accommodate the speaker's feelings about X, either because we really don't care, the speaker can offer some kind of bargain or can force us.

  1. On the other hand involves us in the argument. We would benefit from prohibiting X, says the speaker. Now the discussion is about accommodating our own desires, which would only incidentally make the speaker happy. It also claims a fact about the world that can be discussed, verified, quantified. How exactly will the area benefit ?

In conclusion, 1. is a power move, leading to a discussion whose result will be primarily based on bargaining power. 2. invites to a fact based discussion that will possibly reach a multibeneficial consensus. Those are two very different approach of the political debate.

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