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What are the ethics, if any, of limiting another person's agency and personal freedom in the name of mutual protection?

Consider the following example:

  • Alice and Bob are partners and both adults.
  • Both have an allergy to cats. However, the risk of complications is higher for Alice than it is for Bob.
  • Bob decides to limit both their personal freedom, undermining Alice's agency, to avoid contact with cats. He does so under the auspices of protecting them both from harm.
  • Alice pushes back, but is ultimately forced to capitulate due to Bob's actions. (Which, arguably, could be described as coercive.)

What's going on here? Specifically:

  1. Is Bob acting ethically, if we assume he is acting on a genuine belief? (Presumably that changes if Bob is using Alice's condition to his advantage?)
  2. Is the ethicality affected by:
    • The level of risk? (e.g., If the risk of complications is very high, does that justify the means? etc.)
    • The nature of Bob's actions used to achieve this goal?
  3. Is Bob's justification a logical fallacy?

I'm reminded of the Benjamin Franklin quote, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." I believe this was said in the context of governance, rather than interpersonal relations, but it seems apt.

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    What did Bob actually do? Did he "limit both their personal freedom" by not getting a cat? By moving them to an uninhabited island in the Arctic Sea?
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 31 at 12:46
  • Does it make a difference? (Genuinely curious.) In context, I meant to the degree that Bob frustrates Alice from, e.g., leaving the house. Not quite uninhabited Arctic island, but certainly more severe than not getting a cat. Apr 1 at 14:18
  • Well, we tend to respond proportionate to what people do, not only why they do it. Trying to protect someone is laudable, but normally it would seem excessive to put them in a straitjacket. A great danger makes a strong action more likely appropriate, but not always.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 1 at 22:10
  • There's no general answer to this. Informed consent certainly applies to this example. Limitations rightly apply in many other cases from seatbelts in cars to qualifications for doctors, lawyers, accountant et al. More serious is the widespread practice of depriving people of their liberty because "they are a danger to themselves or others" meaning on psychiatric grounds. (I think that practice is difficult in practice but justified as a resource.)
    – Ludwig V
    Apr 4 at 10:32

3 Answers 3

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Bob violates the principle of Informed Consent. This is a principle within medical ethics, but since the harm caused to Alice is medical in nature, it would apply to this case.

What Bob instead could do is inform Alice about the risks and then let her decide for herself to what extent her agency should be limited by Bob.

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  • This seems correct, the exception would be if Alice had some condition or limitation that would impede her judgement. But since the question says they are 'partners', this is probably not the situation.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 31 at 16:02
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Can be said that it's right if we look at the intention which is greater good but Bob doesn't hold any right to control Alice's freedom no matter what their relation is. What is the way then to achieve the greater good or protect? Bob can try his best in transferring the perspective to Alice but it'd be Alice to decide in the end.

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  • Sounds like the beginning of the end of the relationship. Bob might be wrong, needlessly worried. Alice might be wrong, insufficiently careful. Both might be wrong. If they are both right, then it is an impasse.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 4 at 10:24
  • Well, we don't live at the extremes thus we live. They're both right with their intentions. Choosing for somebody else still crosses the line. Apr 4 at 19:59
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There is more to this question than the existing answers might suggest. Societies invent and impose all kinds of restrictions in the name of protection. We are not allowed to smoke in the workplace. We are not allowed to ride in a car without a seatbelt. We are not allowed to work on a building site without sturdy boots. We are not allowed to pilot a plane without a licence. We are not allowed to test nuclear weapons in our garage. We are not allowed to perform brain surgery without a medical qualification.

Consent plays no role in any of the aforementioned examples. I can just imagine the following conversation...

Anxious official at major airport: So, Doctor Ocram, I understand you intend to fly that airplane (nods toward nearby jumbo-jet heaving with passengers impatient for take-off) to New York.

Doctor Ocram (consulting watch): Yes, and we should have left thirty minutes ago.

Official: And you have no licence?

Ocram: Correct.

Official: And have you ever flown a plane before?

Ocram: It's not rocket science.

Official: Well, before I can let you take off, I need you to read and sign this consent form, so you understand the risks.

The underlying ethical question for practically-minded people is whether a given restriction of liberty is justified by its results. There is no absolute calculus for making such judgements. There are clear cut cases in which almost everyone would agree that a given restriction was or was not justified, and a huge grey area in between in which the pros and cons are the subject of endless impassioned argument. Consider, for example, the shameful saga of gun control (or the lack of it) in the US.

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  • "So, Doctor Ocram, ..." That was funny! There seem to be clear cut cases where large numbers of people are about evenly split on some vital and urgent issue, too. That's what I find vexing.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 4 at 9:53
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    @ScottRowe Agreed. The older I get the more I realise that almost everything about society is arbitrary, dysfunctional and exploited by a minority for their own benefit. Apr 4 at 10:12

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