The Limits of Personal Liberty

Here’s a very interesting topic posed by Julie Borowski on Facebook:

Status Update

By Julie Borowski

Judging from previous discussions, I would say most people on this page are pro-drug legalization and pro-life. They believe people should be able to put whatever they want into their own bodies, no matter how dangerous. They also believe that pregnancy involves at least two bodies– the mother and the baby. So, here goes: should a pregnant women be allowed to use cocaine? Or is she violating someone else’s rights (non-aggression principle)?


I was so interested in her post and the comments that followed because it cuts right to heart of several topics of debate around Liberty all at once. It’s also perfectly timed as I’ve been engaged in a heated debate with some of my friends over the, now defunct, AZ 1062 Bill to ‘allow’ business owners to control who they will do business with, even if that may open the doors to discrimination. I say ‘allow’ in quotes because I think this is a faulty starting point. I believe this is a natural right to begin with (the right to choose who to transact business with and under what terms) and any infringement on that right would require legislation / force — one of many reasons why I didn’t support passing the bill. In other words, it’s directionally correct, but misses the mark on application. But, I digress.

On Julie’s topic, there are so many emotions that get stirred up. I don’t think anyone can read it without some strong initial opinions. But if you take a step back and calm yourself down, let’s try to look at this from a number of different angles. The first is the pro-life basis. You have to believe that an unborn is a viable being and thus would have rights equal to the born. Unless we can agree on this point, the rest of the case won’t make any sense. It’s just a matter of whether drugs should be legal / illegal. More on that point in a minute.

I believe strongly, as many libertarians do, that an unborn is viable, has thoughts / feels pain / and can visibly show signs of a will to live. There are many libertarians that, however, believe life begins at birth and that unborns don’t have rights. From a spiritual aspect, I believe the unborn have a soul and spirit. So to me, whether the child is born or unborn, whether we’re talking gestation of 5 weeks vs. 5 years from birth, it’s the same comparison.

On the topic of drug legalization. I’ve posted many thoughts on this blog and Facebook that the prohibition of ANY kind of drug, alcohol, narcotic, chemical, or substance is not only impractical, but it also violates our natural right to freedom of choice. Most of my critics will immediately assume I encourage the use of all these substances, for recreation or otherwise. There’s a big difference, in my mind, between encouraging use vs. being opposed to state-run prohibition. Again, if you are a reader of mine, none of this should come as a surprise.

Now we get to the meat of the quandary. What are we, as a society of individuals, to do with the case at hand? On the one side, you have the rights of the mother-to-be which include her rights to get high, overeat, drink coffee or alcohol, drive recklessly, watch violent movies, . . . you get the idea. . . . VS. the rights of the baby to be born healthy and the likely addiction to cocaine being force-fed through her mother.

Ultimately, this topic leads us to consider the Limits of Personal Liberty because within this debate, someone’s personal freedom will have to be curtailed. I’ve been accused of holding personal liberty as some moral absolute, without exception, which I have on more than one occasion dispelled. I believe there are instances where personal liberty must have limits. Clearly, this should be one of those examples of an exception to the rule, no? Well, let’s think about that a moment.

First, there’s the impracticality aspect of prohibition. We’ve already established that the threat of prison, confiscation of property, or even the loss of your life by some overzealous DEA agent storming down your door with guns blazing is not an adequate deterrent to use drugs. Our jails are bursting from overpopulation of non-violent, victimless ‘criminals’ wanting to get high.

Secondly, there’s the question of where to draw the line. Certainly, the same case for the harm a pregnant mother using cocaine can cause on her unborn child can be argued for mothers that smoke cigarettes, eat too much fast food, don’t get enough prenatal vitamins, drink too much caffeine, or even go skydiving.

But then there is the issue of the baby’s rights. Does a child have the right to be born free from addiction or the health consequences that follow? Can an unborn speak his claim on these rights and does your ability to voice your opposition have any weight on the decision?

Though I’ll admit I haven’t done extensive research or deep thinking on the topic, here’s what immediately comes to my mind.

How do we balance each person’s rights? If you’re familiar with concepts of liberty, one frequently quoted principle is the Non-Aggression Principle as Julie had alluded to. The NAP basically states that any use of or threat of using physical force against an individual – with the exception of self-defense – is illegitimate. Many libertarians, though not all, use the NAP as the basis for which to develop most of their philosophy. On this basis, you have subsequent philosophies that grow into the proper role of government, the balance of one’s rights against another’s, and can even lead one to the conclusion that ANY form of government that is not totally based on voluntary participation is illegitimate.

For me, the jury is still out on whether the NAP is the basis for my philosophy of Liberty or whether it happens to be a resulting coincidence. They are definitely related somehow. On that note, I would say the only legitimate limitations of Personal Liberty would be similar to what John Stuart Mill had written about the harm principle – “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”.

The Criticisms of the NAP on the MISES wiki is a very good summary of some of the most common arguments against (and counter-arguments still supporting) the NAP. As it relates to the case in hand, I think the strongest case for limiting personal liberty (on behalf of protecting the unborn baby) would fall under the Consequentialist or utilitarian criticism or what I’ll just call the ‘greater good’. In many ways, the arguments made against my stance on businesses being allowed to discriminate could be categorized into this ‘greater good’ bucket.

I will have to admit that this case is not easy for me to lay out in black and white. As I started out in this post, there’s obviously a lot of emotion that can (and should) be weighed in thinking about this. The one thing I will add from my personal philosophy, which is not absolute and is always changing the more I learn and experience and God reveals to me, is that ultimately, 1) God will hold each of us accountable for our own actions and that 2) He can do anything according to His good and perfect will.

That’s not meant to sound fatalistic or like a cop out. I truly believe that God can save babies meant for abortion, that He can use a baby born addicted to crack for His glory, that He can miraculously bring an addict to her knees to get clean and rely on His power and might.

So what do I think about the limits on Personal Liberty? I think we, as a society of individuals, must also show compassion and mercy and love for our mothers that would disregard the health of her unborn child to feed her addiction before we are so quick to jump on how best to punish her. I think we need to embrace and support babies that are born with health issues to mothers that can’t or won’t care for them, regardless of whether it’s from a perceived known or unknown cause.

Jesus was once questioned whether it was a blind man’s parents or himself that had sinned and caused his blindness. His answer? Neither. He was born blind so that the works of God could be revealed in him.

There is so much in this world that we cannot control. We cannot even control everything that directly impacts us. But ultimately, I believe each one of us has to give an account for the choices and decisions that each of us made concerning those few things under our jurisdictions. Give your brother and sister their God given rights and responsibilities to reap what they sow. Respect personal liberty, not as an axiom standing on its own, but as you would have done to yourself.


One thought on “The Limits of Personal Liberty

Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s