Liz Baker - Ethically Speaking

I was thinking recently about responsibility. In particular, Ive been trying to figure out where we are going with personal and collective responsibility and the tension between them. If these are part of the foundation of a civil society, it seems to me theres a lot falling between the cracks.

The recent debate about fluoridation is an interesting example of what happens when theres disagreement about whats seen as common sense and the right thing to do. The debate became polarised very quickly and both sides claimed the moral high ground. It was about the rights of individuals or it was about providing a public good for a group considered to be vulnerable and potentially disadvantaged children. Both sides also claimed to have science on their sides but thats a topic for another time.

Really, it was a debate about responsibility and about trust. How much can we trust individuals to be responsible for their own health? One side said we should trust that individuals will be responsible; the other side said we cant afford to be wrong about that and have to take a collective responsibility instead. This collective responsibility extends to the point of over-riding individual responsibility. If it didnt then providing free tablets or drinks to school-age children or some such program would have been considered an option. The issue of dental health is considered so important that it is considered fair and appropriate to over-ride individual responsibility entirely. That said, I do wonder how the powers-that-be were considering the dental health of kids growing up on tank water.

Ethically speaking, is this fair? It depends on your view on who should be expected to show responsibility for their actions, how accountable an individual should be for the consequences of their actions, and to what extent over-riding individual responsibility is justified. Be careful how you answer. Its not just about fluoridation. Ethically, theres a case to argue for consistency too. Take a hypothetical example. If there was a water-soluble cure for arthritis with mild to moderate side effects should we add it to the water supply? What if it has to be taken before the symptoms of the disease appear?

Does it matter if we use our water supply to deliver drugs or nutrients? After all, there are the options of collecting your own drinking water. Which rather begs the question: if the delivery of these drugs is so important to our future health, then what about those here who do not have access to reticulated water? Oh, they could be given free tablets, right? So coming back the full circle we get to who is responsible?

My musings on responsibility could just as easily have used the war in the Middle East or water recycling or global warming as examples. As individuals we hand over some responsibilities to our government, and other responsibilities we expect to deal with ourselves.

Increasingly, though, we seem to be seeing a reluctance to be responsible for ourselves and an expectation that they should be doing something. But thats another issue, ethically speaking.


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