Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Boundary Lines for Freedom
distributed 8/17/01 & 6/8/07 - ©2001, 2007

Let me start with a pet peeve.

There's a new doctor's office in our neighborhood. Frequently, all of the lights in the office are left on overnight, or through the weekend. It doesn't look like this is an office policy; they just forget to turn them off.

As I grump and grumble about that sort of stupid waste of energy, my thinking expands to a larger philosophical question.

Where is the boundary between behavior that is purely private, and actions whose significant social impact moves into the public realm?

That question is at the heart of many ethical quandaries.

  • It is part of the emerging etiquette about smoking -- where does the freedom to smoke run into another's right to clean air?

  • It is a central element of zoning laws -- if an action on one property has a clear effect on someone else's property, the first owner's freedom can be curtailed.

  • It is embedded in our traffic laws -- having driving privileges doesn't give one the freedom to drive recklessly.
In smoking, zoning and traffic laws, there is a recognition that boundaries exist for private behavior. There is a line, beyond which the substantial public costs of an action justifies limits to personal freedom.

A key principle of modern, liberal ethics is the idea that you can do whatever you want, as long as it does not hurt anyone else. The ethical challenge, of course, is in defining what sort of hurt, and how direct an effect, is enough to limit an individual's freedom.

As our society gradually comes to an awareness that the natural resources of our world are finite, we may need to grapple with whether there is a boundary to the personal freedom to consume resources.

Is there a point where waste and inefficiency in the use of scarce resources is a definable hurt to another individual, or to society as a whole? Is there a boundary beyond which we cannot tolerate the freedom to consume and squander?

The wasteful use of fossil fuels depletes resources, raises costs, overloads production facilities (refineries, power plants and distribution networks), causes pollution and contributes to global climate change. All of these are objective costs to the society.

Will we come to a time when our society's ethics will say that excessive use of fossil fuels crosses the boundary of allowable personal freedom?

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It is informative to look at the case in the US of changing attitudes about smoking. In a remarkably short period of time, an acceptable, glamorized behavior -- supported by the clout of a pervasive industry -- has become marginalized and constrained. Airplane flights and large building complexes are "no smoking" zones. Second-hand smoke is widely seen as a risk factor that justifies restrictions on individual freedom.

Of course, for many years before laws put limits on the freedom to smoke, activists stirred up trouble and awareness with their declarations about health risks and the costs to others. Educational campaigns built acceptance of new concepts of public health and victim's rights.

Is it time for another wave of activists to identify an emerging boundary about the freedom to consume energy? Is it time to begin refuting the notion that you can do whatever you want with energy, as long as you can afford it?

There are signs of growing frustration and resentment. Some now believe that urban drivers of SUVs are guilty of fuel waste that goes beyond the range of what freedom should allow. Questions are raised about the energy use of trophy homes (and well-lit empty offices!) in a time of energy sortages.

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The deep philosophical question -- what are the boundaries to personal freedom? -- is not yet being raised clearly in the political and social debate about energy use. But that question is likely to emerge as a key issue within a relatively short time.

The church can help to advance the debate by providing reflective leadership at the philosophical and moral level. We can help our members and our communities begin to think about energy use in a new way by addressing the social hurts and costs of waste and inefficiency.

Some day, as we pursue that debate, I'll have a better idea of whether it is appropriate for me to walk into that doctor's office and complain about their lights.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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