Opinion > Responsibility and the StatePosted by Hendrickus on 02-12-2014
In the episode 'Society' of the Ricky Gervais Show (S3, E10), a very interesting discussion on personal responsibility comes up. In the conversation, Karl questions "how far we [should] take all this stuff of safety gear, slowing down, and wearing bright clothes at night; it's just too much". At this point, he is obviously still being Karl, and unknowingly advocating for a less safe environment. When Ricky asks Karl if he thinks people should be forced to wear a crash helmet, Karl states that he thinks "you shouldn't get fined for not having one". A situation is sketched in which a father of two children gets into a vegetative state after having crashed on his motorbike without a crash helmet on. The children then go on to ask Karl, the 'President of Society', why he did not make helmets obligatory, as it probably would have saved their father. Karl, however, remains as harsh as ever, and tells the children that it was their father's own fault. As always, the discussion is dragged along as Ricky and Stephen laugh at Karl's position. Yet, for once, Karl's attitude towards the case might not be so strange after all.
The point that Karl brings up here is a very important and difficult one indeed. I am sure most people would agree that the state has a role in protecting its citizens from dangers - these dangers naturally include irresponsible behaviour by other citizens. It thus makes sense to have a society in which certain rules are set up to decrease this danger coming from people who would otherwise not act responsibly.
As Ricky says in the episode, "some people are not responsible, society keeps them on track". Of course, this is true to a certain extent. However, when it comes to the case of the man not wearing a helmet for his own protection, the question becomes more troublesome. According to Karl, the man himself is responsible for his own safety, including the decision to wear a helmet. When it comes to this kind of legislation, it is clear that this is no longer a question of protecting citizens from one another. Instead, the citizen has to be protected from himself. A democratic state, however, also has the obligation to limit the rules it imposes on its citizens, providing them with the highest posssible degree of freedom to enjoy. This balance between this personal freedom and societal safety is clearly one that is hard to pinpoint.
Ricky's point of smokers and fat people misses every bit of a good argument. Much like people who are fat because they like to eat a lot (which is what Gervais pressumes), the man without a helmet is responsible for his own actions and will have to deal with the consequences accordingly. A possible ban of smoking in certain places, on the other hand, would make sense as smoking itself brings dangers with it for the non-smoking people who are surrounded. However, if a person should like to smoke without harming anyone else, even if harming himself, he should be allowed to make this decision. Of course, this does not mean that it should not be discouraged: there is a great difference between a state giving sensible advise and a state setting laws.
In short, I personally believe that Karl does touch upon something important. However, this being a very difficult theme, I would be very happy to hear different opinions on this question. What do you think of personal responsibility? Should the state put safety ahead, even if it does not affect others and limits personal responsibility, or should personal freedom and responsiblity be the determining factor? Please share your opinion in the comments below.
personal responsibility state politics philosophy karl