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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Two takes on moral responsibility: part 1

What would you think of the proposition that nobody should be prosecuted for speeding, driving without due care and attention or dangerous driving unless they cause an accident in which somebody gets hurt? And even then with a certain reluctance, since bad drivers are victims of society deserving of compassion rather than blame?

I suppose if you're a certain sort of get-the-state-off-my-back conservative you might sympathize with the first part of the proposition. Your approval would only be likely to extend to the second part if you had a significant personal stake in the matter. In which case you would doubtless also be glad to know that state-funded advocacy groups for bad drivers are waiting in the wings ready to plead for clemency on your behalf and shield you from stigmatization.

You feel an analogy coming on, don't you? Quite right, and we're actually talking HIV. I think it's fairly safe to assume that neither the chief executive of the National AIDS Trust nor the chief executive of HIV Scotland would support my suggested libertarian approach to road safety. It's tempting to wonder whether they would take a rather more punitive attitude in their own sphere of competence if someone accused of recklessly putting others at risk of HIV infection was as likely to be a straight white man as, let us say, someone accused of dangerous driving.

A man who knows he is HIV-positive has unprotected sex over a period of years with a number of women. One of them is infected. What shall we say? You may feel that anyone with HIV is a victim to whom compassion is owed regardless of their behaviour. On the other hand you may feel that precisely the demands of compassion require justice for someone who has been infected through another's irresponsible and selfish acts. If you belong to the former group, you can take comfort in the knowledge that your taxes are helping pay spokepersons to put your case. Whereas if you belong to the latter group... Need I go on?

The National AIDS Trust notes in a tone of gentle rebuke that in recent years state funding has fallen to as little as 15% of its total income. HIV Scotland is less informative; the link to its Annual Report is "still under construction". Still, I'm pretty sure that their claim to be "the independent voice for HIV in Scotland" is not to be taken too literally. For folk in this kind of field dependence on the state is so much taken for granted that it simply doesn't count.

Now I'm sure that many wonderful things are accomplished by both organizations. But the point of this microcosm of Britain in 2010 is this: a news story raises a moral dilemma; the state broadcaster is not content to report, but wants an authoritative opinion, the voice of the Magisterium; instinctively, inevitably it goes to the spokespersons of state-funded advocacy groups. We are ruled by a priestly caste which doesn't do God, but bids us worship a god of its own making.

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