Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Individual vs. Societal Rights

When does a society have the right to tell an individual how to live his life? When does an individual have the right to tell society to leave her alone?

Consider the case of a sex offender who has been incarcerated for 20 years and who has now served his sentence and been recommended for release by the psychiatrists who have been treating him. Should he be released even though there’s a chance he’ll abuse someone else?

Should he be kept behind bars even though he’s served his debt to society and has been deemed no longer a threat? Do sex offenders lose their due process rights completely? We can’t know for certain if he will abuse someone upon his release, but there’s obviously a chance he will re-offend. Do we get to keep him locked up?

Or consider the drunk driver who has been arrested 10 times and keeps on driving while impaired. We can take her car away and revoke her license, but what happens if she continues to find ways to drink and drive? Can we lock her up for life?

How about the man who hoards garbage on his property for decades? Can we go onto his property and clean it up even though in his mind he’s not hurting anyone? Do we have the right to tell him how to live his life?

What about the schizophrenic who refuses to take her medication because it makes her feel not like herself? Yet when she is unmedicated, she is at risk of starting fires or hurting someone because of voices in her head?

These are tough questions and there are no easy answers.

But choices must be made and society has an obligation to protect its citizens. The individual must defer to the collective when public safety is at issue. That does not mean we can run roughshod over individuals with impunity.

If the sex offender, the drunk driver and the schizophrenic cannot be trusted to live unconfined, then the confinement must be something better than prison. If we can take away the hoarder’s property, then we must compensate him for it. But how much should society have to pay? What happens when the societal burden becomes too great?

If we have to fix roads and sewers and the electrical grid and pay for medical services for the poor and elderly as well as fund national defense, how are we supposed to pay for all this without raising taxes substantially?

We as a society need to decide what kind of government we want. Until we determine that, we can’t forge lasting solutions to these problems. We can create a hands-off government and accept the risks that accompany it or we can establish a more interventionist government and sacrifice certain individual rights.

I prefer the latter, but I realize the country is split nearly in half, so I suspect we will continue using bandages rather than solving the problem.

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