Friday, August 26, 2011

If A Tree Falls On The Road And No One's Around To Hear It...

On my way into work, at about 2:30 this afternoon, the main road between Stirling and campus (Airthrey Road) was being blocked by police because a large tree had been struck by lightning and there were concerns that it might fall. The policeman let me go past on the footpath the other side of the road (surely strange: if there's a risk of a tree falling presumably it'd be safer for my to cycle past as quickly as possible). Before I'd got very far at all, they then allowed traffic towards the university again and, shortly after, that going in to town as well, the road now re-opened in both directions.

Obviously at some point later in the afternoon they changed their mind about the safety of the situation. An all staff email round the university advised us that Airthrey Road was again closed and that we should take alternative routes home. When I left campus, I found that not only was the road cordoned off, but also the footpath, so I couldn't even get through by bike.

Now admittedly I don't know how much danger this tree poses, but the fact that they were letting traffic through previously, combined with the fact that it hadn't fallen all afternoon and there was no particular reason for it to do so in the brief time that I would be passing, led to me assume it wasn't that dangerous. In fact, I'm well aware every time that I cycle along this fairly busy stretch of road that I could get hit by a bus. It's quite possible that I'd actually be at less risk from the tree than I ordinarily am from buses (a risk removed by the closure of the road). As I say, I can't judge for sure how risky it was, but then nor could I put a figure on how likely I am to get hit by a bus.

Preventing me (or anyone else) from taking the risk is an example of paternalism - that is, the authorities pre-empt my own judgement and seek to decide for me what is good for me as if I am a child, incapable of coming to my own decisions. Many philosophers, J. S. Mill among them, think that paternalism is wrong (at least in most cases). It's true that it may sometimes be justifiable. Perhaps the fact that I didn't know the true risk, for example, means that my decision to take the risk would not really be autonomous. But, even if one agrees with that, the obvious solution is to inform people of the risk, rather than to prohibit them from taking it.

As it happened, I turned back on to campus and took another route. Not only did this take me out of my way, but it involved going up and down a hill, along a poorly-surfaced path I didn't really know, in diminishing daylight, and coming off my bike when I hit a (not very low) drop-curb. When I came out the other side, the tree hadn't fallen, so perhaps I really would have been safer taking the usual road after all...

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