Which Way?

Posted on 2012 July 2

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Here are a few public issues in the news where no solution really works:

Fire Zones: Should local zoning authorities forbid housing in areas of high fire danger? Lowlanders pay extra taxes to help protect hillside residents from wildfires, so maybe they should have a say. On the other hand, every such rule diminishes the American Dream of home ownership, restricting our ability to have a private place where we can do what we like, even if those private decisions put us at our own risk.

Gay conversion: Should the state forbid therapies that attempt to convert gay teens into straight kids? It seems important to protect youths from being forced into adopting attitudes that run counter to their deepest convictions. On the other hand, every such rule diminishes the power of parents to raise their own young (even if their methods are foolish), while it violates the autonomy and professional judgment of doctors and other licensed therapists.

Transgender teen: Similarly, should teens be forbidden from taking drastic actions to alter their own sexuality? Even if they and their parents agree, it seems too big a decision for their age group. On the other hand, people should have the autonomy to decide for themselves who they want to be and what shape that will take, especially before they complete their formative years.

–Marijuana: Should weed be forbidden? Many studies show that continuous use can cause brain damage, and a driver high on dope can cause accidents. On the other hand, different studies indicate that marijuana is less addictive and less damaging than alcohol or cigarettes; if so, why do we ban one and not the others? (Extra credit: should the states decide this issue, or should the federal ban override local concerns?)

Political contributions: Should political contributors be forced to reveal their identities? It would add transparency to elections, unveiling those to whom the candidates are indebted. But publicly declared contributors — especially workers, people with minority beliefs, and businesses — have been subjected to harassment, firings, and loss of income.

Each of these dilemmas, no matter which choice we make, will violate a basic principle dear to us: for fire zones, it’s public safety vs. home ownership; for gay conversion therapy, non-coercion of children vs. parents’ and doctor’s rights; for the transgender teen, a family’s private decisions impinge on the public’s interest in protecting youth from potential harm; marijuana pits personal freedom against public morals; and political donations set the electorate’s desire for openness and integrity against free expression and protection from harassment.

There might be no good answers for any of these. How we decide each issue may reveal more about our political biases than what truly works for everyone. So the larger question is: Can we resolve each of these in ways that satisfy both sides? Or must we choose one solution over the other?

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UPDATE: Anti “gay conversion” law moves forward in CA; rift opens in anti-gay movement

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