The debate over the use of mandatory pre-commitment technology in poker machines is the latest front in an ongoing war that pits advocates of personal responsibility against people motivated by concerns over harm reduction.
Excessive gambling can be harmful – to the gamblers, their families, and to the broader community. What’s more, gamblers often say they regret their behavior.
For these reasons, many people believe we should take steps to limit the amount problem gamblers lose: ensure the harm is reduced and gamblers' regrets are smaller.
But advocates of personal responsibility worry that by taking the decision out of individuals' hands, we swap a smaller harm for a greater.
We will undermine individuals' autonomy; their ability to choose for themselves how best to live their lives. Human beings alone, it seems, have the capacity not just to choose between options, but to choose lives: to seek to realize a set of ideals in how we live.
Better to lose one’s money, even one’s family, than to lose this capacity that makes us human.
1 + 1 ≠ 2?
When we understand the debate in the way just described, settling it seems to require simple arithmetic.
Which harm is greater: the harm to individuals and communities from gambling (or overeating, excessive alcohol consumption, computer gaming, or whatever the subject of the public health debate happens to be) or the harms which might arise from undermining personal responsibility even further?
Of course, larger issues lurk in the background and make the maths hard to do. How realistic is to expect people to take responsibility for their behaviour?
Is it really true, as opponents of intervention claim, that taking responsibility out of individuals' hands “usurps its development” in them and in our children?
I want to put forward a different viewpoint – we do not need to trade-off harms against autonomy.
The choice we face is not between usurping autonomous decision-making and allowing people to suffer the consequences of bad choices.
This is actually an instance of where we can have our cake and eat it too. Properly designed, mechanisms like pre-commitment technologies, regulations governing the fast food industry, and so on, can reduce harm while increasing our autonomy.
The idea that regulating our options necessarily limits our autonomy rests upon a simplistic view of what autonomy is and how it can be promoted.
It rests upon a view of the individual as cut-off from the context in which he or she acts.
This view is not consistent with the science of decision-making. We know from that science that the capacity to make good decisions is dependent on a properly structured environment.
This is true developmentally: a child must acquire the capacity for making choices that promote its ends, and this requires good parenting and a supportive environment.
This child might never learn to defer gratification, for instance, if the chocolate she saves for later is always eaten by her father before she can get to it.
More surprisingly, it remains true for adults that the capacity to make choices that promote our ends is dependent on a supportive environment.
Free from what?
Autonomy – etymologically, self-rule – should be understood as the capacity to shape our lives in accordance with our deepest values.
The autonomous individual lives a life that promotes the ends she understands as most important, whether that is the ends of family, of community, of work, of religion, of sport or what have you.
We promote people’s autonomy when we give them tools to live the lives they value; we hinder autonomy when we prevent them from doing so or we impose values on them.
Proper regulation does neither of these things; rather, it can promote autonomy.
The person who values family, but finds that she regularly spends too much money on pokies and finds herself unable to provide for her children does not act autonomously: not if she genuinely values family and not pokies.
And we can best find that out by asking her: the answer she gives most of the time and in circumstances she identifies as appropriate reflect her true values.
If pre-commitment technologies prevent her from overspending on pokies, they promote her autonomy.
We understand the mechanisms whereby, in the grip of cravings, the person finds herself acting in ways that do not reflect her true values.
Not just human
All animals are subject to this kind of problem. Research has found pigeons cannot prevent themselves from eating a small amount of seed that’s immediately available, even if they’ve been taught that waiting for a few seconds will bring the reward of much more seed (more on these pigeons below).
Humans alone can enhance their autonomy by structuring their environment so that they engage in the pattern of choices they want.
We alone can design mechanisms that enhance autonomy: a time lock on the drinks cabinet, or regulations governing the opening hours of liquor stores so that we don’t buy alcohol when our capacities for self-regulation are at a low ebb due to tiredness and decision fatigue.
Even pigeons can learn to take advantage of these technologies: Howard Rachlin gave pigeons a button to peck that would prevent them accessing a small amount of seed, thereby forcing them to wait for a few seconds until a greater amount was available.
Most pigeons eventually learned to use it, thus pre-committing themselves.
But only human beings are capable of the complex planning that enables the design of these systems; only human beings are capable of valuing autonomy, and finding ways to promote it by making decisions about how to decide, now and in the future.
Autonomy is central to what it means to be human. But the capacity to make choices one at a time, and the tendency to regret some of these choices are not distinctively human: rather, we share these with many other animals.
Meaning of humanity
What is distinctively human is the capacity to understand autonomy as a property of whole lives, and to structure our own choices so that our lives realize our ends.
We should not seek to impose our values on others. We should look for ways in which we can structure choices so that no one is prevented from pursuing their values.
Pre-commitment technology wouldn’t prevent anyone from pursuing their values, if it’s properly designed.
It would leave them free to lose as much as they liked.
Regulation of this sort does not limit autonomy. It enhances it, allowing us to pursue the ends we value more effectively.