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?