I recently heard a spokesperson for a Prisoner Action Group outlining the denial of civil liberties associated with prison. I must admit that I don't view prison as the most useful of social organizations. It seems more appropriate for a criminal to work and pay for the damage they cause their fellow citizens, than for theie fellow citizens to have to pay taxes for the criminal's incarceration. Prisons should exist for those who are too dangerous to let out on the streets. Yet, the question is this, is it a denial of a person's fundamental civil liberties to incarcerate a person found guilty of a criminal offense? Have their human rights been infringed?
There are two opposing ways to view society. On the one hand, we can have a society where we all exist for the common good. Individual thought and action is assessed on the grounds of the benefit for society at large. On the other hand, we can have a society were we all exist for the individual good. Individual thought and action is assessed on the ground of the benefits that flow to the individual. So, communism and anarchy are the two extremes, and a just society seems to have a mix of both held in tension.
When it comes to allowing individual liberties, individual freedom, individual rights, we immediately strike a problem. There are times when the liberty of one individual infringes the liberty of another. I might be free to mow the lawn at 6am in the morning, but then I have infringed the freedom of my neighbor to sleep in. So, the rule of thumb for individual liberty is that my right to liberty must not infringe the liberty of another. My freedom must not restrict the freedom of my neighbor .
So far so good, but the problem comes when someone is acting in a way that infringes the freedom of another. They may be committing a crime or some other antisocial act, and when we attempt to restrict them, to apprehend them, or to punish them (sorry! rehabilitate them), then all of a sudden there is the cry that their civil liberties have been denied. For example, it is argued by many that the authorities shouldn't have the right to tape the telephone conversations of suspected criminals, for to do so infringes their rights to privacy. We shouldn't incarcerate criminals, for this denies them their right to freedom. How do we balance these competing rights?
It does seem at times that civil libertarians make too much of the removal of freedoms from those who have infringed the freedoms of others. If someone purposely interferes with the freedoms of another, then surely they lose their own rights to similar freedoms. So for example, if someone breaks into your home and steals your computer, they have not just taken a piece of junk, they have taken many hours of hard work and months of careful saving. They have infringed your freedoms by stealing a substantial slice of your time and energy. The community then has every right to use an appropriate amount of force to stop and apprehend that person and to make that person repay in kind for their unwillingness to respect the civil liberties of others.
In the end, one person's freedom can never be allowed to become another person's curse. As the Bible puts it, "Do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil"