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@The Arts Unit Art Bites – High school debate club – 04. With Tony Davey

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TONY DAVEY: Welcome back high school debaters. This week I thought we'd move on from last week's arguments about principles and why they matter in debates talking about a specific kind of debate where those kinds of questions come into play, and those are the kinds of debates where we try to ban things mostly for grown ups. So debates like banning smoking or banning cosmetic surgery or banning other risky activities like boxing or some kinds of extreme sports, those kinds of debates are really, really common.

Often if you're on the affirmative you're like, yeah, I've got this. I'll just argue about how dangerous those things are, and it can be a little bit harder for the negative who have to stand up for things like smoking or cosmetic surgery or other arguably stupid things to do. So we're going to talk through today some ways to think about whether those things should be banned and come up with arguments for both sides.

The basic idea here-- and we talked about this last week, so go back and watch it if you missed it-- is that in democracy like Australia, there are reasons why it's better to let people make their own choices instead of making them as a government and forcing those choices upon people. And those reasons are that governments understand harms really, really well and understand risks, but they don't understand what's fun and what's interesting to you. So it's better in that situation to say, hey, governments, explain all of those harms and risks to us, and then we'll make that final judgement about whether we want to do the thing or not because we know both sides, how much fun it is, how much pleasure and relief it brings us.

So that's what's happening in those debates about banning. The affirmative is saying the government should step in and ban this particular activity because it's just too bad or too scary or whatever, and the negative is saying, no, no, the government should warn us and tell us about this stuff but we should get to make the choice because we're the only ones who know how much fun it is or how much it means to us. Those debates boil down to whether or not the people involved who are choosing those activities are giving their free and informed consent to those risks and harms.

So that's the kind of debating we're talking about today. How do you make arguments about whether people are giving their informed consent to possible harms? And there are like four basic things that you might want to look at, four basic different arguments you might make, or you might make all of these different kind of points under the same argument of why people should be allowed to make their own choice or why they are making free choices or not making free choices.

So let's take the topic that we should ban smoking in Australia. It's a pretty straightforward topic and one that comes up a lot. The affirmative is going to say, look, the people who are smoking aren't capable of making the correct choice for themselves, so we the government need to step in and ban smoking.

The negative are going to say that's not fair. People who smoke know what they're doing. They're making their own considered choice. Let's leave them alone but just keep help giving them-- give them all that information they need about how dangerous smoking is.

So those are the two basic positions before we kick in one last thing about that negative case. It is important in these debates that the negative prove that there are legitimate reasons why people might want to do whatever the activity is that we're banning. So it's not good enough for them to just say let's let them do it even though it's the stupidest worst most terrible thing that's ever happened. They need to argue that that behaviour, there are legitimate reasons why people would pick it.

So maybe smokers are quite old, and the upheaval in their life might be too much. Maybe they're not all chainsmokers. They're enjoying just one cigarette that helps them relax.

Some people are using cigarettes to manage other problems they have in their life like stress or other addictions that they might be replacing with cigarettes, and those cigarettes are far less harmful. So there are legitimate reasons why people might enjoy smoking. That smoking might just be a really big part of their social life and the structure around their life, and taking it away would cause devastating problems for them, problems that they think are more important than the potential risk to their lungs and their lives and that that's legitimate for them to talk about.

So how do we have a fight about whether these people are giving their informed consent to the harms of smoking? Well, there are four things that you might want to argue about. The first of those is information. When we say informed consent, it's implied that they have and understand all of the information they need to make the choice.

So the affirmative who wants to ban smoking are going to argue that smokers don't have and understand all the information they need about smoking to make an informed choice. And the negative are going to argue smokers have and understand all the information about the risks of smoking, and they're ready to make that choice for themselves. So the affirmative is going to point to stuff like the fact that people underestimate health risks to themselves and don't really understand them, the fact that people generally aren't doctors and they don't really understand how lung cancer works or just how dangerous it can be.

They're going to point to the fact that while people do get messages on cigarette packets and maybe they get education in school, they're going to point to the fact that people tend to brush past that to see it as won't happen to me. Maybe they take their cigarettes and put them in their own little can or packets so they don't have to look at the diseased mouth. There are lots of ways people aren't getting the correct information about smoking.

Of course, the negative is going to say, look, we teach you all about smoking from the time you're like in year four with Healthy Harold. We tell you what all of the risks are. It's really patronising to say to people you don't understand what this is because you're not staring at a cancerous mouth for the 1,000 time. So they'll outline all the different ways we explain the dangers of smoking to people and talk about how people process that information and do take it on board and do understand it.

So that's thing number one. Are they getting all the information they need? Are they understanding it? And one last trick there, remember that in lots of debates you can argue about whether the people giving the information are biassed or maybe have a reason to colour the facts a little bit to suit their side of the argument. So that is thing number one, do they have and understand all the information they need?

Thing number two is do they have the mental capacity to make the decision. That's a little bit different from understanding information. Mental capacity is about stuff like whether their brain is working properly and allowing them to make free decisions of their own. So one group of people who are said to not have the mental capacity to make decisions are people under the age of 18. Because they haven't had the life experience and arguably their brains on us developed, we think of them as not having the mental capacity to make these kinds of dangerous and risky decisions. So, of course, they're banned from having cigarettes.

Other people might be differently abled people who don't have the ability to think things through in the same way, or indeed-- and this is one of the biggest ones in debating-- people who are addicted and the chemicals that they're addicted to are changing the way they think and meaning that they don't actually have the mental capacity anymore to choose the drug or the thing that they're addicted to. Their brain is telling them, they have to have it as opposed to it being a choice. So that's what we mean by do they have the mental capacity to make the decision.

In a debate about smoking, you can imagine the affirmative is going to say because there's nicotine in cigarettes that people are addicted to, they don't actually have the mental capacity to give their informed consent to the harm. Because they are so addicted, they're not really thinking it through at all. They're just in need of a cigarette. They're just desperate for that nicotine, so it's impairing their mental capacity.

The negative is going to say the opposite. They're going to say, first of all, of course, we protect people under 18, and we don't let them smoke because they don't have the mental capacity. And then they're going to talk about the difference between being addicted to something and being a mindless zombie to that thing.

And they're going to talk about how there are lots of different ways that addiction doesn't impair your ability to make a free and fair choice, that there's lots of help out there if you want to quit, that hundreds of Australians quit every year, so it can't be that bad. I think the number is actually closer to 144, but if you're on the negative, you might want to say hundreds and bump that up a little bit. They'll talk about the fact that there's aids to help you quit, that in fact just because you smoke and, yeah, have an addiction to nicotine doesn't mean you're suddenly a mindless zombie who can't do things like make choices about whether they want to quit that addiction and work on themselves or continue to enjoy those cigarettes even though they're addicted. So that's the second thing they might argue about, mental capacity.

The third thing to look at is whether or not these people are being pressured or coerced in some way. So it's a really broad heading area, but the basic idea is are they making their own free and informed choice or are there pressures on them or people pushing them in a direction that so unreasonable we should ban the thing. So the affirmative is going to talk about the way cigarette companies are really sly, and they force you into smoking in one way or another. Did they plant subliminal messages that often times peer pressure works to make people smoke? So they'll point to all the different ways that people might be pressured into smoking so that they're not really making a choice for themselves.

The negative is going to do the opposite. They're going to say what are you talking about. We banned all of the ads for smoking so that people aren't in fact being pressured. The amount of stuff out there saying smoke is way outweighed by the amount of stuff saying don't smoke. Plus, again, people aren't idiots zombies. Just because they sees someone on screen smoking doesn't mean they're somehow being pressured into smoking themselves to the point where they're not thinking rationally anymore.

So there's this fight about whether they're being pressured or coerced. And in a lot of debates, you'll hear stuff about peer pressure, which I think is a great argument in that area, but also sometimes that pressure might be internal. It might be that, for instance, you're banning some-- you're asking about banning a particular vocation, and the people in that vocation have no other way to earn money. So they're forced to continue to, say, choose to be a boxer because they just have no other way to make money and support their family. So there are lots of different debates where you might argue people are or aren't being pressured into making the choice, and therefore they're not giving their free informed consent to those harms.

Cool. The last one is a little bit different. And by the way, it's the one that's most relevant to whether or not you're allowed to go out and have a party during the COVID-19 pandemic because you might have been saying yourself, well, wait a minute. Why can't I go out and have a party.

I am over 18-- no, you're not, but you know what I mean-- and I can freely think through these things. I've got the mental capacity. I know heaps about the coronavirus and how to protect myself and use a mask and socially distance myself. I'm not being pressured. I just really, really want to go out. Thing four is you can't give informed consent to harms when those harms are being visited upon somebody else. So basically the question is are you hurting other people and not just yourself.

In the smoking debate, the affirmative might argue about things like, for instance, secondhand smoke. It's a little bit iffy, but they'd argue that when you smoke, you're not just hurting yourself. You may be in a car with your kid. You may be role modelling smoking for your kid so that you're actually harming someone when they grow up, and they end up not knowing why just thinking smoking is a great idea. So the affirmative make arguments that you're not just hurting yourself. You're hurting other people.

And, of course, the negative do the opposite. They say wait a minute, when you smoke, that smoke goes into you. It's only harming you. There's no way that you're hurting other people.

So they might talk about the way that we already have lots of great rules to make sure you're not harming anyone with secondhand smoke like banning it in indoor areas and banning it around buildings and banning it I think in the car. So you'll talk about the way that people aren't hurting anyone but their own lungs, and therefore they should be left to make the decision for themselves.

So, again, those four things you might argue about if you want to prove that people do or don't have the ability to give the informed consent to the risks or harms that you're trying to ban in a debate. First of all, do they have and understand all the information? Second of all, do they have the mental capacity? Third of all, are they being pressured or coerced in some way? And finally, are they hurting other people?

So now what I think would be helpful is if we go through a little bit of an exercise. Let's imagine the topic is a slightly different topic, that we should legalise euthanasia, euthanasia being allowing people who are really desperately sick and in pain to end their own lives. It's currently illegal in most of Australia. So if the topic was that we should legalise euthanasia and let people make that choice, we want you to think through what would the arguments be on the affirmative and the negative.

The affirmative is going to say people do have the ability to give their informed consent to euthanasia, and they'll need to say something about information, mental capacity, peer pressure or coercion, and whether they're hurting other people. The negative want to keep euthanasia illegal, so they want to say something about how people don't have or understand the information, about how they are lacking the mental capacity to make the decision, about how they are being pressured or coerced into choosing euthanasia, and about how they do hurt other people when they make that choice. So I reckon pause the video here and see if you can write those four arguments for both sides of the debate. We'll come back and talk about the kinds of things that I would say.


Hope that went well. Let's talk through the kinds of things that we might say in a debate about banning euthanasia.

So first of all, do people considering euthanasia have all of the information they need about that choice. I think the affirmative who want you to be able to make the choice will say that people are living their own disease, they feel the pain of that disease every day and they're really familiar with it, they're probably being briefed on that disease and where they're up to daily by medical professionals so they really do have an intimate understanding of that disease and the kinds of likelihoods of recovery, what their future looks like they're probably being endlessly told, here's the path of your disease and what we think is likely to happen to you so they really do have all of that information.

And, in fact, arguably they're the only ones who have all that information because the doctors are pretty good at here's how sick you're going to get, but then the people who are actually sick are the only ones who have the information about how much pain they're really in and how desperate it's making them. So that's what the affirmative would say.

The negative would say patients are really bad at understanding what doctors are talking about. Doctors go to university and college for a really long time to understand how your body works and how medicine works and the path of diseases. And trying to boil that down to someone, especially when they're sick and probably not paying much attention and just saying to themselves, god, I wish I could be dead right now, that that is a really difficult way to try to get information to people.

The negative might even point out that it's really hard to know everything there is to know about dying because no one's ever come back and told us about it. So it's really important they say that we should protect people from making this choice because they don't have all the information they need. They might even talk about how some doctors might be biassed towards euthanasia and might change the picture they paint for those patients in order to make them more likely to choose euthanasia.

So that's the first thing that both sides would talk about whether or not the patients have the information they need. The next question then is whether they have the mental capacity. The affirmative is going to say, look, these people just because they're sick and just because they're in pain and enjoying a really low quality of life, that doesn't mean they're suddenly unable to make choices for themselves. It is patronising to say you are too sick to understand your own choices. We're going to take those away from you. So they'll talk about different ways that people do have the mental capacity to choose euthanasia.

The negative are going to say, look, when you are that sick and you're in that much pain and that pain is colouring every decision that you might make, you're not really thinking it through. That pain is so hurtful and indeed your life is so depressing that you might actually be depressed and clinically unable to make decisions. Remember someone with a mental impairment like depression might not have the mental capacity to make a decision properly and that therefore we can't let you make this choice for yourself.

And, of course, the affirmative is going to push back and say that's super patronising. Just because people are in pain, just because people are depressed or despairing doesn't mean they're suddenly not having the mental capacity. They're not suddenly children. They still are the best people to make the choice. So that's how that mental capacity argument might play out.

The next question then is going to be whether they're being pressured or coerced. So the negative-- let's start with this time-- are going to say there are lots of people who might be putting pressure on patients to choose euthanasia. Their family might even unknowingly be putting pressure on them because they're just there every day saying hi but looking really sad and watching all of their money disappear supporting someone who doesn't have long to live anyway.

Doctors might be doing the same. They might say to themselves there's just no chance for this person. They're taking up a hospital bed, and they might start accidentally even encouraging euthanasia even though, of course, they don't want to do that.

And finally that person themselves might just say I am such a burden. I feel like I am ruining my family's life, ruining the lives of everybody who loves me. Surely I need to make this decision. So they in some way are being pressured or coerced into the decision.

The affirmative obviously are going to push back against that. They're going to talk about the way that family and friends are more likely encouraging that person to make their own choice or encouraging that person to stay alive, encouraging them to keep fighting and stay part of their lives. The doctors are really, really well-trained that it is incredibly unlikely any doctor is going to make the kinds of mistake the negative were talking about. They're there for their patients, it's like the fundamental principle on which they work, and there is no chance they place pressure on these people. So you can see there's two different arguments to be made there about whether people who are considering euthanasia are being pressured by their own circumstances to the point where they can't choose.

The last question then is are they hurting anyone else. This one's a little bit trickier. Obviously, the affirmative are going to say, duh, they're not. They're asking to own their own lives. That impacts profoundly on them and on nobody else. The people left behind will be sad, but that's not a direct impact. Those people are going to be sad whenever this person eventually dies.

The negative is going to push back. They might say that the harm to those people is much greater if that person chooses euthanasia perhaps because a cure turns up two or three months later that's incredibly unlikely and therefore the harm to the people left behind and the guilt that they feel would be much, much larger. They might also talk about the fact that now euthanasia is an option.

There's much, much less of an emphasis on palliative care, that is research into ways to make people feel comfortable in their final days. And because we're not doing that as much anymore, the whole system functions far less well, and the other people who wanted to stay alive are now getting much worse care than they otherwise might have. So it's another thing they might say about hurting people.

Of course, the affirmative will push back on all of those things and keep saying, no, it's their own body. There might be these small effects on other people, but overwhelmingly those effects can be mitigated. It's all about them.

So those are arguments about why people choosing euthanasia might or might not have an understand their information that they need, why they might or might not have the mental capacity, why they might or might not be being pressured or being coerced to make the decision, and finally how they might be hurting other people. So those are the kinds of things that I would have said in that debate. Hopefully that matches up a little bit with the kinds of things you were thinking about.

Remember, a final warning, not all debates with the word ban in them suddenly require all four of those arguments for one side or the other to be successful. In some banning debates, one or more of those arguments just won't make much sense. Arguably the one about hurting other people in the euthanasia debate is something you can leave out. So you've got to pick and choose which of those things from the framework you want to use when you're making your decision.

And again one last warning that most debates about banning things for people under the age of 18, that's arguments about what goes on in education and what goes on in younger people's lives. It's generally not that useful to talk about these kinds of things because when you're under 18, everyone accepts that you don't get to make many choices for yourself. You don't get to give your informed consent to just about anything. For instance, if maths is killing you, you're probably stuck with maths until at least year 10 anyway and so on.

So hopefully that helps a little bit. One last thing about those debates about banning things. You'll have this principled fight. You'll have this fight about whether people are or aren't giving their informed consent to the risks and harms.

And the other fight that often happens in these debates is a fight about whether the ban would actually work or whether it would make stuff much, much worse. We call those black market arguments, and next week, we'll run through how an affirmative and a negative might approach those kinds of arguments. Stay safe. Hope that was helpful.

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