A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 1, 2011
Detail of a sprinkler.

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The matter of house sprinklers might not appear worthy of philosophical discussion, but appearances can be deceiving. Interestingly enough, there is considerable debate over sprinklers and this debate has philosophical significance.

One key debate regarding sprinklers is whether or not people should be required by law to have sprinklers in their houses.

One argument that is both practical and moral in character is the cost argument. The average cost for sprinklers in a new 2,000 square foot two story house (with a basement) is $4,000. If the house in question is not connected to the municipal water supply, the cost can increase by $3,000 or more.

The practical argument is, obviously enough, that this increased cost would make it harder for people to afford houses and this would have a negative impact on potential homeowners, builders, sellers and others associated with the housing industry. Given that the economy is currently in rough shape, it would seem unwise to require sprinklers.

The moral aspect of the argument is consequentialist in character: the harms imposed by forcing people to have sprinklers outweighs the benefits of doing so. If it is assumed (or argued) that what generates more harm than good is wrong, then it would be wrong to compel people to have sprinklers.

One reply to this argument is that the safety provided by the sprinklers would offset the cost. A second reply is that making and installing sprinkler systems would create jobs. Of course, the key question would be whether or or not the benefits of the sprinklers would outweigh the negative aspects. On the face of it, the safety advantages would seem to rather significant. After all, sprinklers can keep people from being burned to death.

A second argument is a rights based argument. The idea is that the state has no right to compel people to install sprinklers. This falls under the general subject of whether or not the state has a right to compel people to take positive steps in regards to safety.

While it is generally accepted that the state can rightfully compel people to prevent them from inflicting harm on others (outlawing murder, for example), there is far more disagreement in regards to the state having the right to compel people to protect themselves from harm.

One basis for this distinction is as follows. Harming others can be seen as infringing on their rights and it would be odd for a person to claim that he has a right to violate the rights of others. As such, the state would seem to be in the right to compel people in such cases. In the case of forcing people to protect themselves, this does does seem to involve protecting people from the harm of others and would seem to fall under the realm of choice rather than compulsion. As such, forcing people to pay for such safety would seem to violate their rights.  If an argument is wanting, it is easy enough to appeal to Mill’s classic arguments on the matter.

One obvious reply is that the homeowner’s choice does not just impact him (or her). For example, it would also have an impact on any children or neighbors who live close enough for the fire to spread. However, these factors could be dismissed as being less important than the right of the homeowner to decide what degree of safety she (or he) finds acceptable.

Naturally, if this sort of reasoning is acceptable, it would seem that people would thus have the right to make a broader range of safety choices. For example, they could presumable decide that they are willing to do without the added cost of such things as proper wiring, firewalls (the physical kind), and adequate structural strength in the house. This should also extend to other matters as well, such as automobile safety features, food safety and so on. Naturally, companies should not be allowed to pass off dangerous things to people, but it would seem to follow that people should be able to voluntarily and knowingly do without safety features if they chose to do so.

I do find this line of reasoning rather appealing-after all, Mill’s arguments for liberty are rather compelling and the idea of being an adult seems to involve the right to make poor choices when they primarily impact only oneself.

That said, it can also be argued that an individual does need to be protected from himself (being treated as both the actor and the acted upon) and such poor choices regarding safety could be taken as evidence of mental incompetence, thus warranting compulsion.




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7 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on August 1, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Requiring a fire extinguisher in the kitchen is probably a better idea. As you say, automobile safety could, and should, be included. Over 40,000 people die needlessly every year in the US due to poor driving. It’s time to properly educate and regulate amateur American automobile drivers, just like we do the professional truck drivers, like me, who have never, thank God, lost control of a vehicle or caused a wreck. Truckers are regulated to the hilt yet they are professionals, many of whom have driven more in a few years than most people will drive in a lifetime. Why is it that the professionals are over-regulated and the amateurs are not regulated (for safety and education)?

  2. T. J. Babson said, on August 1, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Unless they are building homes from scratch, homeowners don’t get a chance to decide on whether they will have sprinklers or not. Generally builders make these decisions, and they build to housing code minimums.

    If homeowners did get a chance to make these decisions, a lot more houses would have sprinklers.

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