Have you ever spent money on something you couldn’t afford
and didn’t need? Have you knowingly had more to drink or eat
than was good for you, or done other enjoyable but indisputably
unwise things which it would be inappropriate to put into print? Of
course you have. What’s more, even if you regretted it in the
morning, you’d probably do it again.
We all need to throw off the shackles of common sense from time
to time, and behave in ways that are self-destructive and about
which “society” would not approve. It is liberating; a means of
seizing control when so much of our behaviour is dictated by
written rules or by unwritten social expectations. Having the
freedom to be irresponsible makes life worth living. It is not just
a matter of rights and responsibilities, but rights to
But what starts off as a desire to stick two fingers up at
authority and convention (an action roundly applauded by the
adolescent who continues to lurk within each of us) can lead to
addiction, obesity and spiralling debt. Far from liberation, lives
become governed by imperatives to appease cravings, by illness and
grinding poverty. They may also become governed by a raft of
professionals, whose task it is to pick up the pieces and
reassemble them into something more socially acceptable. Even where
people have decision-making capacity they sometimes make decisions
that lead to the loss of decision-making capacity.
In seeking to make sound judgements about whether, when and how
to intervene, professionals can focus either on the decision or its
consequences. Is a person competent to make decisions in their own
best interest? Are decisions which are not nonetheless made
competently? At what point can the degree of self-harm incurred be
taken to indicate incapacity? If harm is to others, or committed by
others, the ethical grounds for intervention may seem clearer – but
become less so if it is the choice of consenting, capable adults.
And are actions really harmful, or merely not in accordance with
prevailing morals and expectations? What freedom is, who should and
should not have it, and to do what are questions with which
philosophers have wrestled down the ages. They are also questions
routinely confronted by people delivering front-line services. Yet
they may well have little time (typically working to tighter
deadlines than philosophers) and little information to go on – both
prerequisites for competent decision-making.
Such dilemmas are illustrated by the case of the pensioner who
sold his house well below market value then proceeded to spend
£8,000 in two months on a prostitute until social services
stepped in and put a stop to the party. Yet it was his money and
surely he has the right to spend it any darn way he chooses. Had he
instead given £8,000 to the local home for distressed fluffy
animals would the same have happened? Or, were his age and his
actions taken to indicate incapacity? Are such actions so extreme
or harmful that they should be stopped?
The casting of social workers as morality police is unlikely to
be acceptable, to social workers or to others. Yet, there are
unavoidable tensions between the constraints of tight, transparent
public finance management and respect for the freedom and privacy
of public service users. Irresponsibility is not something which
those charged with administering public finances can readily be in
a position to promote.
Freedom is curtailed, not necessarily by old age or disability
per se, but by the need to ensure public monies are well spent.
Every aspect of your existence may be subject to inspection so that
sound decisions can be made, your deservingness can be demonstrated
and abuse prevented. Nothing is sacred – how often you bath,
whether you are incontinent, what you spend your money on or who
you have sex with. Your truthfulness must be proven again and
People deemed vulnerable, or those caring for them, can thus
find themselves obliged to live lives of moral purity and to manage
their finances with the precision of top-flight accountants. Yet
people generally do not run their lives like they run (or might
reasonably be expected to run) local authorities. If we value our
own personal privacy and freedoms – including the freedom to act
irresponsibly and the privacy not to be found out – on what basis
can we deny that to others?
As philosophers have found, there are no easy answers.
Sally Witcher is a freelance consultant and researcher.
She was formerly director of the Child Poverty Action