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Focus on Freedom

Harm - Responsibility and Restitution

Harm and responsibility, when there is no intention of doing harm, are related subjects that rarely receive adequate attention in serious commentaries, and almost never in the mainstream media. Such incidents are typically described in great detail with much remorse expressed on the part of the individual(s) directly involved. Typically these incidents are viewed as "unfortunate", "tragedies", "errors in judgment", and even "accidents", with the commentator often verbally shrugging his shoulders, in effect expressing that it was "unavoidable". However, responsibility for one's actions must be accepted in almost every case in which harm has actually occurred - or in which harm remains a potential. Is a sincere apology sufficient in such a situation? I contend that it is not, unless the harmed party has determined that this is all the restitution that he wants.

Almost all events that involve the interactions of adult individuals are a result of conscious decisions and/or failure to be in adequate control of a potentially harmful object. In a truly free society where complete responsibility for one's actions is a paramount facet (taught to children as they mature from earliest ages), consideration of cause and effect is part of the thought process of every individual. No shortcutting of this mental evaluation is permitted to take place when responsibility is recognized as an integral part of being an adult; contrast this with the current situation where the State acts as a perpetual nanny or short-sighted indulgent parent. Parents who hover over a child, who never let their toddler stumble and fall (or react with horror when it does occur), or who excuse their teenager's activities that violate others, are in effect acting as a "penny in the fuse" of the lesson to be learn from experiencing the reality of cause and effect, a lesson vitally necessary for the full maturity of developing human beings. Whether an adult operates a motor vehicle, borrows or rents an object, or enters into an agreement to perform a valid action, he is responsible for whatever harm occurs, for example, while driving a car, during the possession of a neighbor's lawnmower, or as a result of not performing agreed property maintenance.

A responsible adult will make every effort to ensure that he is using adequate precautions to assure that his actions will not harm another. This means that he informs himself of what knowledge is necessary for an action and that he actually takes necessary preliminary actions to reduce the risk of harm. If he wants to use a firearm, he understands how to safely operate the one of his choice and makes provision for its safe usage and storage away from conditions that could render that handgun, rifle, or bazooka harmful to another. He will follow through with the actions required by the agreement to borrow his friend's boat or by the employment contract he signed. In addition the responsible adult will also freely acknowledge that he is responsible for the results of his actions when harm does occur - or is a continued possibility - despite the precautions taken for its avoidance. It is then necessary for a responsible adult to restitute the injured party for the harm that has occurred - return him to the state of value in which he was before the harm occurred. Likely because actions cannot be actually undone, this is a concept that is foreign to many adults in our modern society, especially when there was no intention to do harm. (In fact, when a "crime" - intentional harm - has occurred, the State intervenes and decides what the punishment shall be, typically without any input from or any consideration of restitution to the victim.)

The question arises as to how does a responsible adult restitute the person(s) he has unintentionally harmed? Since he is not the one harmed, he can not answer that question; only the one harmed can provide this information since it is his value which must be restored to its original state and only he can estimate the value needed to do this. In a truly free society, every adult is responsible for his own actions and the harmed individual will realize that it is not in his widest view longest range best interest to state a value of his loss higher than it truly was. He will not attempt to achieve the unearned by exacting compensation from the one who harmed in excess of his true loss, with all aspects considered. The responsible adult will also have spent time considering, in principle at least, how much he values his own well-being, the people with whom he has relationships and the objects that he owns. He may even have performed the thought experiment of how much he would pay to avoid certain calamitous events from happening. This would be the background situation for the harmed person in answering the question from a responsible adult asking, "What can I do to restitute you for the harm that I have caused?"

Before responding to this question, a responsible person harmed would also consider to what extent he wishes a continued relationship with the person who did the harming. If he has decided that the circumstances of the harm are such that any previous relationship no longer has any basis, then he will state the amount of value in money or other medium that will equitably replace the loss only. However, there may be reasons for him to think that a continued relationship is possible and desirable for himself, but only if he can be assured that the harming individual's future activities will be significantly altered so as to greatly reduce any future harm. In this case, additional requirements may be added to facilitate a full restitution of loss - of time, possessions and/or physical capability plus the loss of confidence in the person who did the harming. To restore the previous or similar level of expectation, a period of probation under a reduced degree of connection may be thought best with or without a form of bond or insurance against future "errors in judgment" or "accidents". A previous close friend who caused significant damage to a property by not performing agreed maintenance may need to regain trust by posting a bond and demonstrating good judgment under observation for a stated period of time before the harmed person is confident that such behavior will not be repeated.

If the person who did harm is responsible, and wants to restore the damaged relationship in addition to restituting the harmed person for the loss incurred, he will recognize the justice of such a bond and/or observation arrangement. The responsible person harmed will name a full restitution amount and arrangement in such a situation that will honestly cover his actual losses plus what is necessary to restore previously held confidence in the person who created the harm. It is restitution that a responsible and just person wants, not punishment because the latter does nothing to restore him to his former level of happiness.

In a truly free society, adults learn and accept responsibility from childhood, including that consequences of harmful actions must be remedied by way of restitution to the harmed party according to his evaluation. What does a responsible person do in a very mixed society where government at all levels interferes in the mutually beneficial interactions of individuals? He limits his usage of government "services" as much as possible and accepts that he is responsible for his own actions. When he performs an action that directly harms another, he makes arrangements for restitution to the best of his ability. If he is the one that has been harmed by the actions of another, he determines where the responsibility for the harmful action resides. He informs the harming party of the requirements for responsibility and restitution if these concepts are ones that have not been fully understood before. At the same time, a responsible person who has been harmed seeks redress in the government court systems only as a last resort - when dealing with a person who is without a sense of responsibility in interpersonal interactions. In this manner, people who have lived under a smothering nanny-state can slowly graduate to the level of fully responsible adults.