During my final year of undergraduate studies I worked as an assistant in UNCG's Financial Aid Office. At some point during that year, the office received a couple of new computers and I was placed in charge of unpacking and setting them up. As I opened one of the packages, a tiny white envelope fell to the ground. As I picked it up, I noticed bold lettering on the side: DO NOT EAT.
Of course this is probably good advice given that those little envelopes, ubiquitous to electronics packaging, contain some sort of dessicant and are likely not the sort of things humans should consume. Still, it made me wonder what kind of person is going to look at this envelope, packed in with a computer keyboard, and think, "Hey, that looks like a tasty snack!" I was so amused at the notion that I used up an entire pad of Post-It notes, writing "DO NOT EAT" on every one and sticking them to various objects in the office (desks, chairs, filing cabinets, clocks, etc). After all, if people were going around munching on strange paper containers found in electronics packaging, then they might very well start snacking on office equipment next! These people needed to be warned!
The other evening while watching television, I saw an advertisement for Guitar Hero in which an animated band plays a rock-and-roll anthem while standing on the roof and hood of a wildly speeding automobile. I'm not sure I understood the connection between the game and the image, but at any rate at the bottom of the television screen was displayed the disclaimer, "Do Not Attempt".
WTF? No, seriously...WTF?? Are there really individuals out there too stupid to realize what might happen to them if they attempt to stand on the hood of a car careening madly down the street? And if so, should we really care what might become of them? Isn't this the sort of defect that natural selection is so good at weeding out of the population and aren't we doing ourselves some sort of disservice by stepping in and preventing nature from doing its part to preserve the overall fitness of the species?
Deep breath....okay, I realize that companies that put these disclaimers on their products/advertisements are doing so out of an understandable desire to protect themselves and their shareholders from lawsuits. But therein lies the problem: what sort of jury awards damages to idiots who injured themselves while performing some stunt they saw in a cartoon or who ate an unidentifiable substance that came in an envelope that fell out of a box? I suppose the answer is: a jury comprised of the same sort of idiots.
One of the baseline assumptions of a modern democratic society is or should be that citizens are rational adults; free moral agents who are responsible for their own actions. Obviously where an individual or a group of individuals are coerced or deceived into acting against their own best interests, those responsible for the coercion or deception should be held accountable, but it seems to me that among rational, free moral agents there should be an assumption of a commonly-held grip on reality. In other words, that we all have at least a rudimentary understanding of how the world works: ice is slippery, hot liquids can burn, not everything can be eaten safely, what goes up must come down, falling can be dangerous, etc, etc. For indeed, how could a society function without such a common reality?
But what of individuals who apparently lack this level of understanding?
In the days before advanced medical technology and unscrupulous ambulance-chasing attorneys these unfortunate persons would have served as examples to the rest of us and a chance for humanity to raise its collective I.Q. Today however, they reap millions of dollars from lawsuits because they burned themselves with hot coffee while the rest of us pay higher taxes and inflated prices on goods and services to compensate them for their stupidity.
Wait a minute...um...who is the stupid one again? I think I'll go and try to shave with the paper shredder...after all, there's no sign on it that says I can't!
Image credit: Saint Gasoline