Wednesday, January 19

Pogs, surgeries and consent

I've been trading since I was a kid. Whether it was hockey cards, recess snacks, Magic cards, Pokémon cards or pogs, we were always trading something.

There was a tacit understanding that the buyer-beware policy applied when making a trade. But it was also understood that it was bad practice to take advantage of an ignorant trader. No one liked situations where a kid went home to boast to their older brother about a trade, only to hear he'd been duped. It inevitably led to a big argument the next day: "I didn't realize the card I gave you was so good. No fair — I want it back."

Should a kid who unknowingly trades away a valuable pog be able to undo the trade? This was one of the tougher ethical questions we dealt with on the playground. You shouldn't make a trade if you're not sure about it. But on the other hand, if you didn't understand the trade you were making, how can you consent to it?

This issue of informed consent is what's at the heart of an article I came across in This magazine (disclaimer: it's a very dark article; those who are squeamish about surgery, blood, below-the-belt stuff and suicide will want to skip over the article).

In a PG-rated nutshell, two individuals agreed to a trade: a person without a medical licence would perform a surgery in exchange for money. I do not condone what the patient did; clearly, hiring someone off the street to perform surgery is not smart. But should it be against the law? No one was defrauded — the patient knew their surgeon wasn't a real doctor and both parties consented to the trade.

If we ran a poll, 99% of people would probably say that hiring someone off the street to perform a surgery is a very dumb move. But should it be against the law? Should adults step in when kids make a lopsided trade on the playground to ensure no one is taken advantage of?

In this case from This magazine, the surgeon was prosecuted for assault, against the wishes of the patient. It is not unusual for consensual acts to be prosecuted; selling heroin, for example, is illegal. According to the article, however, the assault charge was not levied because the so-called surgeon was selling something illicit. Rather, it was levied because the patient did not have the legal authority to consent to the surgery. It was a case where the law said she didn't know the value of the hockey card she was trading away, in a sense.

Frequent readers of this blog probably notice that I tend to offer black and white opinions. But this one has me puzzled. The libertarian in me says we should let people make their own trades, even when they seem extremely stupid. But there is another part of me that is revolted at this notion, as it can lead to some brutal trades, such as the one in This.

When should we let traders make their own mistakes, and when should parents or the government jump in when a trade is inappropriate?