In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the worst such event in more than a century, a prominent political leader recently told her constituents, If you want to wear a mask, go ahead. You are free to do so. If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t be shamed into it. That is your right.
Really? In the middle of the pandemic, does this not seem illogical? The best scientific evidence indicates pretty clearly that, by wearing a mask while around other people, we can severely limit the transmission of the virus—thereby protecting those around us, our family, friends, and fellow-citizens.
For comparison’s sake, I’ve modified the woman’s statement to apply to other situations, to see if they would make sense—to see if they might impinge on another person’s rights. You be the judge.
If you want to stop your car at a red light, go ahead. You are free to do so. If you don’t want to stop, don’t be shamed into it. That is your right.
Can you imagine the potential carnage?
If you want to wear seatbelts while driving, go ahead. You are free to do so. If you don’t want to wear them, don’t be shamed into it. That is your right.
Can you imagine the increase in personal injury?
If you want to drive while sober, go ahead. You are free to do so. If you want to drive while impaired by alcohol or drugs, don’t be ashamed about it. That is your right.
Can you imagine the inevitable devastation?
If you don’t want to smoke in a public setting, that’s fine. You are free not to do so. If you do want to smoke there, don’t be shamed by it. That is your right.
Can you imagine the outcry?
If you want to use the store’s escalator to go up one floor, go ahead. You are free to do so. If you want to push your way back down on the up-escalator, don’t be ashamed to do it. That is your right.
Can you imagine the confusion and anger?
Of course, there are all manner of situations where an individual person’s choice to do something, or not do it, will engender no meaningful effect on others. For example, If you want to wear winter boots after a heavy snowfall, go ahead. You are free to do so. If you don’t want to wear boots, don’t be shamed into it. That is your right.
Another example: If you want to study for your final exams, go ahead. You are free to do so. If you don’t want to study, don’t be shamed into it. That is your right.
And a third: If you don’t want to wear a paisley tie with a striped shirt, plaid jacket, and check slacks, just don’t. You are free not to do so. But if you do want to, don’t be ashamed about it. That is your right.
None of these three personal decisions is likely to have a profound effect on someone else’s autonomy, unlike the first statement and its five adaptations. And that, of course, is the whole point.
A familiar maxim, first promulgated by an obscure legal philosopher, Zechariah Chafee, Jr., holds that a person’s right to swing his arms freely ends where the other person’s nose begins. In other words, your personal rights are not allowed to impinge on mine.
John Stuart Mill, in his famous work, On Liberty, postulated: The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct.
Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.
I have long been of the opinion that Mill’s work provides us with a near-perfect definition of the boundary between our individual rights and our societal obligations. And when I apply that definition to the exhortations of public health officials during the pandemic that we all wear a mask when out and about in the company of others, I find their pleas to be eminently logical.
It seems to me, therefore, that if government determines the actions of some people are, in Mills’s words, prejudicial to the interests of others—in this case, the general health and welfare of the citizenry—the wearing of masks in public places should be mandated by government officials. I further believe that scofflaws who flout the requirement should, also in Mills’s words, be subjected…to legal punishment.
The same controversy will arise, I’m sure, when vaccines against COVID-19 become available to the general populace. Some of us will line up eagerly to get it; others will dig in their heels, perhaps proclaiming, If I don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s my right. I am free not to do so.
To them, I would say, If you don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s fine. That is your right. But if you want to present yourself in community settings where people congregate—such as malls, schools, churches, or city parks—don’t be surprised when you are denied access. That is our right.
Like any chain, our society is only as strong as its weakest link.