Personal freedom or the common good?

Even in America, “freedom” isn’t an absolute, but is complex and nuanced.

We have to obey laws. We can’t drive as fast as we want to. Childhood immunizations are mandatory. You can be drafted into the military, and ordered to kill and be killed. And in 1905, in a case involving smallpox, the Supreme Court ruled that a needle can be stuck in your arm to keep you from spreading a contagious deadly disease.

The Covid-19 virus, and now its Delta variant, have put that issue front-and-center in our history once again.

And it’s fraught with political controversy. “After more than 18 months of a pandemic, with 1 of every 545 Americans killed by COVID-19, a substantial chunk of the population continues to assert their own individual liberties over the common good,” USA Today says (read story here).

At what point does selfish behavior become antisocial, then rogue, behavior? Assuming these gradations lie on a behavioral continuum, how do we define and determine them? An obvious lodestar is measuring the impact on others; when selfish behavior (which is deemed acceptable in many contexts, such as the pursuit of private profit) harms others it’s antisocial, and proscribed behavior is by definition criminal (e.g., drunk driving).

As a society, we’re still struggling to figure out where masks and vaccinations fit on this continuum. That assessment is dynamic. As Delta cases rise, bringing new dangers and renewed restrictions, public attitudes are hardening toward anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. Their demands for unrestricted freedom to mingle among us may not cut it much longer.

As USA Today pointed out, “Today, millions of U.S. residents shun vaccines that have proven highly effective and resist masks that ward off infection, fiercely opposing government restrictions.” Its story continues, “This great divide – spilling into workplaces, schools, supermarkets and voting booths – has split the nation at a historic juncture.”

The article muses, “It is a phenomenon that perplexes sociologists, legal scholars, public health experts and philosophers, causing them to wonder: At what point should individual rights yield to the public interest? If coronavirus kills 1 in 100, will that be enough to change some minds? Or 1 in 10? Others clamor for regulation, arguing that those who take no precautions are violating their rights – threatening [the lives] of everyone they expose.”

A philosophy professor at Texas A&M University wonders that if going maskless “creates catastrophic threats to the well-being of others,” then how much “should government constrain citizens’ otherwise rightful activities to lower the risk?” She thinks “countries will need to reassess their willingness to use the law to protect the most vulnerable and to advance the common good.”

Among those “catastrophic threats”: the “mutation of more virulent coronavirus strains” that might defeat vaccines and be even more contagious and deadlier. While over 99% of current hospitalizations and deaths — the latter now over 2,000 a week — are among the unvaccinated, so-called “breakthrough cases” among the vaccinated are rising, too. So the Delta strain isn’t just affecting vaccine refusers. And they’re “petri dishes” for further spread and even worse mutations. That’s why they’re no longer considered just stupid jerks, but a public menace.

What motivates them? “Seldom [in America’s history] has a culture boundary been so clear-cut, or the clash between personal rights and public welfare been so polarized,” USA Today said. “Why do so many turn down the shots and shun masks? Is it a social syndrome that puts self-interest above the common good? Is it a stand for principle? Is it something else?”

A Harvard government professor says, “It’s about politics.” In this, the Republican Party is culpable. Its leaders have encouraged and spread disinformation and false narratives, have even tried to legislate against public health measures, and attacked and encouraged harassment of public health officials — some of whom are walking away from their jobs to protect their families from the mobs these GOP politicians are inciting.

An Emory University sociology professor says, “It’s an act of defiance. ‘You can’t make me.’ And I will enact my own freedom even if it kills me and others around me who I love.” He traces that attitude to this: “As economic inequities mushroomed and social isolation festered, average Americans came to feel betrayed by government, the marketplace and so-called elites. For them, rejecting science and spurning authorities is a statement of moral outrage rather than an act of selfishness.”

That may be so, but doesn’t change the fact that behavior which harms others is selfish and immoral. As USA Today sums up the situation we find ourselves in, “In the end, however, COVID-19 has no politics or ethical code.” It’s simply a contagious deadly disease. Whether we defeat it, or succumb to it, is individually and collectively up to us.

But politics is inescapable; and on that score, the GOP and its followers have been on the wrong side of this issue from the beginning. Voters should hold GOP office holders responsible, and the best way to deal with the refusers is by avoiding contact with them. If that renders them social outcasts, so be it. They chose it.

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  1. Mark Adams #

    Jacobson simply was made at a time when the court was more deferential to state legislatures, and review of actions of government changed dramatically in the 20th century. in 1905 Roe v Wade was not possible the court would have ruled in favor that states may deny women any right to an abortion. Times had changed by 1973 and the court found women had a right to an abortion. The courts have recognized patients have a right to say no to treatment even treatment that may save their life. Today the court may well find individuals have a right to say no to a vaccination even during an emergency.
    The bill of rights often protects roguish, selfish behavior.
    Of course the majority of those who are unvaccinated is not infected. They are no threat to anyone.

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    No virologist or epidemiologist would agree the unvaccinated are “no threat to anyone.” That isn’t true. They’re spreaders, and because no vaccine is 100% effective, they can infect and sicken the vaccinated. They endanger family members, co-workers, and everyone else they come in contact with. They’re breeding grounds for new and more dangerous mutations. They damage the economy by prolonging the pandemic. They hinder efforts to contain it. The rest of us get stuck with paying their medical bills. Vaccine resistance affects all of us.