Jared Witt | July 9, 2020
Every culture has their thing when it comes to solving ethical problems. In the US, it seems that our thing is “rights” or “freedom.” Both words are used interchangeably to insist, though rarely with specific detail, on some vague notion that our movements are somehow less restricted than those of other patriots around the world.
Rights language assumes that I should be able to do whatever I want as long as I leave you alone. Now we find ourselves in a historically odd situation which has exposed the disappointing inadequacy of “rights” and “freedom” based ethical talk. This, for the simple reason that viruses do what they do, they do it invisibly and undetected, and they don’t require you to purposely wish others harm in order to do it. Now you can harm people even when you’re trying not to involve them at all. Yes, technically, you do have the right to ignore the restrictions and best practices advised by every national government and 99% of the medical community around the world. And I have the right to not breathe in your germs when you do.
There’s a lot here, so let’s start from the beginning. It’s the nature of legal institutions to take away freedom. That’s what they do.
Laws strip me of my freedom to drive 140 mph down the highway. They strip me of my freedom to haul off any merchandise that catches my eye for free. In some countries, but not in ours, they would strip me of my freedom to own a weapon capable of killing a room full of people in a matter of seconds.
That’s what laws do. They take away MY freedoms. AND IN DOING SO, they also strip you of your freedom to drive like a maniac and potentially run into me, or to come into the brewery that I depend on for my livelihood and steal all the beer, and in some countries, though not in ours, they would strip you of your freedom to own the type of weapon capable of killing me and everyone around me in a matter of seconds.
Now you might be a perfectly nice and considerate person, and you might not choose to do any of those things, even if there were no Law against it. And the fact that you yourself might be a decent and rational person is responsible ironically produces a lot of indecent and irrational thinking about the nature of laws and why we legislate them. You seem decent enough, but what do we know about the person next to you. And the person next to them. On down the line, eventually we’ll run into someone who isn’t very decent in an environment of perfect freedom.
So it’s not a matter of whether rights and freedoms are going to be taken away in order for us to live together. They definitely are. It’s a matter of which rights and freedoms we value more and which ones less. And which ones can we tolerate giving up for the sake of other values like safety, cleanliness, longevity, etc.
My right to survive my morning commute supersedes your right to drive 140 mph. In some countries, they’ve even gone so far as to decide that my freedom to not die from semi-automatic gunfire supersedes your freedom to own a semi-automatic gun. Again, it’s not that you would ever use your gun in that way. You’re better than that. But neither of us are too sure about wild-eyed Willy next to you.
Now you might suggest that your gun is the best protection against Willy, and you’d be a sitting duck without it. So you want them to be easily obtainable. I happen to think that I would be little help against Willy and would only multiply the hazard to public health were I trying to protect myself in a crowded room.
Without getting into the debate as to who is right according to hard data from natural experiments being run all over the world (me, if you’re wondering), we’ve introduced a second layer of legal complexity, that I would call a moral opinion power imbalance (MOPI). A MOPI, we could define as the extent to which one would need to inconvenience oneself in order to abide by a given law.
If I’m right, then you are safer when we introduce sensible gun restrictions without your having to adapt yourself or your life in the least. If you’re right, then my safety doesn’t come to me automatically once things are legislated in your favor. It is contingent upon my ability to purchase, train myself, and maintain a calm breath and a steady hand when the moment comes to take out old Willy—all highly improbably propositions.
Theoretically, you can still be right in spite of imposing a fairly lopsided power imbalance on me. Reality needs to be dealt with, even if it means that I have to adopt some quite uncomfortable lifestyle changes. But what if the moral opinion power imbalance also comes with it a legal livability imbalance—referring to
Now, let’s talk for a minute about wearing facemasks. Let’s say, I think we’re safer wearing them, and you think we’re safer not wearing them. Let’s put aside for the moment the question of who is right according to hard data from natural experiments being run all over the world (me, if you’re wondering).
Let’s asses moral opinion power balance:
If I’m right, we will literally save lives.
If you’re right, we need not wear cloth on our face.
We could add to that:
If I’m right, we could shorten the amount of time we need to live with the threat of COVID, and hundreds of thousands of employers, including myself, could return closer to normal operations and be spared bankruptcy.
If you’re right, we need not wear cloth on our face.
I can’t help but think right now of a tweet I saw recently: “You know, I sometimes wonder who raised y’all.”
I know we’re not going to convince each other. We’re not even seeing the same facts. Fortunately, in a democratic society, we don’t need to in order to take the next step to legislate something. After the question of who is right proves insoluble, we then start looking at the moral opinion power imbalance.
For you to come my way a little bit, it means the dreaded cloth. For me to come your way, I would need to risk throwing away my life’s work, my health, or even my life (to say nothing of my grandmother’s life).
What COVID has clarified here, is that everybody cares very much about their own rights. And they don’t care so much about everyone else’s rights. Yes, in a perfect anarchy, you have the “right” and “the freedom” to do whatever you want. And so would Sniffly Sam. Introduce him into the mix, and there is far more to talk about, ethically, than your “freedom.”
Cheers and Stay Safe,
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