Liberty, Trade-offs, and Humans as Social Animals

I had been planning on writing about the changes made in the seventh edition of the APA Publication Manual, but I got distracted by larger questions.

The Declaration of Independence, one of the guiding lights of the United States of America, proclaims that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights of humanity.  These rights may be unalienable in some abstract political sense (i.e., one person has no right to take these from another person), but in practice they can limit each other.

On of the principles espoused by John Stuart Mill in his treatise On Liberty, is that a person should be free to do whatever they wish, so long as they harm no one else.  In an interconnected world—one where the actions of one individual impact others—this limitation is huge and problematic.  When I say “problematic” I don’t mean “bad” so much as I mean “difficult to manage and understand.”  Ultimately, real life will present us situations in which it is uncertain where the balance of good and ill lie.

As a global pandemic sweeps the world, and governments around the world are either radically restricting the freedom of individuals or requesting radical restrictions, the question of freedom becomes difficult to sort out.

The other day I was speaking with a scholar studying, among other things, militarization of the police and political efforts to control specific populations. We were discussing the ominous character of any governmental action to restrict personal freedoms.  There is no question that the restrictions being suggested, and increasingly imposed, by the US government and other governments are restrictions against which citizens of the “free world” and their generally democratic/republican governments eschew. They are certainly the kind of restriction that would be considered utterly unacceptable in normal situations.  The question then arises whether the current situation warrants the restrictions on liberty that have been imposed.

On the whole, and with a strong appreciation for the value of preventative measures, my opinion that the response has not been strong enough.  Taking significant restrictive measures to prevent the spread of the disease immediately might limit the spread and duration of the problem.  But that’s my opinion and it’s not really what I want to write about here.

My interest is for the underlying issue of the dynamic interaction between liberty and social behavior, and the idea that some desirable things are mutually exclusive (which is the question of trade-offs).  It’s a question relevant to responses to the coronavirus, which is primarily what I’m thinking about, but I often think about trade-offs in the context of writing and developing a writing practice, and at the moment I’m working on a piece that does talk about trade-offs in the writing process.

The issue with the pandemic is that we have two desirable things that are at odds: on the one hand we have a desire to prevent the pandemic from growing, on the other we have a desire for liberty and the freedom to move and associate as we choose. These wishes are in conflict: to prevent the spread, we need to limit the social contact we desire; to have the social contact we desire, we risk spreading the disease.

Because different people desire these things to different extents, there is no universal answer to the question.  Patrick Henry famously declared “Give me liberty or give me death!”, a sentiment echoed by New Hampshire’s “Live free or die” motto. It valorizes freedom over any life without liberty. Unfortunately, that is the question with the pandemic, too. For Henry and the revolutionaries, of course, the problem was a bit more personal: the only people who stood at risk were those who made a choice to rebel against King George III. In the case of the pandemic, on the other hand, our personal freedom (our selfish choice) may cause the death of others (who had no choice).  This is particularly true of younger and healthier individuals who do not appear to be at significant risk from the disease, but who can give it to those who are at severe risk.

This past Wednesday (March 18), I saw an article talking about the metaphor that we are at war with the pandemic, and it cited a tweet of St. Patrick’s day revelers with a caption talking about being undefeated.  I can understand that framing—that the disease is an enemy with whom we are at war (though I don’t necessarily agree with it)—and it seems the most likely interpretation of the tweet. But as I was writing, I started wondering to what extent that “undefeated” might also be an expression of resistance against the government, and especially government restrictions of personal liberties.  There are, of course, many in the U.S. population concerned with government infringement of civil liberties. Undoubtedly many of them see attempts to restrict movement and social gathering as an attempt to take away civil liberties and see their going out and socializing as a form of resistance in which they will not be defeated. “The government doesn’t have the right to stop me,” I imagine them thinking/saying. (And I can also imagine a paranoid group saying “the pandemic is a hoax meant to restrict our civil liberties.”)

But, of course, the pandemic is not just about the choices made by individuals.  Those St. Patrick’s Day revelers were able to make a choice as to whether they wanted to participate in activities that might endanger themselves. Unfortunately, that choice may then be forced on others—the family and friends of the revelers who might be exposed to virus as a result of the choice made by the reveler.  And that problematic nature is particularly exacerbated because the revelers might not give those other people a choice.  Take, as a hypothetical example, a young man who is roommate with one of the St. Patrick’s day celebrants: that young man may be exposed to the virus as the result of his roommate’s choice. And if that young man has a responsibility to help anyone in an at-risk group, he may be faced with the choice of either withholding that help to limit risk of exposure to the virus or offering that help, along with the risk. 

John Stuart Mill espoused the notion that liberty ends when it impinges on the well-being of another.  To me, it means that we need to restrict our actions for the good of other people.  This notion of social responsibility calls for sacrifice of personal freedom in the time of pandemic.  That’s the kind of trade-off that people make all the time. It’s not easy to give up something you desire, but often two desirable things are at odds.  To some extent, behavior during the pandemic reveals a good deal about how each of us values the the two desirable things that are at odds: are we interested in cooperating at a societal level or are we interested in maintaining our freedom?

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