Social isolation. Loneliness. They grew restless. A group of older women met for lunch after six months of sheltering in place. A meal with lifelong childhood friends seemed harmless. Covid-19 cases in our community are decreasing, and it was just a quick lunch with friends.
Little did they know their luncheon would lead to a clash between personal liberty and a 19th-century philosophy concept called the harm principle.
All in their 70–80’s, the women have varying degrees of health conditions. Diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and a cancer survivor sat at the round table inside a restaurant, enjoying a meal together.
The friends reconnected by reminiscing and sharing stories from their decades-long friendship. They hugged and returned home.
A few days later, the first in the group mentioned she tested positive for Covid-19. She did not call to warn the others or to recommend testing and quarantine. She casually mentioned her illness in passing.
She is a Covid-19 denier. She believes Covid-19 is real, but it is not the big deal the liberal #fakenews media portrays it to be. The pandemic did not deter her lifestyle.
She proudly sang in the choir at an evangelical Megachurch, where thousands of maskless worshipers celebrate their faith each week. She hosted her 30-person Sunday school inside of her home throughout the pandemic. She wondered aloud how she could have caught Covid-19.
She did not acknowledge she exposed her lifelong friends to a potentially deadly infection.
Luncheons, weddings, family barbecues, and other get-togethers serve as a reminder that our life choices now determine others’ fate. We may be socially isolated, but our lives are more connected than ever. Our decisions affect other people more than ever before. Our expression of personal liberty may impinge on the health and well-being of our loved ones.
“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case, he is justly accountable to them for the injury.” — John Stuart Mill.
Freedom to Do Whatever We Want vs. Others’ Rights Not to Suffer
Our world requires a collective effort to navigate through the pandemic. Each of us must make sacrifices to squelch the viral scourge.
Not all Americans share pandemic beliefs. The diversity of opinions are an inherent aspect of being an American. Historians will determine who is right and who is wrong. In the present, we each must make decisions about how we live our day-to-day life.
We are living in Pascal’s Wager.
Any of us may be asymptomatic carriers of SARS-Cov-2. Each of us may spread the virus before symptoms began and inadvertently pass the infection to another person.
Covid-19 is spread through person-to-person contact via respiratory particles. Breathing, talking, sneezing, and coughing spread large droplets. When we gather in groups, each of us is only as safe as the least compliant person.
We have two disparate choices:
- The utilitarian approach follows nonpharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and wearing a face mask. Individuals make a small sacrifice for the greater societal good. Wearing a mask is the easiest thing we can do to slow the spread of coronavirus and save others’ lives. Masks are an act of kindness towards others.
- The deontological approach focused on personal freedom. In order to preserve individual liberty, one disregards precautions recommended by scientists, epidemiologists, hospitals, The Center for Disease Control, The World Health Organization, The Joint Commission, The American Medical Association, and The National Institute of Health.
Applying the Harm Principle
How do we reconcile the idea of honoring personal liberty while ensuring we limit the potential of hurting other people?
19th-century philosopher John Stewart Mill espoused the concept of the harm principle. This idea proposes people should be free to do whatever they want unless their actions cause harm to others.
Applications of the harm principle are evident throughout society. We respect the freedom of speech, but it is illegal to yell fire in a movie theater. People are free to drink alcohol but not drive a car while intoxicated.
Covid-19 deniers and skeptics are expressing individual freedom, but they are causing harm to others. Personal liberty does not include making others sick or possibly killing them.
I wear my mask to protect you. You wear one to protect me.
The United States has 6.8 million confirmed Covid-19 cases so far. There are over 31 million confirmed cases worldwide. 200,000 Americans are now buried in coffins. We have to do better.
We are living in dangerous times. SARS-Cov-2 does not care about our opinions or where we get our news. It infects and kills without considering its victim’s political views.
Covid-19 is a nonpartisan pandemic, but both political parties are deeply entrenched in their Covid-19 beliefs. We owe it to ourselves to pause for a moment of self-reflection asking, “What if I am wrong?”
We each should consider the possibility that our actions may be harming others. Until a vaccine or an effective treatment is available, the safest course of action is for every American to live as though we are all asymptomatic carriers.
One of America’s founding fathers famously said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Our country celebrates an individual’s right to live life as they choose, but a functional society asks each person to consider the potential for harm to others.