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Posted on July 23, 2020 at 1:26 PM

Written by Farbod Akhlaghi (University of Oxford)

The coronavirus pandemic rages on. To the surprise of many, the enforcement of mask wearing, imposition of lockdowns, and other measures taken to try to halt the pandemic’s march have been met with some heavy and vocal resistance. Such resistance has materialised into protests in various countries against these measures taken by states, companies, and other organisations to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

There are a range of reasons one might object to these measures. One reason that has repeatedly been voiced – sometimes shouted through angry un-masked mouths – is that these measures unjustly affect the freedom of those subject to them. The thought is that, for example, being forced to wear a mask, or denied entry into somewhere without a mask, is an unjust restriction of one’s freedom, presumably either to wear whatever they choose or to be free from the interference of others in going about one’s business.

Whatever good reasons there may be to object to these pandemic mitigating measures, I believe this one is simply a mistake. It is certainly true that our freedom, both to do things and from unjust interference, matter morally – they matter a lot too. But the moral significance of freedom, and the mere fact that measures like enforcing mask wearing, imposing lockdowns, and restricting movement do curtail such freedom, does not show that these measures unjustly restrict the freedom of those subject to them during this pandemic.

Failure to see this may be due to a failure to recognise the distinction, drawn by the moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, between the infringement and the violation of a right.

Suppose I have a moral right to bodily security. You would infringe upon that right if you physically harmed me. But you would violate that right if you physically harmed me and acted wrongly in doing so. This distinction is morally crucial. For notice that, despite this right, you could cause me physical harm under certain circumstances where it looks morally permissible (perhaps even obligatory) to do so, such as if harming me is required to save a thousand people from death. In such a scenario, you only infringe my right to bodily security in doing what that right normally protects me from, since you do not act wrongly when doing so.

Now suppose I ordinarily have a moral right to refrain from wearing a mask. You would infringe upon that right if you prevented me from not wearing a mask, like forcing me to wear one to travel in your taxi. But violating my right to not wear a mask would require you to both prevent me from not wearing one and to be acting wrongly in doing so.

So, the question is not whether mandating mask wearing, lockdowns, and the like curtail certain freedoms we ordinarily enjoy. They do. Nor whether such freedoms morally matter. They do. Rather, it is whether these measures constitute violations or merely infringements upon some of our rights by those imposing them. The answer, I think, is that these measures are merely infringements of certain rights.

This is because we act wrongly in imposing significant risk upon others if we refuse to follow these measures, and in some cases we actively harm others by unwittingly infecting them with the novel coronavirus. Such harm is not minor, sometimes fatal, and, as we are increasingly learning, even if not fatal can lead to lasting health complications. Such measures are justified, in short, by those imposing them doing so in what is a large-scale case of the justified defence of, and prevention of imposing gratuitous risk upon, others on their behalf.

So, whilst our freedom matters, and the measures discussed above clearly do curtail our freedom, such restrictions under the current circumstances at most constitute mere infringement upon certain moral rights we enjoy. To think they violate them is to ignore the strong moral reason to follow such measures, which themselves show that the measures only infringe upon said rights.

Some, however, seem to think the value of freedom outweighs any other moral consideration. This would mean that any imposition on one’s moral rights concerning their freedoms are always violations, since any restriction of freedom would be wrong. I suspect many who believe this actually hold inconsistent views, since they likely accept restrictions on one’s freedom under different circumstances, such as thinking it permissible to make it legally mandatory to wear one’s seat belt whilst driving. But even if consistently held, the view is extremely implausible. It entails that there are never any circumstances where one’s freedom to, say, conduct one’s daily life as they wish can be justifiably infringed upon. That is clearly false. It is easy to conceive of situations where that freedom can be infringed and others can justifiably stop me from doing as I wish, such as if I were causing others harm, or exposing others to the high likelihood of experiencing harm.

And once we admit that freedom’s value can in principle be outweighed by competing moral considerations, it becomes very hard to justify thinking both that freedom’s value can be outweighed but that the risks of harm we impose on others during a pandemic by flouting public health measures – taken to prevent the spread of a potentially fatal and otherwise harmful disease – do not outweigh it. The value of your freedom to not wear a mask is, I think, clearly outweighed by the value of preventing the loss of a morally innocent life.

Like anything else we have moral rights to or from, our freedom can be justifiably infringed upon under certain circumstances, such as the current pandemic. Those who deny this, objecting to pandemic mitigating measures on the grounds of freedom curtailment, likely either fail to understand the distinction between violations and infringements of rights, mistakenly believe freedom is so valuable that it can never be justifiably restricted, or implausibly think that freedom can be justifiably restricted in principle but that the present pandemic does not constitute conditions that justify such restrictions.

So, your freedom morally matters – a lot. But, in this case, so what?

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