Freedom is Not License: Mandating Masks or Not

On a daily basis, cable TV reports on the protests from some Americans against mask mandates because they are a violation of “freedom.” My argument in this Musing is that not wanting to wear masks for this reason reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of freedom by equating freedom with “license,” being able to “do as you please” without giving consideration to the effect of “doing as you please” on the well-being of others.

I start by posing a few questions to my readers: Should you be allowed to smoke in a restaurant?  Should you be allowed to drive while drunk? Should you be allowed to ignore speed limits when driving? Should you be allowed to drive a vehicle without wearing a seat belt?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions in the name of “freedom,” then you have made the mistake of equating freedom with license. Freedom does not mean doing as you please? There are limits to your freedom. What is the nature of these limits?

If you answer “no” to all of the questions posed above, there is a common element to all of these negative responses: I am not free to do something that is likely to harm other people. That places a limit on what I am free to do.

If you agree with that limit on your expressions of freedom, then here is how you should form your belief about mask mandates. The question you should ask yourself is “Does a mandate to wear a mask decrease the likelihood of the spread of the corona virus?

It is indisputable that the scientific evidence points to a positive response to this question. Therefore, I support mask mandates, and I encourage my readers to also support such mandates. And our response to those who object to mask mandates in the name of “freedom” should be that they misunderstand the nature of freedom; freedom has limits; I am not free to do something that is likely to harm other people (in addition to harming myself).

I close this Musing by reflecting on some of the reasons given by those who oppose mask mandates for their opposition to what I have just said; indicating what I would like to say in response to those reasons if they were willing to talk with me.

First, some would appeal to the Declaration of Independence to justify their belief in an unlimited freedom to do as they please. This declaration does admirably assert that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But does this declaration allow you to do whatever makes you happy?

As Mary Ann Glendon has pointed out in her book Rights Talk, the focus on “rights” in this declaration does not capture the full truth about how we should live since it does not combine “rights talk” with talk about “responsibilities.” So, I would like to ask those who oppose mask mandates what they believe about the responsibility that human beings have toward one another. And in such a conversation, I would express my belief that exerting such responsibility toward one another, includes, at a minimum, the responsibility to avoid doing anything that is likely to harm other people. In that conversation, I would also express my belief that focusing on “human rights,” without talking about “human responsibilities” is the source of the “hyper-individualism” that plagues American culture. It is both/and, not either/or. The challenge for all of us is to strike a proper balance between our rights and our responsibilities.

If those I was talking to about what I perceive to be an imbalance in American culture that favors rights over responsibilities included Christians, I would ask them to explain to me how that imbalance comports with biblical teachings. I am dismayed at how many Christians have succumbed to hyper-individualism, which is clearly contrary to a focus throughout the Bible on caring for one another. To cite just one passage, in Philippians 2:4, those who aspire to follow Jesus receive the exhortation to look beyond their own interests to the interests of others.

Secondly, some who oppose mask mandates do so because they question the science that purports that wearing a mask decreases the likelihood of the spread of the corona virus. This is but one expression of the anti-science stance that has become so prevalent in American culture.

A particular criticism that I have heard expressed about scientific findings regarding the wearing of masks is that Dr. Anthony Fauci readily admits that these scientific findings have changed over time. I would love to have the opportunity to explain to those who criticize science for not being static that such dynamism is a strength of the scientific endeavor, not a weakness. As scientists seek to adequately understand natural phenomenon, they offer hypotheses, which they then test over time. This is a self-correcting process, where, as new data is uncovered, the hypotheses are refined. I applaud that. So, I would love to have a conversation about why the findings of science are so suspect among those who do not support mask mandates.

Well, there are just two examples of the type of conversations I would like to have with those who disagree with my call for mask mandates. But, alas, the likelihood of such conversations happening in our highly polarized American culture is almost nil. What is more likely to happen with increasing frequency is what took place recently in Franklin, Tennessee after a school district reinstated a mask mandate for elementary school students. As but one more example of the propensity for violence that I believe former president Trump fostered, one person who opposes mask mandates shouted the following at a person who advocates for mask mandates: “We know who you are,” adding later “You’ll never be allowed in public again.” Another man said “You can leave freely, but we will find you.”

Much to my dismay, such egregious examples of hate toward those who disagree with you are becoming commonplace in American culture. This reinforces my commitment to modelling on my website a “better way” to engage those who disagree with you, a “loving way” based on the foundational premise that to provide someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and to then talk respectfully about that disagreement is a deep expression of love.

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