Facebook Twitter

Yes, personal freedom matters in the pandemic — until it limits the freedom of others

Freedom has often been used more as a sword than as the shield our founders intended

SHARE Yes, personal freedom matters in the pandemic — until it limits the freedom of others
A protester holds up a placard during a protest against a mandatory coronavirus vaccine, wearing masks, social distancing and a second lockdown, in Trafalgar Square, London.

In this Sept. 19, 2020, photo, a protester holds up a placard as they take part in a “Resist and Act for Freedom” protest against a mandatory coronavirus vaccine, wearing masks, social distancing and a second lockdown, in Trafalgar Square, London.

Matt Dunham, Associated Press

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

In my field of negotiation, the interests of the individual need to be balanced with the interests of others. A one-sided approach inevitably leads to division and enmity. A negotiation succeeds when the focus is on cooperation and on meeting joint interests, rather than on winning at the expense of others. 

The COVID-19 virus has crashed into an American culture that in some quarters emphasizes rights over responsibilities, individualism over community, and suspicion over trust. 

This has caused social upheaval and conflict between the interests of individuals and the interests of the larger community. Governments and health care providers are trying to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, while some individuals vigorously guard their rights, believing that their personal liberties are under threat. 

Economist John Stuart Mill believed that an individual’s freedom to govern himself is absolute, until it comes into conflict with the freedoms of others. In his work “On Liberty,” Mill describes what he calls “The Harm Principle,” which explores the limits of individual rights as they relate to the rights of others and the community as a whole. 

As Americans, we cherish our freedoms. Our inspired Constitution protects the liberty our founders fought so hard to gain, including religious and political freedom. These rights were enshrined in the First Amendment and remain central to American democracy. As the pandemic has trampled on our daily lives, it is understandable that we would hold tightly to freedoms that are central to our American identity. 

This spring it appeared that the COVID-19 virus was on the decline, and we would be back to normal by the fall; however, the emergence of the delta variant has caused infections to rise markedly. Epidemiologists now tell us that the virus will likely be with us for the long term, and it is our collective responsibility to minimize the harm it creates going forward. 

The perceived threat of the virus has ebbed and flowed over the past 18 months, and its future undulations are unpredictable. Current challenges include protecting the unvaccinated, understanding the impact of breakthrough infections and decreasing the opportunities for viral mutations. A year from now, the COVID-19-related issues we will confront will likely be different than those we face now. 

During the pandemic, many have used a focus on personal freedom to justify not getting vaccinated. In doing so they have inadvertently put others in harm’s way by increasing their exposure to the virus. Their “live and let live” attitude has led to a “live and let die” reality. 

As Americans, we are being asked to balance defending our personal freedoms with making good choices on behalf of others, particularly those unable to be vaccinated or who are otherwise vulnerable. 

Freedom has often been used more as a sword than as the shield our founders intended. We have weaponized freedom rather than use it to defend and protect. Ironically, this hyperfocus on individual freedom impedes our ability to together defend other important freedoms, such as those of our heath and economic well-being. 

As Americans, we are being asked to balance defending our personal freedoms with making good choices on behalf of others.

Most people have good intentions. Those who have chosen not to get vaccinated or wear masks aren’t intentionally trying to cause harm to others; nevertheless, in many cases they are doing just that. The number of new cases is more than double what it was a month ago, nearly twice what it was a year ago, and it is predicted to continue rising until a significant majority of us are vaccinated. Those who are dying are no longer just the elderly and infirm; many are in younger age groups. 

When we value individual liberty above our moral obligations to one another, especially the most vulnerable, we aren’t able to get the virus under control and push forward toward collective prosperity. A healthy path forward is to balance rights and responsibilities and to be willing to make the small sacrifices patriotic citizenship requires. 

The turbulence and disruptions caused by this virus have exacerbated our increasing cultural divides. Only when we use our freedom to make choices that strengthen our community will our physical, mental and economic health be restored. Mending our cultural divides will not only help us find our way through the pandemic; it will prepare us to meet the inevitable challenges that we will face together in the future. 

Stan Christensen teaches negotiation at Stanford University and at Brigham Young University and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.