Mandatory Masks Are Not Anti-Freedom

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”

J.S. Mill. On Liberty. Quote posted on Philosophy Matters Facebook page.

As one is prone to do while lying in bed on the phone, casually browsing meme pages, I stumbled upon a quote by none other than J.S. Mill, that influential philosopher most famous for saying roughly along these lines, “if I’m not hurting anyone, then it’s not your business“.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, the best part about following meme pages are the comments. Usually I spectate, watching others bash it out online, giving the occasional ‘like’ to those who deliver a good burn.

Well this time, I felt a vested interest considering I am writing a thesis on Mill. And someone takes this quote and makes this about the coronavirus pandemic. I didn’t want to go all Love and Hip-Hop on this Facebook user, but I couldn’t help myself. I just had to give my two cents. Through this a discussion emerges that still has me thinking about liberty, security, and pandemic.

No one argues you should have the right to drink and drive. Likewise no one should be advocating for the right not to wear masks in the current pandemic.

They write:

The issue of wearing masks is an obvious exception to this quote. The problem as several have pointed out, is what is harm is extremely extensible. If I reject wearing a helmet on a motorcycle and get injured severely it can cost my insurance company a fortune. And due to the risk pooling that insurance is based upon, I will absolutely be harming others through higher premiums we all pay.

That may seem like a minor example but there are hundred of other behaviors that can directly and indirectly “harm” others.”

Of course I am quick to jump in! By gosh! There is no way I will let this man equate harm to *shudder* economic harm. This one term, economic harm, is one that I completely loathe as it seems to be the only metric government likes to use. I write:

You have the right to do anything stupid as long as no harm is caused.

you’re confusing harm with economic harm. Harm =/= economic harm. First you pay the insurance company to mitigate your risk, the insurance takes on the risk that you could hit (or someone hits you). Further perhaps your actions could lead to higher premiums—if everyone in your age group/sex behaves as you do and *is at fault* for careless driving. This aside, nothing stops you from using a different insurance for a better quote or not using a motorcycle at all.

Furthermore, riding a motorcycle in itself does not harm others. Riding recklessly (like saying intoxicated) is harmful. No one argues you should have the right to drink and drive. Likewise no one should be advocating for the right not to wear masks in the current pandemic.

And they respond:

Not sure that “right” is the correct wording. You have the right to do anything stupid…as long as no harm is caused to others and yourself (insurance legal wise) Making masks a mandatory law opens the door for all other civil liberty laws. Will GPS contact monitoring and vaccinations become compulsorily? When civic responsibility is challenged alot of questions start being asked.

Finally I decide to leave one last comment before resigning myself that, like many an Internet “discussion”, it is more shouting match than actual discussion.

We need security in order to have liberty.

“right” is exactly the word to be used here. It is exactly as you say: you have the right to do anything stupid as long as no harm is caused. Mill himself states that, and it’s at your own risk if you say decide to say something offensive in front of the offended group (e.g. racist comments in front of said race).

However you are incorrect that requiring masks opens a Pandora’s box. By your logic why do we have compulsory primary/secondary education, compulsory drivers licence, food safety laws, child labor law, etc? The major distinction for Mill is that government doesn’t exist to protect our “natural rights” (in fact he rejects social contract theory). Rather government exists to provide security. And in this case, requiring masks is one tool in our arsenal to provide security against covid-19.

Yet when that word security popped up, it, along with the coronavirus “debate” (how people are debating coronavirus is beyond me), it made me realise that ultimately this is another issue of security versus liberty. Americans are quick to refer to Benjamin Franklin’s line, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” however one thing lost upon them is that we need security in order to have liberty. Put simply, society exists in order to provide us security. Such an idea is hardly new: Aristotle himself proposes that man cannot survive without society and thus is by nature a political animal. Mill himself advocates for such reasoning in his Considerations on Representative Government and in Utilitarianism. In the latter he equates threats to society’s security as an attack upon one’s own security.

Of course those who are view mandatory masks as going against their liberty probably are equating this with an attack upon liberty, and an attack upon liberty is an attack upon society, and therefore an attack upon them. It is no surprise that this attack stirs their emotions. However they are mistaken. If we were to all die from coronavirus, there would be no liberty left to defend. There is no liberty without society, and society’s aim is to provide us security from harm. Without security we are unable to pursue our own ends. A society that does not provide its people security is a failed one. There comes a point that we cannot have total liberty or the right to do whatever we want simply because it can harm others.

Let me know if you agree in the comments below!

TLDR: mandatory masks during the coronavirus pandemic is as much an attack upon liberty as laws against drink-driving are.

Paul Geerligs

Paul Geerligs

Philosophy grad student on a journey to relate philosophy to everyday life. Dutch/Mexican/Californian.
Los Angeles