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David E. DeCosse (@DavidDeCosse) is the director of the Religious & Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. His forthcoming book is called Created Freedom Under the Sign of the Cross: A Catholic Public Theology of Freedom for the United States (Cascade 2022). Views are his own.
In this time of a pandemic in the United States, what is going on with the meaning of freedom?
Americans invoke freedom as the reason they refuse to comply with mandates to wear masks or get vaccinated. But the price of the freedom they invoke is higher rates of COVID-19 infections among those refusing to comply with such mandates and their families and communities.
And many of the same Americans who invoke freedom to refuse such mandates also support using government power to restrict the freedom of businesses to require masks or vaccinations for employees and customers.
Many of those who insist on such an expansive view of freedom say we should fight off excessive government power and allow people to deal with the pandemic with personal responsibility. But it’s the very opposite of responsibility to refuse to wear a mask in the face of the clear risk of possibly fatal infection from COVID to oneself and others.
And those who, in the name of freedom from government, insist on using government power to restrict others from commonsense public health measures lapse into an incoherence about freedom and public health.
Of course, freedom has always been the distinctive American trait. But the freedom of pandemic mask and vaccine refuseniks is an extreme and problematic version of this trait.
One of the great philosophers of freedom in the contemporary world, Amartya Sen, can help us see why.
Sen won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on development in impoverished countries; he has also made his mark in moral philosophy. He argues that a notion of freedom based entirely on an individual’s opposition to government power has a number of serious shortcomings.
First, he notes, such notions of a pure negative freedom—no government may compel me to wear a mask: I must be free!—are bereft of notions of consequences and of the constraints that inevitably arise from living in an interdependent world. The key thing is simply to have my freedom. Whatever consequences may likely follow from having that freedom—for instance, the increased risk of infection—simply don’t matter. Moreover, my freedom isn’t so much a function of figuring out trade-offs that balance my freedom with the freedom of others in society (for instance, my freedom not to wear a mask is measured against your freedom to go to school without fear of being infected by COVID). Instead, my freedom is from the start a quasi-absolute: I get to do what I want.
Sen helpfully situates this pure negative freedom in terms of control, constraint, and power. Liberty as “control” refers to “the extent of the control that [a person] has over decisions in certain specified spheres.” This means that one is free only to the extent that one personally exercises such control—not a bad way to describe the refusal on the basis of freedom to wear masks or get vaccinated. The “constraint” view of liberty is an offshoot of the control view. It, too, is concerned with power wielded by oneself. But, more specifically, this view refers to the “constraints imposed on others, stopping them from reducing a person’s control.” This isn’t a bad way of describing the effort to use government power to restrict institutions from adopting mask or vaccine mandates: The restrictions on institutions from adopting mandates are constraints imposed to protect the freedom of personal control desired by refuseniks. As Sen sees it, pandemic refusenik notions of liberty are based on the notion of liberty as control and use the notion of liberty as constraint in order to protect liberty as control.
Sen also notes that the control notion of liberty does not exhaust the scope of freedom. One can have freedom as power without having immediate control and personally exercising that power. The dynamics of modern social structures and interdependence frequently mandate that issues of freedom pertain to matters beyond one’s immediate personal power. Thus, for instance, Sen says that it is not possible to control all factors that affect one’s morbidity or mortality in the face of epidemics or pandemics. But that impossibility of complete control does not eliminate all issues of freedom at stake in avoiding epidemics or pandemics.
We need to recover a more coherent American notion of freedom—a notion that makes sense of our freedom not to be infected by COVID-19. Sen’s philosophy of freedom shows us how to do so.