Friday, August 14, 2020

Wearing a Mask Makes us More Free

By Madeleine Kando

‘Why should I wear a mask?’ you might ask. Does it not infringe on my individual freedom? We live in a free country, and freedom is enshrined in the Constitution.

In a brilliant article in the Wall Street Journal entitled The True Face of Freedom Wears a Mask, professor Kwame Anthony Appiah concludes that having to wear a mask does NOT infringe on a person’s liberty. However, he comes to that conclusion after asking the more basic question: ‘what do we mean by freedom?’

According to philosopher Isaiah Berlin, there are 2 types of liberty: ‘negative liberty’ which is freedom from external restraint on one's actions, which he calls ‘ freedom from’ and ‘positive liberty’, which is having the power and resources to fulfill one's own potential. This he calls ‘freedom to’.

The seeds in my garden are a good examples of these 2 types of freedom: seeds have the potential to become wonderful plants. They need space to grow (negative liberty), but without care and food (positive liberties), they will die.

The problem with living in a free country, is that people forget how much we rely on positive freedoms to enjoy our negative freedoms. In Jack Kerouac’s famous novel ‘On the Road’, nobody stops Sal and Dean from barreling down the interstate highway. They enjoy their negative freedom. But they couldn’t have been free to do so if the Government hadn’t built the highway in the first place, giving Americans the resources to drive cross-country (positive liberty).

Still, the American concept of freedom leans heavily on the ‘negative’ freedom side. The Constitution gives us the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness without interference (mostly from government). It is completely silent on ‘positive’ freedoms, such as the right to education, health care, etc. What good is all that negative freedom if you don’t have the ability to achieve your goals by having property or money or skills? In other words, the United States does not consider ‘positive’ freedoms as rights at all, but more like privileges.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), signed by 150 countries right after WW2, did include some of those positive rights, specifically article 25 which includes a person’s ‘right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care’. The US actually never abided by this Declaration, insisting that these positive rights are not really rights but ‘aspirations’.

You might say that laws and rules are, in themselves restrictions on our liberties, but without laws there would be chaos. Laws protect our rights by making sure they are enforced, otherwise nothing would prevent one person from enslaving another, from deciding who is free and who isn’t, on the basis of the color of her skin.

So, let’s get back to the original question, whether wearing a mask infringes on our personal freedom. Mask wearing rules actually protect our freedom, just like laws requiring cars to all move in one direction protects us from crashing into each other.

As the author bluntly puts it: ‘There’s precious little freedom in the sick ward and less still in the graveyard’. leave comment here