Paul Russell: There are relevant limits to freedom and liberty


Opinion: Everywhere Maxime Bernier went during the election he was met with chants of “freedom, freedom” coming from his followers.

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“You can be proud of yourselves, freedom fighters.” With these words People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier encouraged his supporters to keep up the fight against “tyranny.”

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Everywhere Bernier went during the election he was met with chants of “freedom, freedom” coming from his followers. Bernier’s main enemy is, of course, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who he has referred to as a “fascist psychopath.”

There may be a fascist psychopath at work here but to know who it is we should first ask what sort of “freedom” is — or is not — worth fighting for. “Freedom” isn’t just a label on a poster or a logo on a (purple) T-shirt. It stands for principles and values that need to be articulated and understood. In an essay On Liberty (1859) the great English philosopher John Stuart Mill — a guiding light of liberal democratic thought — outlined and explained the “harm principle,” which is the core principle governing a free society.

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According to the harm principle neither society nor the state, nor any other authority, has the right to interfere with an individual’s beliefs or actions unless that person is causing harm to others. Even if a person’s beliefs or conduct are judged to be self-evidently foolish or self-destructive, no one has the right to coerce them.

Nevertheless, while you have a right to be as foolish and self-destructive as you please, you have no right to harm others or endanger their health and safety. The harm principle ensures that freedom isn’t confused with a catastrophic lack of consideration or concern for the rights and interests of others.

All this seems simple enough. So how does it apply to COVID-19 (i.e. wearing masks, getting vaccinated, carrying a vaccine passport, etc.)? If you believe in a free society, governed by the harm principle, you have no right to force others to wear a mask or get vaccinated simply on the ground that it’s for their own good. At the end of the day, they have the right to decide that for themselves. The protesters who are now presenting themselves as “freedom fighters” are focused on this principle — and they’re not wrong about it as far as it concerns only themselves.

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Clearly, however, although a free society may not force people to do what is good for them it should prevent them from doing harm to others. Where COVID is prevalent, if you don’t wear a mask or won’t get vaccinated then you are going to harm or risk serious harm to others — and you have no right to do this. A free society needs laws that protect its citizens from harms that others would otherwise impose on them.

Some might object at this point that requiring people to get vaccinated involves “violating” their body and that this is a form of “harming” them. Is this a reasonable objection?

Do we have the right to force a person — let’s call him “Mad Max” — to take the vaccine that is now available? Not if he poses a danger only to himself. In this case, he would have a right to decide whether or not to take the jab — however foolish he might be to decline the offer.

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But what if Mad Max still wants to go out on the town — take the kids to school, attend a hockey game, a concert or a protest rally and so on? In that case things are very different. Mad Max has chosen to remain a lethal threat to all those who directly or indirectly come near him. A free society not only has a right but a responsibility to protect these innocent people from the risks and danger that Mad Max would impose on them.

Bernier and his followers are right to care about the importance of “freedom” in our society. Sadly, however, they either don’t understand what this involves or they don’t actually care about it at all — they just care about themselves. Either way, shouting and protesting doesn’t make you a defender of freedom and liberty unless you know what the relevant limits to those freedoms and liberties involve.

Paul Russell is a professor of philosophy at the University of B.C. and also director of the Lund Gothenburg Responsibility Project in Sweden.


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