Covid-19 and the Problem of Freedom

A while ago, a video went viral regarding an employee of a popular supermarket in the US demanding that a customer wears a mask as per the policy of the store. The employee makes it clear that unless the customer wears one, he is not welcome. The employee responds that he would not adhere to the policy because, “he woke up in a free country.” The employee literally snatches the trolley from the customer and wishes a good day to the customer who carries on complaining.

By now, most of us do know that the health professionals have (finally!) agreed that wearing a mask is really helpful in stopping or at least slowing down the spread of the novel virus. However, most people are divided as to whether they should wear the mask or not. Trump has not helped the issue with his constant refusal to wear one. My case is not with the President of the United States. What I want to briefly explore is the response the customer held; that he is free, even in the face of medical facts, to not wear a mask.

What is freedom?

In any intelligent discourse, it is presumed that the first step is to define concepts so that those involved in the discourse are working on the same ground. However, freedom has been badly defined (just google and see) as ‘the capacity to think/speak/do whatever one wants.’ Many people who have criticized the customer, have in other issues used the same definition to smother conversations and criticism. Such a loose definition of freedom is not only detrimental but also foolish. It is foolish because it assumes that all people will ethically do what is right and it is detrimental because if people invoke that kind of definition to avoid wearing a mask, for example, then other people are harmed.

The problem with a poorly defined concept with social implications is, if enough people believe in it, then it becomes cultural and difficult to uproot or correct with negative ramifications. This is what is happening in the US and many other places. With freedom defined as doing whatever one wants or feels, it is difficult to see how the man was wrong and there are many other demonstrations in the US that shows that his stance is popular within several circles.

One might argue that one’s practice of freedom should be defined and limited by other people freedom and rights. But what does that even mean? Does it mean political correctness so that one does not hurt other people’s feelings? Whose feelings? For example, should a person opposed to gay unions or transgenderism not speak so as not to offend the LGBTQ+ community? Should a person seeking to engage in a gay union not do so in order not to offend the one who is opposed to such a situation? Who has the right to be offended over who?

Someone else might argue that harm should be limited to physical harm. The problem is, what if one believes Covid-19 is a hoax and therefore wearing a mask is just stupid and cooperating in a hoax? Such person proceeds to cause physical harm eventually.

Within the long philosophical and Judeo-Christian worldview, freedom has never been defined as doing whatever one wants or feels like doing. Freedom is defined as the capacity to do what one ought to do. Clearly, that oughtness is rooted in Truth and one way, and not the only one, that truth is pursued and known is through science. To act against what one knows to be true is therefore not freedom but stupidity and plain wrong. Anyone committed to the truth will necessarily seek to ask all possible questions regarding a stance they hold even if whatever they find at the end is uncomfortable and against what they previously held. Only then can they say they are truly free.

In a world where sentimentalism and political correctness are the basis of an ill-conceived freedom, one who is truly free has to be willing to ask socially controversial and personally uncomfortable questions in order to act properly and responsibly. Only then will they be truly free.

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