Authority versus Responsibility: Why the Balance Matters
- Authority is the full empowerment to take action. It is the authorization to use money, tools and people to get a job done.
- Responsibility is the state of being held accountable for the completion of certain actions. For the responsible party "the buck stops here" in terms of a specified task completed or a given result attained; he or she bears the consequences of having exercised authority.
Civic Freedom as Authority
In a sense, our civic freedom is a kind of authority. By granting this freedom to each other through our Constitution and Bill of Rights we are all empowered (i.e., authorized) to act on the world. But unless you are absolutely alone, far from any other humans, your actions can have have consequences that affect others. In a civilized society, where we necessarily share public spaces and resources, we have a duty (i.e, a responsibility) to be aware of the consequences of our actions and adjust them in order to respect the boundaries of our fellow citizens and their freedom to act.
The Lion and the Gazelle: A Case Study in Absolute Freedom
Consider this example. Imagine a primordial African savannah. There are no shared resources, no shared spaces, no protections. Each creature is absolutely free to act on any impulse without regard to the impact on any other creature. The gazelle has no right to safely enter a particular space. Nor does the lion have any obligation to defer to any of its fellow creatures.
The lion and the gazelle have no agreement to share their world. There are no roads, no schools, no shared firefighters or police protection, no shared public spaces, etc. In short, the lion exercises its absolute freedom, devouring the gazelle and dominating whatever territory it chooses.
My Fist versus Your Nose: The Concept of "Ordered Liberty"
There's an old saying, “Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.” What this means is, in contrast to that primordial savannah, a civilized society recognizes some mutually agreed-upon limitations to individual freedom, originating in our shared public spaces and resources.
In fact, our framers codified this perspective in the concept of "ordered liberty" when they were debating what provisions of the Bill of Rights were to be upheld by the states. (See Webster's "Ordered Liberty" legal definition.)
Encyclopedia.com explains (my bold added):
"A loosely used term, diversely applied in scholarly literature and judicial opinions, 'ordered liberty' suggests that fundamental constitutional rights are not absolute but are determined by a balancing of the public (societal) welfare against individual (personal) rights."
In short, in moral and civic terms, our freedom extends only as far as it threatens or causes harm or loss to others. It's through this lens that we must view statements like, "It's a free country!" Yes, we are generally free to act on our impulses. No, we can't act on impulses that endanger or constrain others. So my freedom to drive wherever I want does not extend to my ignoring stop signs or driving the wrong way on a one-way street.
And it's worth noting that these framers worked together in a cooperative fashion (though they were sometimes fiercely adversarial) to create a set of common boundaries for behavior. They were not individual rogues interested purely in self empowerment. They were crafting the rules of the road for an entire democratic society.
Of Masks and Vaccines and Civic Duty
Viewed in light of the balance of our freedom and civic duties, our current debate about mandatory Covid vaccination and masking is not so much a legal question as it is a moral one. We have a civic duty to NOT serve as breeding ground for a disease and potentially be an unsymptomatic, stealth carrier. And we have a duty to NOT breathe invisible aerosolized virus particles on our fellow citizens. And since we can't know, minute to minute, whether we actually are unsymptomatic carriers, we have a responsibility to protect each other by masking when we enter publicly shared spaces and by getting vaccinated.
Forget legalities and contentious, self-serving personal interpretations of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. These can be devisive abstractions. What we need to propagate are some key moral values related to the pandemic. Such values would embody appropriate civic duties that balance our freedom and manifest our "ordered liberties" related to the pandemic. Here are the most important:
- It's not okay to threaten others' health and safety, consciously or unconsciously, by showing up unmasked, possibly as an asymptomatic carrier in public spaces.
- It's not okay to thwart business owners' efforts to create a pandemic-free space for their customers by refusing to mask.
- It's not okay to thwart the efforts of school administrators, museum directors, concert venue managers and all the others who are trying to serve as good stewards of safe public spaces by fighting masking policies.
- It's not okay to remain unvaccinated when the widespread adoption of the vaccine represents a clear path to return to our normal freedom of movement and a robust economy.
- It's not okay, either by refusing to mask in public spaces or refusing to get the vaccine, to contribute to overflowing healthcare facilities, penalizing the very people who have dedicated their lives to saving ours.
To place a Covid twist on that old saying above: "Your freedom to exhale aerosolized viral particles ends where my nose and mouth begin."
So just get the shot. Just wear the mask. These are the fair and decent things to do.
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- White folks: It's time to go beyond "not a racist" & become actively anti-racist.