Theresa Man Ling Lee is an associate professor in political theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Guelph.
The title “One Simple Principle” comes from an anthology of Western political thought that I use in teaching. The excerpt is from the work On Liberty, which was first published in 1859 by John Stuart Mill, an influential British political thinker, civil servant and parliamentarian.
That simple principle is the “harm principle,” which stakes out the position that individuals are free to do whatever they wish until and unless their actions pose threat to others. It’s at that point that self-regarding actions cross the threshold and become other-regarding actions. Then and only then can the state interfere with such actions on behalf of its citizenry. The well-being of the individuals as individuals is no reason for state or societal interference.
This simple principle is what needs to guide the current debate over COVID-19 vaccination in Canada, the U.S. and all other democratic countries that regard individual rights and freedom as paramount. While each of these countries has its own constitutions and legal traditions to fall back on to frame the debate, the issue has been generally pitched as a freedom of choice issue, as if the right to choose is an absolute right that trumps all other rights.
Hence, we have Ontario Premier Doug Ford defending a policy of nothing in regards to mandatory vaccination or certification, by claiming that “it’s our constitutional right to take it or not take it.” Such an assertion presumes that one Charter right can be affirmed without taking others into account. Mr. Ford also warned that adopting a vaccine passport is to introduce a “split society.”
More extreme is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In the name of protecting individual rights, Mr. DeSantis threatened to withhold salaries to school board officials who try to implement mask mandates at schools, in contravention of his executive order. He also introduced a new T-shirt for sale, printed with the slogan “Don’t Fauci My Florida” – taking aim at top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci – to finance his bid for the 2022 gubernatorial race.
Mr. Ford and others surely know that in Canada, Charter rights are not without limits. It’s all laid out plainly, on the Department of Justice website: “No right, including freedom of religion, is absolute” nor is there a “hierarchy of rights.” Balancing competing rights is imperative because “we live in a society of individuals in which we must always take the rights of others into account.” Importantly, the document cites John Stuart Mill to back up the position: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
It is no accident that Mill is cited in the document. On Liberty is an impactful piece of work that provides a principled defence for individual liberty. By liberty, Mill does not simply mean political liberty. Rather, what is at stake is “social liberty,” which means essentially the freedom to be oneself, including the freedom to be different from others. The kind of freedoms that we have taken for granted, such as the freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of pursuits and freedom of association, are all given a thorough workout in this piece of writing. It is a defence framed within a broader moral theory called utilitarianism, which maintains that there is no inherent rightness or wrongness of any given action. Rather, an act is morally justifiable when it maximizes the greatest happiness for the greatest number, with the caveat that pain needs to be minimized in the pursuit of such end.
It is not hard to find Mill’s influence in how we manage the freedom of choice for individuals without jeopardizing the safety of others so that they, too, can pursue their freedom. As a society that values individual freedom, you can indeed smoke all you want to the detriment of your health, but you have no right to share your smoke in public space. You can drink all you want to, you just can’t drive while you do so. So why is it that when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, individuals who choose not to vaccinate should have the freedom to impose their right on others who want to be free from the threat of a deadly virus?
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