On safety versus the right to do whatever you want

“Those people think that rights mean they can just do whatever they want.”

“You are saying that people’s freedom to do whatever they want trumps people’s freedom not to catch a deadly disease.”

“You value the right to do whatever you want more than other people’s safety.”

Statements like these have been repeated ad nauseam since the beginning of the covid pandemic. Those who express these views apparently consider the ability to do whatever one wants unimportant. In other words, people have essentially been “pooh-poohing” the concept of being able to do what one wants. Anyone who does value this freedom is attacked as selfish, entitled, and/or irresponsible.

In my opinion, this way of thinking is incorrect. The ability to do whatever one wants is extraordinarily important. Without it, in fact, life would not be worth living at all.

In order to appreciate the importance of being able to do what one wants, it is necessary to distinguish between two different concepts.

First, I agree that there is a sense in which it is not realistic or reasonable to simply do whatever the heck one wants. For example, if you have 10 dollars, and an item that you want costs 15 dollars, then you cannot buy it. You will need to either save up more money, buy a cheaper item, or go without. Similarly, you cannot steal from people, and you cannot go up to someone and punch them in the face. These are things that pretty much anyone would agree with. Additionally, there are numerous situations in which people have to do things that they don’t exactly want to do, but which they choose to do because they are necessary in order to achieve the person’s goals. For example, if you have a job, you need to show up for your shift, do the duties that you are assigned, and wear the uniform or follow the dress code. If you want to become, say, a pilot, you will need to learn how to fly a plane. You can’t just decide that it would be fun to be a pilot and start serving as a pilot without actually learning how to do so. If you want to lose weight, you will likely need to exercise. Everyone should accept that they cannot violate the rights of others, and that they might have to do things that are unpleasant in the pursuit of their goals.

But there is a second sense of not being able to do what one wants, or having to do things that one doesn’t want, that quite frankly no one should accept. This concept includes things that you don’t want to do, and in your judgment don’t make sense for you to do, but you are being made to do them by someone else. For example, say you bought a house in which the previous owner had set up an illegal apartment, with a second kitchen. You have no intention of allowing anyone other than yourself to live in the house, and have no intention of using the second kitchen, but it’s not hurting anyone by existing, and you’d rather not spend the money to have it taken out. But the city tells you that you must have the second kitchen ripped out, because its existence violates the local building codes. That is an example of being forced to do something which you don’t want to do and which doesn’t make sense for you to do. In my opinion, this is something that you shouldn’t have to do. The city is violating your rights.

By requiring people to undergo medical procedures – namely covid vaccination and/or covid testing – as a condition of being allowed to work, go to school, or enter public spaces, governments and institutions are similarly violating people’s rights.

When you are a child, you generally have no say in what medical procedures you do or do not get. When you go to a doctor’s appointment, the doctor might say that you need to get three shots today, or they might say you don’t have to get any. You don’t think of the shots as something that you are choosing, or as something that is beneficial to you; you just view them as an unwelcome intrusion into your life that you have no control over. When the shots are done, you leave the appointment knowing that at least that is behind you for now, and you don’t have to worry about it for another year.

The whole point of becoming an adult is that you never have to think of medical procedures – or any other activity, for that matter – in that way again. You might choose to get medical procedures that are unpleasant or even painful, because you determine that the benefits are worth it. But you should never get a medical procedure because someone else told you that you have to. That defeats the purpose of being an adult. The only time that you should get a medical procedure, or do any other activity, is when you think that it makes sense for you.

Unfortunately, many people who hold political power in today’s society believe that it is completely fine for people to be deprived of their freedom to do whatever they want. These people think that it is right to place safety above people’s rights to make their own decisions, and they think that anyone who disagrees with them is selfish. But this is false. People who deny others the ability to do what they want are treating adults like children. They are taking us all back to the days when, as little kids, we were subjected to whatever medical procedures the doctor decided were appropriate. That was a way of existing which, upon turning 18, I assumed I would never again need to experience, and which no adult should ever need to experience.

Today’s politicians may be creating a society with less risk of catching deadly diseases, but in doing so they are creating a society in which the very thing that makes life worth living is gone. Without the ability to set one’s own goals, to choose one’s own priorities, to weigh risks and benefits, to make tradeoffs, to determine what makes sense for oneself, and yes, to do whatever one wants, then life is not worth living at all.