January 19th, 2022

Some liberty restrictions are justified

By Eric Mathison - guest column on October 28, 2021.

Here’s a common view of liberty right now. Before the pandemic, liberty was valued in society. We could do what we wanted. But now liberty has been pushed to the side. We’re restricted in all kinds of ways we weren’t before, which has put us on the slippery slope to the complete loss of freedom. Vaccine passports and mandatory vaccination policies are only the latest evidence of this.
This story is mostly false. It’s true that we are more restricted than we were before the pandemic, but this isn’t because liberty is being dismissed. In fact, if you care about liberty, you should be in favour of many of the policies being used to control the spread of COVID-19.
 The pandemic has forced us to think about the relative value of different goods in society. Most people care about multiple values, such as liberty, public safety, and equality of some form. Conversations don’t always explicitly recognize these values, but the pandemic has led to a greater appreciation of these tradeoffs. For example, if we want to improve public safety, we should limit indoor gatherings.
The exact details are an open question that reasonable people will disagree about, but we know the answer is somewhere between “no restrictions” and “no socializing of any kind.”
 But not everyone thinks there are multiple values to consider, or at least that all the values are of equal importance. Throughout the pandemic, there’s been a vocal group arguing that liberty matters most, and that it’s being unjustly limited. For them, any restriction of liberty – mask mandates, gathering restrictions, border closures and now vaccine passports and mandates – is an injustice.
 To be sure, we’re restricted in ways we weren’t before. The question is how much restriction is justified and what are the alternatives? The people who care about multiple values have some tough choices to make, but you might think that the people who care only about liberty have it easy. Choose the policy that promotes liberty. Any policy that restricts liberty is wrong. What’s the problem?
 It’s not so easy, even for the liberty crowd. Imagine a society with maximal liberty. Everyone gets to do what they want with no restrictions. Would you want to live in this society? I doubt it. There would be no laws, since laws are just restrictions on liberty. You’d be forever fearing for your life and looking over your shoulder. Ironically, the result of giving everyone maximal liberty is that people won’t be able to take advantage of it.
The way out of this puzzle is to recognize that some liberty restrictions are necessary to promote it. If we care only about liberty, we want to find the balance of restrictions that leads to the most liberty overall.
One obvious condition is that the pursuit of my liberty can’t infringe your pursuit. This is the essence of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, which he defends in On Liberty. Various laws are justified – against drunk driving, speeding, using firearms unsafely, polluting the water supply, etc. – because they allow people to live how they want without being exposed to excessive risk of harm from others. There might be other reasons for laws, such as promoting equality, but society is minimally justified in making laws that prevent harm.
 This doesn’t completely solve the problem, since we still have to sort out what the right level of restrictions is. However, it points to three lessons.
 The first is that, since COVID-19 clearly poses a risk of harm to others, pandemic restrictions can be justified using the harm principle. Which restrictions and to what degree? It depends, and reasonable people will disagree, just as they’ll disagree about highway speed limits.
 The second lesson is that people who claim they have an absolute right to do what they want – that is, a right to liberty without restrictions – are making an exception of themselves. We can’t do all the things we want all the time, since that will interfere with the rights of others. Instead, we have to determine the right balance.
 The third lesson is that restrictions that seem at first to thwart liberty can actually be used to promote it.
Since COVID-19 can cause serious harm, we want to find the policies that allow us to return to normalcy as much as possible while minimizing the risk of harm from the virus.
This is exactly what vaccination achieves. Since vaccination is the most effective way to prevent transmission and serious health consequences, in some contexts it might be ethically acceptable to mandate it. The result will be more liberty, which is why groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have endorsed vaccine mandates.
 One final point. In their quest to defend an absolute right to liberty, some people appeal to freedom of religion or conscience. However, no kind of belief justifies one person in exposing someone else to harm without their consent. It doesn’t matter what you want to do or why you want to do it. If you’re putting someone else’s safety at risk, others can interfere. The argument from liberty shows us why.
Eric Mathison is an ethics consultant.

Share this story:
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Older School

COVID-19 How about dealing with what we know before invoking the harm principle as you call it. First, a fully vaccinated person can be a carrier. Second, a non vaccinated person can be a carrier and not show symptoms. Third, until children are immunized I see no reason to single out ANY non vaccinated person.
Lets now identify what has been done up too and including now. First, this has always been and only been, about the Health Care System. That can be clearly demonstrated by the term “face covering” because the Health system is quite aware that the plain blue mask, a scarf, or some sort of plastic shield does not protect the wearer.
So perhaps its time someone starts to think about the longterm here. Who really thinks that COVID disappears? Who thinks that within 2 years we will run out of the alphabet for variants? Who thinks that at this present time, there is no “what if” that solves that problem. In fact if the Guru’s to be are left to their own vices, one can see there single focus on the Health Care System could lead us to our demise! What happens if after the 14th wave and the 9th booster shot someone finally realizes there was no plan other then to invoke the Harm Principle for the next 20 years to protect the Health Care System, which by then, won’t be protected at all?
I am double vaccinated, not as gullible as most, and at some point someone has to think beyond ICU beds because this may be here for a very very long time. They also have to start thinking beyond Delta an Delta+ and start recognizing we may start to see Delta ++ and Delta +++ or something worse. What then? On the surface it appears we are planning for nothing else but total collapse of the Health Care System, should this scenario play out. People can continue to blame the non vaccinated as a scapegoat for poor planning if they wish. We can even continue to demonize unvaccinated adults who picked up COVID from their children while at school.
I guess we could then move onto those that were a little late getting booster shot number 9, perhaps they could be the next scapegoat?
Let me suggest this. If everyone was vaccinated and ICU beds were still being filled by Delta ++ who would you suggest we blame next? How would you spin Harm Principle then?

Last edited 2 months ago by Older School

you have made a lot o good points about the virus and the health care system, but it may not be the end game. 1. was this a development of a biological weapon? 2. in weapon development was there not an antidote developed in concert? 3. why is the antidote available, or is it available to a select group? 4. why is there insistence that survivors of covid be vaccinated, as there immune system proved effective? 5. is this whole scenario orchestrated to obtain full financial and personal control through the use of fear?
One thought permeates my mind. What are the 3 define differences between man and the rest of the animals in the world? 1. Man has a highly developed brain. 2. man has an opposable thumb. 3. man is the only animal that will PLOT to kill his own kind.


what a twist, and what a spin on where rights reside. a consultant on ethics?! for real? more like the writer is all in on big brother.
the entry from old school is far superior relevant to the issue of covid and govt’s use of all things covid to find yet another avenue upon which to trample our rights. here, govt first uses the ruse of covid, and now, further along, uses the “health system” – so purposely long been broken as it has become – as the basis of spinning our rights as though they are merely a series of “privileges” and “duties.”
eric, we get the need for laws on speeding and on drunk driving etc. – save your keyboard. however, within the realm of our rights, i do not get how it is the state gets to stop people whilst driving their vehicles and simply going about their business moving from a to b, without having violated any traffic law. somehow, the state has “legalised” the process of one getting check stopped just because they are driving their car, but moreover, just in case one might be breaking the law. but, the only way to know for sure is to randomly stop drivers and interrogate them. it starts viz: “your paperz pleaze.” worse still, part of that interrogation now involves a mandatory breathalyzer on demand; and/or, it could involve a series of SUBJECTIVE inspections by ze zuperior offizer that could then result in subjective based charges being laid. talk about power of the state…and disempowerment of the individual vis a vis one’s rights and freedoms.
‘driving is a privilege” say the courts; well, one can then suppose owning a home or renting a space is also a privilege…almost everything can dumbed down to “privilege” instead of being a right. indeed, we should in time be prepared to welcome the state into our “privileged” homes just in case one may be breaking a law. the old: “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear” adage.
that is the backward way. that is the lack of rights and freedoms way. how? because instead of there being actual the rights and freedoms residing with each person, they are made to in fact reside with, and emanate from, the state. consequently, the reality is that our rights and freedoms – and most certainly what should and must be INDIVIDUAL rights and freedoms – are ever the more usurped by, and held foremost by, the state. what the people get, then, are a series of privileges posing as our rights that the state can do with as they wish. and, certainly, whenever the state chooses to create enough of a case for intrusion into our very rights – rights the state has so systematically and successfully dumbed down into the realm of privileges – it has devised a go-to basis on which it has numerous times already been able do so. we do not have a charter of rights and freedoms: it is such in title, but in actuality, it is has been rendered by the courts too often as a charter of “privileges and duties.”
our dear ethics consultant has here made a case to support the idea of mandatory vaxes – and heavy handed, coercive consequences for not vaxing does indeed render the vaxing mandatory. he does so on the basis that the unvaxed are somehow a serious risk to others, and perhaps worse, a serious risk to the health care system. absurd!
the health care system cannot be used to tramp on the rights and freedoms of the individual. in cannot be used to mold the masses into certain, govt/society desired ways of being. that would be just another means of autocracy, totalitarianism, or other form of govt where rights and freedoms are anything but. as already noted, as with the covid approach, it becomes a way in which to subjugate rights and freedoms such that they become mere privileges and duties. that is exactly what one has in autocratic and totalitarian despot lands as is china.
we do, however, have duties. and among our biggest duties is to protect our rights and freedoms. moreover, to ensure certain rights are indeed inalienable. as such, the rights of one do not extend into the body of another. in this case, where covid is here to stay, one can choose to try and protect themselves more with the likes of masks and vaxes; and they can choose to social distance. however, however one wishes to approach protecting themselves from covid, or any ailment, that is their right – it is not, however, their right to impose their preferences for self protection upon another. and most certainly, one’s right to their body does not at all extend into the body of another – as one’s body is the sole realm and inalienable right of each.
all that said, we must return to this most simple question: if you are vaxed, what is your issue? you got your vax, leave others to their outcomes. if the health system cannot deal with covid icus, then the health system had better tell us. if do not like that reality, then we had better allocate more resources to the health care system. otherwise, if you feel the vaxes work, take ’em…and looks like you will be taking them, even long beyond when the cows – or bull – come home. then, shut up and butt out.

Last edited 2 months ago by biff

“The Government” is mandating that I set my clocks back before I go to bed tonight, but I’m going to do MY OWN research, thank you very much.

My clocks, my choice.


how can anyone equate moving clocks with arguing to protect the autonomy of one’s body? is that really the best you can bring to a very serious discussion? moreover, the discussion of freedom and rights has little to nothing to do with “research” or “science” around vaxes. the only way vaxes even enter the discussion is to ensure that they are a choice that each of us, with the sole right to our body, has the final right to decide upon.
the writer has expressed the idea that the state has final autonomy over the bodies of people. however, that is the basis of autocratic and totalitarian systems. the right to one’s body must reside solely with the individual in order for each of us to actually have that right. if the right to one’s body resides with the state, or with society or with some other third body, then one really does not have the right to their body: the state can arbitrarily determine in any moment – such as the “pandemic” – when it can and will exert its primacy over one’s body.
thus, with vaxes, each has the right to vax or not. vaxes are taken because one thinks they protect. therefore, if one has vaxed, and one is then protected, it does not matter who else is vaxed. if vaxing is felt to be the best choice, that still does not give the state the right to force/coerce vaxing. we are allowed to make good choices for our body, as well as choices that another may not agree is good for one’s body. that is the most basic – yet, most inalienable – right upon which the foundation of a free society exists. how does this escape people that want a free society? how are people overlooking that one’s rights and freedoms end at the body of another?
as for “research”, as the pharms would euphemistically call it, i stand firmly opposed to any and all forms of animal torture no matter what you or govt or medicine or the pharms wish to pretend-name such practices. i do not support animal torture, and i will not be forced or coerced into taking anything that supports that cruelty. that choice is inherent upon my being a person free to choose. what is more, i think it is pathetic that so many people that would not torture anything – that would in fact do whatever they could to help a creature in distress – would look away from that reality…perhaps, actually deluding themselves that pharm synthetics are not concocted from the squealing, crying, and sickening painful convulsions of sentient creatures.
if anything, the basis of the vax argument should revolve around whether people should be allowed to perpetuate animal torture and cruelty. donning a white lab coat and calling oneself a scientist does not make what the sentient creatures endure anything other than torturous and cruel.


As usual WATER HEAD your stupidity defies logic!

Older School

Your belief that people who do not want to have a vaccination should somehow have their lives restricted, and that’s justified due to harm that may be caused to the general population. So I have question. Why are you not restricting Drug Addicts using the same philosophy? They create harm in a community, so why are we not applying the same principles. Restrict their movements, and perhaps force rehab, like the suggestion we force needles by tighter restrictions?

Last edited 2 months ago by Older School

it is the drug laws that are creating harm in the community. those laws make the cost of drugs exponentially higher than if drugs were legal (and, drugs should be legal as it must be the right of each as to what they choose to ingest or not ingest). thus, if drugs were near as cheap as they are to produce/grow, addicts would not need to steal in order to consume. coffee is among the most labour intensive and expensive drugs to bring to market, and yet so cheap that no one needs to steal to support their caffeine habit. imagine, however, if coffee were made illegal. imagine if we reverted to prohibition of alcohol: would that solve the considerable social issues that stem from liquor?; would that not create, again, all the numerous issues stemming from prohibition that legalisation mitigated?