Does the Right to be Wrong Have Limits?

One great thing about the American system is that it provides the freedom and space to challenge the mainstream. Not every belief has merit, but we nonetheless extend a lot of leeway to groups that espouse some of the stupidest ideas in history, be they flat-earthers or white supremacists. But this freethinking attitude does have limits, especially where the safety of others is concerned. Freedom of speech is sacred, but there is no freedom to harm others or violate their inalienable rights.

This naturally leads us to the current battles with the coronavirus vaccines. As of this writing, just over half of all Americans are fully vaccinated. That leaves a significant portion of the population unprotected, and it is not for lack of resources. The United States has more than enough doses and medical professionals to dramatically increase those numbers, but there are just too many Americans who believe in stupid ideas, especially the ludicrous conclusion that they are safer without the vaccine than with it.

Of course, there are some people who should avoid coronavirus vaccines for valid medical reasons, and allergic reactions can occur, some of which may be fatal. While we should always take the negative effects of medications seriously, these vaccine-induced concerns are nothing compared to the 300,000-plus COVID-related US deaths that occurred during the past seven months. And don’t forget those who perished from other diseases because their doctors were too busy tending to COVID patients. Don’t forget.

Any way you slice the numbers, the immediate health concerns from the 4.6 billion worldwide vaccine doses given out so far are minuscule compared to the long-term, potentially fatal damage caused by COVID-19 and its variants. In light of these numbers, avoiding the vaccine for all but the most obvious of medical concerns is stupid. But the Constitution permits stupid. Or does it? Do Americans have the right to act in ways that bring harm, even inadvertently, to the general public?

William Blackstone, the eighteenth-century jurist who penned some of the most important works on natural rights, touched on such questions close to 250 years ago. In the opening chapter of his Commentaries on the Laws of England, he defines “the absolute rights of individuals.” Blackstone explains that the rights of persons are of two sorts: those that are due to individuals (the rights themselves) and those that are due from individuals (sometimes called “civic duties”). Both are essential in a healthy society.

Blackstone gives the example of public drunkenness. When a person is alone in a state of nature—that which existed before all governments—he possesses the right to drink himself into a stupor. But once that person ventures out into society, his duties come into play, and in a way that may be the concern of lawmakers.

“Let a man therefore be ever so abandoned in his principles, or vicious in his practice, provided he keeps his wickedness to himself, and does not offend against the rules of public decency, he is out of the reach of human laws. But if he makes his vices public, though they be such as seem principally to affect himself, (as drunkenness, or the like,) then they become, by the bad example they set, of pernicious effects to society; and therefore it is then the business of human laws to correct them.” (Emphasis added.)

A practical example of this appeared decades ago when jurisdictions began enforcing seat-belt laws. To wear or not wear your own seat belt while driving seems like a slam-dunk case of natural rights, and in a state of nature, it is. When driving through your own forty acres of waving wheat, you can typically ignore the seat belt, since vehicle codes are seldom enforceable on private property. But on public roads, the situation changes. Even if you have excellent insurance coverage, your injury or death stemming from not wearing a seat belt could still impact your community, your family, or the rights of others in ways you did not foresee. For this and other reasons, seat-belt laws have been accepted as reasonable cautions on our inalienable rights.

Extending Blackstone’s logic to the pandemic is straightforward. When a person engages in behaviors that bring harm to others—especially when there are solutions available that could prevent the harm—communities are well within their rights to seek remedies, as long as those solutions do not themselves eliminate natural rights, and are in line with the duties expected of all citizens.

It is clear that the Constitution prevents the government from forcing you to violate your own rights. It can’t require you to testify against yourself in court or to quarter military troops in your home. Police officers are not allowed to reach into your car and make you buckle your seat belt. Nor can they force healing drugs into your veins against your will.

And yet, as with the seat-belt laws, we see that the government does see fit to impose penalties on those who opt to exercise their rights in a way that could violate the rights of others. If you don’t wear your seat belt while driving on a public road, you will get a ticket. If you take your intentionally unmasked and unvaccinated self into a situation where you spread the coronavirus to others, especially if that spread leads to death, a ticket seems like the very least a community could do fight the pandemic.

The Enlightenment writers blessed us with a clear understanding of our natural rights, and included warnings to governments that it is wrong to violate what the Creator has endowed to us. But it is just as wrong for those individuals to demand the invocation of their rights without simultaneously carrying out their duties to society. No American should allow a government agency to force a vaccine on them. But likewise, no American should shirk their duties to the nation at large. That would be stupid.

[Image Credits: Steve Buissinne/Pixabay]

Tim Patrick

Tim Patrick is an author, software developer, and the host of Japan Everyday. He has published a dozen books and hundreds of articles covering technology, current events, and life in Japan. Find his latest books at OwaniPress.com.

7 comments

  • So with all that in mind, why do you think so many Americans remain unvaccinated? Are you suggesting that close to 50% of Americans are stupid? There are many very intelligent people, including many doctors, who have come to all varieties of conclusions regarding COVID and the vaccines, which is pretty normal in a country of 330 mil people.

    • Naturally, the situation is complicated. First, lets get current numbers. Since I wrote this article, the percent of the nation with at least one shot has risen to around 61%, That’s good news! There is a portion of the population that, for medical reasons, absolutely cannot get the vaccines. I don’t know the numbers, but let’s say it is 5% of Americans. Then there are those under 12 who are not yet allowed to get the vaccine, close to 15% of the population. Adding of these up still leaves 19% of the population unwilling to get the shots.

      You are correct that there are conclusions that span the intellectual spectrum. I am definitely using the term “stupid” pejoratively. Not all of these people are stupid. But they may be a combination of stupid and unwise, and in a pandemic the difference is irrelevant. Again, I don’t know the data that well, but I’m sure a significant part of that 19% are young people who have those natural feelings of invincibility, and think they will do just fine without a shot. When people say, “this disease is 99% survivable,” that stems from the invincibility factor. What is strange is that they don’t think they would be equally invincible against the vaccine. Who can understand the mind of a teenager?

      Another group is taking an extended wait-and-see perspective. I truly cannot comprehend this group. The data are so clear about the merits of the vaccines, and have been borne out not just in the US, but in testing around the world. And they all have friends who have suffered tremendously from COVID. What more is there to wait for?

      Another portion of this 19% thinks that the vaccines are less safe than COVID, or that there is some conspiracy by Dr. Fauci and others to intentionally control the population or inflict harm through this vaccine rollout. To be blunt, this group absolutely qualifies for the “stupid” moniker.

      The real target of my article is a fourth subset of the 19%, those who know they are at risk, who understand that the vaccine would give them more protection, and yet refuse to get the it because they think the government or Democrats will win if one more Republican gets immunized. For most of them, I think they have only a marginal understanding of the Enlightenment ideals they think they are upholding, and hence the impetus for my text. Sadly, I expect most of them, even when confronted with the error of their thinking, will hunker down, again believing that the future of America depends on their stubbornness.

      • The reason I asked the question the way I did was that the tone of your article communicated a bit, maybe unintentionally, that those who don’t agree with your take on this are stupid. The most common reason I have discovered, anecdotally, for people not being vaccinated is the sense that the disease isn’t as deadly as the alarmist media makes it out to be, and for those not at high risk, it’s unnecessary. For those who are more concerned, the vaccine and masking are there to protect them, if those measures work as we’ve been told. That’s what I’m hearing in the civil discussions I’m having with unvaccinated folks. If we ignore the extremists we can find that intelligent people disagree and have reasonably thought out reasons for what they think. My impression is that none of those people are stupid.

      • While “stupid” might not be the correct word in all cases, there is a certain willful ignorance at play. The mask issue, which has gone on for a year or more, is a great example. I have seen the mantra “masks don’t work” posted in too many places. As so many have stated clearly, the purposes of masks is not to protect you from the disease, but to reduce the chance that others will get the disease from you. And it is documented to do that. But when I have pointed this out to anti-maskers, they simply repeat the mantra, or point to some year-old Scandinavian study that doesn’t even address the transmission issue. That is ignorance, through and through.

        It’s the same with the vaccines. Yes, the vaccines offer the recipient better protection against the virus. But the main purpose of a vaccine in a pandemic is to reduce transmission. That is, those who get vaccinated are less likely to infect others, and less likely to generate mutated variants of the disease. Those who say “the disease isn’t that deadly” are (without thinking about it) opting to play Russian Roulette with the lives of other people. It might not be stupid, but it is certainly heartless.

  • Maybe some people are, but not any I’ve talked with. I’ll make the point one last time: There are smart (not ignorant, stupid, extreme, heartless, etc.) people who genuinely want to understand this thing and spend a lot of time studying it, not with confirmation bias, but to truly understand, and their conclusions vary. That’s not surprising in a country as large as ours with so many honestly trying to discover the best solutions (yes, in a country this large there are idiots too!). I’m suggesting that we should all be humble and avoid the idea that my conclusions are right and others are wrong and even stupid, even if we think they might be.

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