America was founded on the notion of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
It gave rise to a belief in autonomy for all of our citizens and formal adoption of a series of rights that accompany it.
Autonomy and rights, however, are not simple, one-dimensional concepts. They require a much deeper understanding and come into sharper focus when society experiences stress, like our current condition of pandemic.
Happiness and related concepts like health and prosperity are never individual or isolated experiences.
Human beings are social animals; all three of these conditions are dependent on relationships. We are happiest, healthiest and the most prosperous when our neighbors are the same.
True autonomy recognizes this truth and is not focused entirely on the well-being of one isolated individual.
Hoarding, spreading infectious diseases and wide disparities in income and wealth are signs that autonomy has broken down.
Rights are also built on relationships and do not apply to isolated individuals. Any action taken by a person always impacts others.
We must always consider the effects of our actions on others. That truth is the foundation for the definition of rights, including the necessity of responsibility.
As we learn in Philosophy 101, every right we have has a corresponding responsibility.
When we exercise any right, we must do so responsibly and minimize the harm that might come to others.
We do not have the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. We do not have the right to drive on whichever side of the road we prefer.
How do these ideas relate to the pandemic?
Health is one of the conditions necessary for happiness. The truth is that our health is not entirely within our own power to control.
While we can determine certain aspects of health, like diet and exercise, we are healthiest when our neighbors are also.
The science of public health demonstrates over and over that when a community is unhealthy, the individuals within it are less well.
We may take actions that put our health and the health of our neighbors at risk, but that is not a truly autonomous decision. Kant would call it a heteronomous decision.
Autonomy, in its proper sense, is choosing a course of action in light of the situation in which we find ourselves and of the needs of the individuals with whom we live daily.
A pandemic also adds responsibilities to our rights. We do not have the right to take actions that put the health of others at risk.
For example, I do not have the right to go without a mask into a group of people or stand close to others when I may be an unknown carrier of COVID-19.
My autonomous self realizes I should do that which promotes the health of others. My utilitarian self realizes that by protecting the health of the community, I am also protecting myself.
At the same time, when I choose the morally correct thing to do, science tells me it is the most effective thing to do to prevent more disease.
Countries like New Zealand have shown that using these guidelines can bring the infection rate dramatically lower and allow for reopening much sooner.
Good moral thinking and good science can work together seamlessly. When they do, we can create a better place for us to be and instill hope that our efforts can improve the situation in which we have found ourselves in recent months.
Jesus was not, as some might portray him, a first-century Thomas Jefferson. He would not have used the language of autonomy and rights to teach us how to relate to each other.
Wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding large groups indoors do not appear in any of his parables.
They are, however, totally in keeping with the gospel message of caring for each other and protecting the vulnerable among us.