“Freedom consists in being able to do everything that does not harm others”, according to article 4 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. Or, according to the popular maxim: my freedom ends where that of others begins.
These reminders are necessary, at a time when more and more protesters around the world denounce the obligation to wear a mask as an attack on individual freedom, and where in France too the issue sometimes turns into violence, as This se shows in the case of the man beaten in a laundry in early August for requiring the use of a mask.
But why are these new obligations giving rise to so much controversy and contention? To wear a mask or not, is it really a question of freedom?
An attack on fundamental freedoms
This issue has been debated since April, when the League for Human Rights took legal action, considering that the municipal decree of Sceaux, which imposed the use of a mask and a curfew, constituted an attack on freedoms. fundamental.
the decision of the Council of State of April 17, 2020 concluded that the decree in question “port[ait] an immediate attack on the freedom to come and go and personal freedom ”. However, it should be noted that this decision does not imply that the obligation to wear a mask is considered contrary to freedom; what was in question was the empowerment of the mayor only to decide on stricter measures for his municipality than those in force for all of France.
A large number of people who consider these measures “liberticidal” are those who reject freedom of choice in other contexts, such as abortion or LGBT + rights.
According to a press release from the League for Human RightsIt was this two-speed system that was the problem, as well as the imposition of the use of masks when they were not available to the population.
So what freedom would the obligation to wear a mask infringe? Certainly not to come and go, since it is quite evident that the free movement of people is possible – and even reinforced as long as the measure makes it possible to avoid a new confinement – with this prophylactic measure.
A form of “slavery”?
Some of the voices against the use of masks suggest that this obligation would violate their freedom of expression, conscience or privacy. During a great rally in berlin oneer In August, which mobilized some 20,000 people from across the country, anti-mask protesters denounced the obligation as a form of slavery and claimed to be “free.”
These statements echo the words chanted for months during the demonstrations in the United States, often appropriating the slogan of the fight for women’s rights and the choice of abortion – “my body, my choice” – to this end.
This rejection of prevention policies is especially worrying, especially if one takes into account that a large number of people who consider these measures “liberticidal” are precisely those who otherwise deny freedom of choice in other contexts. like abortion or the rights of LGBT + communities.
What does it mean to be free?
Today, any question of choice is immediately appropriate in a discourse on individual liberty. However, in doing so, we often forget that freedom is not the absence of any restriction or absolute self-determination, but rather that our freedoms exist in one social and political sphere and are therefore limited by those of another.
We often forget that freedom is not the absence of restrictions, but rather that our freedoms exist in a social and political sphere and are therefore limited by those of others.
As Montesquieu well said in From the spirit of the laws, freedom can only be guaranteed in a context of limitation and respect for the law:
“It is true that in democracies people seem to do what they want; But political freedom is not about doing what you want. In a state, that is to say, in a society where there are laws, freedom can only consist in wanting to do what you should want, and not in being obliged to do what you should do. one should not want to. You have to think what is independence and what is freedom. Freedom is the right to do whatever the law allows; and if a citizen could do what he defends, he would no longer have any freedom, because others would continue to have that power ”.
Being free, therefore, is not doing everything you want, it is doing what you want in a framework that guarantees the possibility that everyone can also decide as much as possible for and for themselves. That is why no freedom is absolute: freedom of opinion or expression, so often claimed today in the digital age, also knows its limits, reinforced even by the Law of June 24, 2020 Orientation to Internet content. For example, it is forbidden to hold words that incite hatred or violenceprecisely because this type of discourse threatens the freedom of others and the system on which the protection of this freedom is based.
An interference of power
Do these considerations also apply when it comes to wearing a mask? According to some, this obligation constitutes interference by public authorities in their personal choices, a form of paternalism that they consider unacceptable.
It is up to everyone, they say, to decide if they want to put themselves in danger, take the risk of getting sick. It is not the role of the state to intervene in choices and preferences.
If such an argument is admissible, this type of reasoning is valid only in cases in which the choices and preferences do not involve any harm committed towards others, and do not involve any restriction of their fundamental rights or freedoms.
In the case of wearing a mask, however, it is not an obligation to protect oneself, but rather a measure aimed at protecting others, and especially the most vulnerable within our society. If it is true that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of expression and belief, we must not forget this other right mentioned in article 3:
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
However, it is precisely here where the limitation imposed on our freedom, suggested in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and by Montesquieu, comes into play. Because, in the face of a pandemic that daily costs the lives of thousands of people around the world, and which also translates into numerous economic and social collateral damage, it can be argued that the protection of life, liberty and security of others should take precedence over individual freedom of opinion, beliefs or preferences.
If there are simple and effective means to curb the spread of disease and loss of life, such as wearing a mask, these should not be seen as an obstacle to our freedom, but rather as a way of promoting it.
Absolute freedom is absolute responsibility
Perhaps there are those who will not convince with these arguments, who will see in these political definitions a deflationary conception of human freedom, which denies individual autonomy and self-determination.
Let us remember, however, that even thinkers who defended a much more radical conception of human freedom, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who affirmed that freedom was the possibility of choosing oneself regardless of political contexts or norms, never They supported that the exercise of freedom had no restrictions.
For Sartre, absolute freedom goes hand in hand with absolute responsibility.
For Sartre, in particular, absolute freedom goes hand in hand with absolute responsibility. Because man is free, he is responsible, and Sartre points out that this does not mean “that man is responsible for his strict individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.”
No standard, no law, no institution can tell us what to do, what is the right thing to do. However, our actions and choices impact those around us, and it is precisely because these actions are gratuitous that we must answer for their consequences. In other words, a radical conception of freedom implies a greater awareness that we have the life (and freedom) of everyone else in our hands.
Whatever our conception of freedom, there is no legal or moral argument to support the idea that the obligation to wear a mask would be contrary to this freedom.
A single argument in this direction would be valid, and it is far from being the most cited in social networks or during demonstrations. This argument is economic. In fact, masks are expensive, and especially in a country like the United States, where currently 10% of the population does not have enough food, requiring the use of a mask to go out when there is no provision for the distribution of these masks or financial assistance to these populations may constitute a violation of freedom of movement.
However, this should not constitute an argument against the use of masks, but on the contrary encourage our societies to guarantee equitable access to the resources necessary for subsistence and the protection of the rights of all.
This op-ed was originally published on The conversation.
See also in The HuffPost: In the name of their “freedom”, these Texans refuse to wear the mask, even when it is mandatory