Absolute or Conditional Freedoms


When I attended the recent Steinbach rally against health restrictions and vaccine mandates, there was a lot of talk about freedom. Many of the protesters made it obvious that they think that in a free society they should be allowed to choose whether or not to wear mask or get vaccinated and risk the lives or freedoms of others as they see fit.

I am a freedom loving person. I would hate living in a country like Afghanistan where freedom is now largely absent. I cherish freedom.

I also cherish the right to dissent from authority. We should have the right to choose for ourselves and oppose decisions of the authorities or majorities in a peaceful manner. We should not be slaves to authority. We are free and have the right to be free.

However, dissent to be worthy of the name must be rational. We need to weigh the alternatives, and the evidence in favour of any proposition, and base our conclusions on our own powerful instruments of critical thinking. Irrational dissent (not based on valid reasoning or evidence) amounts to paranoia which can cripple us as much as tyranny can.

The people at the rally in Steinbach claimed to cherish freedom absolutely. Here I disagree. No rights are absolute. Freedom does not mean we have the right to do anything we want to do. Freedoms are always conditional.

Here are a few examples of what I mean.  All of us must abide by speed limits on public roads whether we like them or not. If we don’t, we can justifiably be punished, even in a free and democratic society.  We are not allowed to build a factory or hog barn in a residential district of a small city like Steinbach. We must abide by zoning laws. We are not free to enter into someone else’s home without their consent, except in unusual circumstances. We are not free to do that because they are free to keep us out.  We are not free to dump our garbage into the street, because that violates the right of others to enjoy community life free from garbage of others. We have to pay taxes whether we like it or not, even if the government spends some of our money on goals with which we don’t agree. We are not (at least in Canada) allowed to promulgate hate speech against other groups even if we hate them. We can hate them, but we are not allowed to encourage hatred or violence against them by others. We are not free to shout fire in a crowded dark theatre when there is no fire present, because that might lead to a stampede of panicking patrons that could cause serious injury to others. A person with a communicable illness like HIV/AIDs is not free to have sex with other individuals without warning them of the danger and if we do we can be charged with an assault. We are not free to hit other people just because we don’t like them. We are not allowed to build dangerous structures on which the public have access, because that would endanger their lives. We must always remember and take into consideration the rights of others. Their rights are not absolute either. Sometimes our rights must bend to allow rights of others to work out.

These are all reasonable restrictions on freedoms which we all must accept if we want to live in a free and democratic society with others.

Similarly, and for similar reasons, when Health authorities demand that we wear a mask to protect others, or get vaccinated if we perform certain functions or want to attend certain public events, we must abide by those requirements, because we are not allowed to endanger the lives of others even though such restrictions do in fact restrict our rights to some extent. In a free and democratic society restrictions can be placed on our freedoms for the protection of others. The restrictions must be effective, tailored to the remedy the harm to be avoided, and as limited as possible in the circumstances so that the freedom of others is curtailed as little as necessary to avoid the harm and no more.

Freedom is great, but it is not absolute. We should be happy that it is not absolute. That would be anarchy. None of us would like it.

Leave a Reply