Skip to main content

At a Crossroad: Looking at Personal Liberty and the Common Good in the Midst of a Pandemic

Professors from the College of Liberal Arts explain what COVID-19 has revealed about personal freedoms and the common good and how they affect each other.

By Mia Mercer ‘23

One of the things Americans love the most about our country is the freedom we are afforded to make certain choices. But what if there’s a possibility that our decisions can harm others?

Throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 has exposed the intersections of personal freedoms and the common good — like not wearing a mask, choosing to attend large gatherings, or getting a vaccine. However, philosophy professors from the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University explain that the convergence between the idea of individual freedom and the common good is a crossroads rather than a four-way intersection; they point out that our individual “freedom” is limited to the effect it has on other people. 

“Think about driving,” Linda Radzik, applied and professional ethics professor from the Department of Philosophy said. “Driving is an inherently risky activity. Anytime I go out in a car I’m going to be around other people and I could potentially harm them, so I have to limit how I drive in order to respect their legitimate interests and freedom. But to drive at all is to pose some risk to other people. So what do we do? We come up with social rules about where to drive and how fast to drive and right of way. Often there’s not just one way to work out how to balance the limits of my liberty versus your liberty, my being on the road versus your being on the road. There’s often not just one way to solve it but it does need to be solved in a way where everyone can reasonably agree to those rules.”

Because personal liberty is limited by other people, experts say limits keep each other safe. However, these limits have to be negotiated in sometimes complicated ways.

“There is a conception of freedom that is integral to what people might think of as the tradition of liberalism, in the old fashioned sense, where the sphere of freedom is the idea that you should not be constrained in doing what you want to do within a space where only you and other consenting people are affected,” decision theory professor Jose Bermudez from the Department of Philosophy said. “This idea of freedom leads to the idea where people shouldn’t be constrained in their sexual preferences or in the kind of food they want to eat or how they organize their homes, or anything that doesn’t affect other people. If you understand freedom like that then it’s impossible for freedom to come into conflict with the public good.”

Despite the fact that personal freedoms often end where the responsibility of keeping others safe begins, some individuals have chosen not to change their behavior in the face of the pandemic. 

“We used to feel very secure in the right to simply walk around without a mask on our face because it used to be the case that it did not pose an unreasonable risk to other people,” Radzik explained. “Now we have to rethink that. So it really does require a shift in the perception of our behavior.”

However, both Bermudez and Radzik believe there are cases when personal freedom outweighs the common good. They explained that acting on your personal freedom sometimes becomes a balancing act of risk and reward. 

“Take smoking for example,” Bermudez said. “You might choose to smoke. In one sense, that falls into your sphere of personal freedom because it doesn’t directly affect other people provided you don’t breathe smoke all over them or have a child that suffers as a consequence. But even if you could smoke within your personal space where people are not directly affected, there’s still a question about the costs to society; there’s questions about health bills, about whether your decisions are leading to greater health premiums for other people, whether there are implications for your work force suitability for various jobs and so on. So even things that seem to be purely affecting you within your personal sphere often have ramifications that go beyond that.”

According to Radzik, not only do personal freedoms and the common good affect how we choose to act in the pandemic, but they also show how connected we all are. 

“It can be hard to be compassionate and see our interconnectedness,” Radzik said. “But science seems to tell us that if I wear a mask, there’s a bigger benefit for you. Going back to the driving analogy, if I drive slower I would pose less risk to people around me. So there’s always this balancing act of how much I need to do to reasonably limit the risk I pose to other people. It’s not much to ask people to wear a mask, which is one of the easiest things we can do to protect one another.”