Can an act that affects other people be “my personal choice”? This is an important question today since “personal choice” is regularly invoked, especially on questions related to Covid-19. To wear a mask in public or not to wear a mask in public? It is my personal choice. To be vaccinated or not to be vaccinated? Also, my personal choice. Many say, “I have medical freedom” or “my body, my choice.”
First, let’s define some terms. By “choice” it is understood that there is at least more than one option available to the individual doing the choosing. That is easy enough. “Personal choice” gets a little more difficult because it can be understood in more than one way. One way speaks to personal agency and subjectivity. A person has a range of options from which to choose and has the capacity to view those options and pick what she or he wants. The choice is “personal” because a person freely made it.
That is not the sense I mean here when I ask the question, “Can an act that affects other people be my personal choice?” Here I am not referring to the chooser—the person who chooses—but rather the nature of the choice itself. When made, does any outcome or consequence of the choice remain bound only to the chooser or are other persons involved, especially if unwillingly. For example, it may be my personal choice (in the first sense) to smoke cigarettes in a public venue, like a restaurant; but the fact is my choice is not strictly personal inasmuch as I am not the only one the choice affects.
Not very many years ago here in North Texas, cities around the Dallas area began to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Most restaurants already did not allow smoking, so the ban mostly affected bars and clubs. I recall the discourse around those bans, mostly from those opposing the bans, who argued that businesses should not be told by government what to do and that if a business allowed smoking and someone didn’t like it, they could go somewhere else. In the name of freedom of choice, a business owner could choose to allow smoking and a non-smoker could choose to go elsewhere. Ironically, if a business voluntarily (even without a state mandate) requires you to be vaccinated or wear a mask, these same people cry foul, claiming that their freedom of choice to go where they choose is being taken from them.
Wisely, in this case, it was understood that this was not an issue of personal choice, but a matter of public health. Someone may make a personal choice to smoke but smoking around others or admonishing them to leave if they do not like it, takes smoking in that context out of the realm of personal choice (in my second sense) to that of the public good. In the smoking example, the personal choice of the smoker strips personal choice away from others. Claiming “my personal choice” here is not valid, I argue.
I think the same applies for requiring masks or vaccines (whether mandated by government or by owners of public spaces). Not doing so affects others in ways that, in the second sense of personal choice, individuals cannot make a personal choice, because the consequences of that choice do not remain in the realm of the personal—i.e., others are affected.
But wait, you say! Why can a business say wear a mask and if you don’t want to, you can go elsewhere, but a business can’t say that about smoking? One reason is simply that it is a false comparison. The focus is misplaced. It is not about the mask or the vaccine. It is about the fact that you cannot rightly or morally subject someone to a deadly virus just because you think that it is your personal choice not to mask or get vaccinated.
The problem is that we have a deeply flawed view of freedom. When you are talking about your personal choice, you are talking about freedom. In a recently published, and excellent, set of essays called On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, Maggie Nelson observes in her introduction:
This book takes it as a given that our entire existence, including our freedoms and unfreedoms, is built upon a ‘we’ instead of an ‘I,’ that we are dependent upon each other, as well as upon nonhuman forces that exceed our understanding or control…. The question is not whether we are enmeshed, but how we negotiate, suffer, and dance with that enmeshment.Maggie Nelson, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (pp. 10-11).
I have personal freedom and personal choice. But what am I going to do with it? What values inform my choices? Freedom built upon an “I” focuses only on values of personal gratification. It places the person at the center of the universe of importance. It measures freedom solely in terms of wants of the isolated, autonomous individual.
But as Nelson’s words suggest, the individual is not isolated. We are “enmeshed” and that is not something that can be brushed aside. Thus, any concept and ideal we have of freedom, it must be built upon a “we” and our choices take the “we” into account. So, I have freedom and personal choice. But informed by the “we” means that I use my freedom and make my choices with care, compassion, taking thought of my fellow citizens. In his essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre insisted that “existence precedes essence,” by which he mostly meant that in our freedom, we are responsible. In light of this he wrote:
When we say that man [sic] chooses himself, we mean that every one of us does likewise; but we also mean by that that in making this choice he also chooses all people. In fact, in creating the person we want to be, there is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of humanity as we think it ought to be. To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all.Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism”
When it comes to wearing a mask in public or being vaccinated, one cannot say that those are in the realm of “my personal choice” unless that person thinks his freedom to choose is all about himself. The self-centered “my personal choice” represents a rather immature, even childish, temperament. Freedom without obligation, freedom without responsibility, freedom without care and compassion, is anything but the freedom that creates a union.
So, is it your personal choice to not wear a mask or get vaccinated? Yeah, sure. But that kind of personal choice ends at any point your contact with another human being begins. At that point, it is no longer personal. You cannot subject me to a consequence of your choices. Mask and vaccine mandates represent a freedom built on the “we;” where freedom is exercised with regard to those with whom you are enmeshed. Referring back to Sartre, a choice that cannot be good for all, is not good for you.