02 July 2020

Imposing Safe Behaviour (the seat belt)

Imposing Safe Behaviour (the seat belt)


The scope of our topic is the issue of having to follow some regulation or law for our benefit, basically not to hurt ourselves. Sometimes we might even have to follow some rules as a protection of others. We might call this scenario the “seat belt dilemma”. It is a dilemma because we know what we are being asked to do is for our benefit but at the same time we perceive it as taking away some of our freedom and maybe even causes us discomfort.


We can safely assume that such precautions are based on reasonable scientific data and prudence and excluding a malevolent government such measures are based on safety motivations.


Although there has always been some opposition toward these sorts of safety regulations, in general they are more or less accepted by the population. Seats belts, traffic lights, speed limits, and so on, have all become part of our daily life.  Some regulations are quite controversial for example the security checks at airports, and vaccination of newly born, although not all countries require vaccination at birth. More recently we have the wearing of masks because of the Coronavirus pandemic.


What’s different with this pandemic is that this particular pandemic has been politicised, or at least some people have tried to politicise this pandemic. In other words, some people have tried to manage the pandemic on political ideology rather than scientific reasoning. The question for us is not why would people object to following these safety rules such as the wearing of masks? But rather, what is the logic or rationale for objecting to following these safety rules? Indeed is there a logic or rationale?


Healthcares recognise that some people would be seriously affected by having to wear a mask and provisions have always been made for these people. The worst possible argument to object to safety regulations is the one based on freedom or rather these regulations take away our personal freedom. Some people seem to have the idea that freedom means doing what we want, or fancy. What we have to ask ourselves is whether personal freedoms are the same as human rights?


We have a good idea what human rights are, least of all because we have the universal Declaration of Human Rights (www.un.org) and many more declarations and judgments from international courts.  And it is the idea of Human Rights that rejects the belief that freedom means doing what we want. If we look at the UN charter each article starts with words or expressions such as: Everyone, No one, All are, Men and Women, The family, and Parents have. Nowhere does the charter say: the individual has, a human can, you have the right to do, and so on.


In effect, human rights are concepts we already enjoy what a charter like the UN Declaration aims to do is to protect our already existing rights and not give us the rights. We enjoy our rights by virtue of being human and not by virtue of the Declaration. 


And then there is Article 29 of the UN Charter:

Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(Article 29 item (3) is not relevant for our discussion)


In effect the Charter recognises that the language of Human Rights is not equivalent to the language of personal rights. This leads us to the question whether Human Rights are equal to political rights.


I would argue that political rights are rather different from Human Rights, firstly because political rights are not universal by virtue that these rights are given by those in control of the political authority at the time. At best personal freedoms are liberties granted by political fiat or whim. However, when legally sound political rights that conform to the various Human Rights criteria, do these rights also become universal?  My argument is that if a right can be universalisable (ie no discrimination amongst humans), then they ought to be universal rights.


Thus there cannot be a universal right not to wear a mask during an epidemic because that would be clear in breach of Article 29 by putting others in danger by virtue of our knowledge on how viruses spread. The issue is not whether mask prevents the virus from spreading, or protect us from spreading but whether on the balance of probability (legal balance of probability) wearing a mask would protect the community better than if the community were not wearing a mask.


Both the seat belt case and the mask wearing case do protect the individual and the community and thus meet the criteria of Article 29. The problem we might have is the language implied by universalisable (rights) and empirical evidence, such as that studied by science, in that empirical evidence is not universalisable. Some people crash when they are not wearing a seatbelt and they are not injured: a person does not wear a mask and they are not infected by the virus.


Unfortunately,  I would argue that this is a failure in our philosophical thinking that universal means some kind of higher kingdom imperative: unfortunately universalisable can only mean an empirical criteria. Universal Human Rights are not universal because of some divine authority but by virtue of being human. When humanity disappears, universal human rights disappear: the trees and the rabbits do not inherit our rights.


Even the UN charter recognises that we have duties towards the community. We might be politically petty or well informed about what these duties are, but only an irrational or immoral person would argue that we don’t have duties towards others.


In the normal course of life, some people know more about certain things, while others know more about other things in life. What we all know, however, is that the society we live in progresses towards more complexity but not necessary towards a more moral or rational society. This implies that people do not necessarily understand the scientific and rational logic and reasoning behind these safety regulations. We assume that the baker will bake us wholesome bread: imagine if we had to analyse every loaf of bread we bought.


For example, many people have argued on social media that it’s their freedom to wear or not wear a mask during the pandemic, or that they don’t know anyone who caught the virus. The point about the mask is not to protect us as individuals, although it does help, but more importantly it limits, but not necessarily stop, the spread of the virus. In Western societies we are not obliged to wear masks during the flu season, but in Eastern countries it is very common for people to wear a mask when they feel bad or during a flu season. So what’s so special about western socities?


A serious problem is: when an action is justified on scientific or empirical grounds, why should it be so difficult for some people to recognise this validity and the benefit of such safety regulations? We cannot justify the behaviour of these people purely on ignorance or reasoning deficiency. Especially when we have more than enough evidence that human beings are empiricists first and when faced with danger the instinct is to do something. Standing still is an opt out of the survival game even doing nothing might be the best option: what matters is what we reasonably believe we ought to do. If someone is not afraid of being killed in a car crash or a deadly virus they are not playing the survival game.


Best Lawrence


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