How much should government constrain citizens’ otherwise-rightful activities to lower the risk very serious harms to others?

  1. The Covid-19 pandemic has raised challenging questions about the balance between protecting personal liberty and promoting the collective good. We are now in a situation where expressing normally morally acceptable personal freedoms (such as mixing freely with others, pursuing everyday activities, not wearing a face mask) can contribute to creating catastrophic threats to the wellbeing of others. How much should government constrain citizens’ otherwise-rightful activities to lower the risk very serious harms to others?
  2. This should give us pause when we consider a much larger catastrophe that currently — and increasingly — challenges humanity: climate change. Driving a gas-fueled truck instead of an electric sedan, kicking the air conditioning on high, flying thousands of miles for work or vacation: all these are pleasurable and convenient activities that people think they have a right to enjoy. But as with COVID-19, they increase the risk that others will be harmed, except that the others are even further away in time and space, and largely invisible to those contributing to the harms. Likewise, the most vulnerable will disproportionately include communities of color, the impoverished and the very old. So, if voluntary compliance is elusive when considering relatively immediate threats to relatively close others, there is little hope that voluntary compliance is going to be successful when considering (what at least appears to be) relatively distant threats to distant others. Our failures to address COVID-19 should be a warning to us we turn our attention to climate change. How much should government constrain citizens’ otherwise-rightful activities in an effort to avoid the most serious consequences of climate change?

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