BY JAMES TYNER
The wearing of a mask during the time of coronavirus has become, frustratingly, a political issue. Despite repeated calls by scientists, medical doctors, and public health specialists to wear masks (along with a suite of other precautionary measures), President Trump and many other Republican and conservative politicians and pundits refuse to wear masks or to impose compulsory regulations that would require the wearing of masks. It is important to note that this thinking is out of step with most of the country. Polls suggest that upwards of 70 percent of Americans report wearing a mask at least some of the time. Nevertheless, the battle over face masks provides insight into the various meanings of freedom and, in turn, our understanding and practices of meaning in life.
There is a context to Trump’s antipathy toward masks and the attendant protests and political rallies. It is, for example, patently clear that the many astro-turf protests erupting across the nation echoing Trump’s call to ‘reopen’ the economy have little to do with economics and everything to do with trump’s re-election bid and the continuation of a political movement based on white supremacy and authoritarianism.
Frequently, the discussion of how freedoms are limited boils down to the tension between freedom and determinism. Doctrines of determinism have, throughout the centuries, generated substantial interest and debate both of a scholarly and theological nature. In practice, however, the subtlety and nuance of these metaphysical dialogues is lacking in our everyday politics. Concretely, common-sense understandings of limitations on free will are considerably more superficial and often conflate determinism with constraint, coercion, or compulsion. As Robert Kane (2005, 18) explains, “Freedom is the opposition of constraint, coercion, and compulsion … but it is not the opposite of determinism. Constraint, coercion, and compulsion act against our wills, preventing us from doing or choosing what we want. By contrast, determinism does not necessarily act against our wills; nor does it always prevent us from doing what we want.”
As Kane (2005, 163) explains, ‘freedom’ is a word with many meanings, and there are many different notions of freedom. For our present purposes, three are especially helpful. First, we can consider the freedom of self-realization, “the power or ability to do what we want or will to do, which entails an absence of external constraints or impediments preventing us from realizing our wants and purposes in action” (Kane 2005, 163). This form of freedom aligns to our common-sense understanding and is manifest in the guarantee of surface freedoms, such as being free to go where we please and live as we choose; protests against the wearing of masks or of sheltering-in-place are directed toward such surface freedoms associated with personal gratification and pleasure, that is, going to bars or restaurants or public beaches.
A second form of freedom is the freedom of reflective self-control. Kane (2005, 165) defines this as “the power to understand and reflectively evaluate the reasons and motives one wants to act upon, or should act upon, and to control one’s behavior in accordance with such reflectively considered reasons.” This conception of freedom builds upon Harry Frankfurt’s notion of a wanton: a person who acts impulsively on their desires without reflecting on what desires they should or should not have (Frankfurt 2003; see also Kane 2005). For example, persons with diagnosed addictions are often incapable of reflective self-evaluation and self-control. Extreme political partisanship can serve a similar function, in that ‘true-believers’ or ‘sycophants’ exhibit an absence of critical reflection. In this sense, there may be no external constraints (such as laws) that prevent certain forms of behavior, but instead internal constraints.
Philosophers as diverse as Nietzsche, Sartre, and Marx have addressed the importance of internal constraints. Religion, for example, limits one’s behavior to the extent that he or she acts in accordance with the dictates of one’s God or church. Feelings of alienation, likewise, inhibit one’s freedom of reflective self-control, to the extent that one’s actions are determined by one’s acquiescence to the dictates of market ideology. Crucially, issues of moral responsibility arise with this second form of freedom, for as Kane (2005, 167) explains, “With self-realization, the question is, ‘Can I get what I want?’ With reflective self-control, the further question is, ‘What should I want?’” Significantly, freedom of reflective self-control provides an ethical context for subsequent decisions on how to act.
The morality of concrete freedoms provides a basis for our third and final form of freedom, the freedom of self-perfection. For Kane (2005, 168) this is “the power to understand and appreciate the right reasons for action and to guide one’s behavior in accordance with the right reasons.” In other words, the freedom of self-perfection is a normative freedom and informs our interactions with others. Following Susan Wolf, we may appreciate that freedoms of self-perfection both are relational and provide meaning in life. As Wolf (2010, 28-29) explains, “By living in a way that is partly occupied by and directed toward the preservation or promotion or creation of value that has its source outside of oneself, one does something that can be understood, admired or appreciated from others’ points of view.”
In Dead Labor: Toward a Political Economy of Premature Death, I call attention to humanity’s shared mortality. I premise that our awareness of death, of our finite existence as mortal beings, significantly shapes our social organization and how we ensure the (re)production of life itself. In other words, our consciousness of some future death should serve as an evaluative framework to understand and appreciate the right reasons for action. Effectively, to be aware of one’s possible death is to be aware of the possible deaths of others. With shared mortality comes the realization that our lives are dependent on the actions and inactions of others; for the provisioning of food, water, and the avoidance of threats to our well-being. Likewise, certain actions (freedoms of reflective self-control) we may take, or fail to take, could lead to the deaths of others. Framed in the positive, the manner in which we choose (freedoms of self-perfection) to produce our own lives may either compliment or hinder, that is, constrain or impede the reproduction of others’ lives. From this, we understand that meaning in life is cultivated through those freedoms, those actions and inactions that advance and do not inhibit the life and well-being of others. In this way, the reproduction of meaningful life—not just biological life—can be understood as a social good.
So what about regulations to wear masks? Most people would probably agree that public orders to wear masks (and to practice social distancing) are not deterministic but instead are manifest as potential constraints on one’s freedom. Such orders—to wear masks or to shelter-in-place—are understood as coercive measures and, consequently, constrain one’s exercise of free will. Rob Stutzan, a Republican consultant, sums up the attitude evinced by many conservative leaders: “Republicans by nature are more focused on individual rights. They tend to bristle when presented with government mandates” (quoted in Wildermuth 2020).
But what precisely is being limited? Simply wearing a mask does not prevent one from enjoying a meal with friends at the local Applebee’s, nor does wearing a mask prevent one from getting a haircut. However, exposing other people to a potentially life-ending or life-damaging disease does negatively constrain or impede their well-being and ability to not die a premature death. In short, the selfish exercise of one’s freedom of self-realization, without the associated exercise of one’s freedom of reflective self-control and freedom of self-perfection, contributes to a pervasive attitude of indifference and intolerance and is manifest in a very unfree capacity to hurt others.
It is significant—and ironic—that Trump supporters and protestors adopt a fatalistic attitude toward Covid-19, that is, an attitude that whatever happens, happens. Nietzsche’s aphorism that “convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies” (quoted in Fritzsche 2013, 43) serves as a chilling clarion call for contemporary debates over political freedoms. For those who support Trump, it is not so much the belief in false statements but instead their conviction of the rightness and righteousness of the president. No amount of fact-checking will dissuade those who believe and uncritically support the president. In effect, paradoxically, conviction at this point both becomes fatalistic and fatal; for those who are convinced of the infallibility of Trump and in turn champion their surface freedoms of self-realization while not exercising their freedoms of reflective self-control and self-perfection will acquiesce to a belief that impedes their own free will.
James Tyner is professor of geography at Kent State University. His books include Dead Labor: Toward a Political Economy of Premature Death and War, Violence, and Population: Making the Body Count, winner of the Meridian Book Award from the American Association of Geographers.
Frankfurt, Harry, “Freedom of the Will and a Concept of a Person,” in Gary Watson (ed), Free Will, 2nd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 322-336.
Fritzsche, Peter, Nietzsche and the Death of God: Selected Writings (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2013).
Kane, Robert, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Wolf, Susan, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).