Time for Canadians who believe in real freedom, which comes with limits, to push back hard against Freedumb Movement
If you follow me on social media, you know how deeply concerned I am about the rise of what I call the Freedumb Movement. These are the folks who participated in the anti-vax, anti-mask, anti-public health Freedom Convoy in January of 2022 and then occupied Canada’s capital for three weeks. Their numbers have swelled since then, in part because deeply cynical political leaders like Danielle Smith in Alberta and Scott Moe in Saskatchewan have actively courted them. At the heart of the conversation Canadians are having about the freedumb movement is what we mean by “freedom.”
I made a small contribution to that conversation by interviewing philosophy professor Paul Russell, University of British Columbia, about how Western liberal democracies like Canada defined freedom. Below is a transcript of that interview. I’ve also embedded the video interview if you’d like to watch it.
The bottom line is that individual freedom is not absolute. “Your freedom ends at the tip of my nose,” is an apt aphorism here. If your behaviour harms me, governs are justified in restricting your freedom to protect me.
This is why the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows for “reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” We can debate what “reasonable limits” means, but the right of public health officials to compel vaccination or mask-wearing to protect others has a long history in this country.
It is not tyranny. Not even close. In fact, to oppose vaccination or mask-wearing is a form of narcissistic tyranny.
Put plainly, freedumbers, as I call them, are just plain selfish. Canada should stop knuckling under to selfish and egocentric citizens. If they want to live in society, then they must accommodate the needs of others. Period. Full stop.
Read or watch the video as Professor Russell makes the case for limits to freedom much more eloquently than me.
Markham: When you’re on social media or maybe at a family gathering, have you ever wanted a pithy retort to someone who is maybe a People’s Party of Canada supporter or an anti-vaxxer who goes on and on about freedom? Well, I’m going to be talking to Paul Russell, who’s a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia about just what you should be saying. So welcome to the interview, Paul.
Paul Russell: Nice to be here. Thanks for having me, Markham.
Markham: Look, in your op-ed that you wrote recently on this topic, you talked about the 19th century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill and writing about freedom. And what really struck me was the idea of the harm principle. Could you explain your argument briefly, please?
Paul Russell: Sure. So I mean, essentially the harm principle, it’s a fundamental principle for the development of our liberal democracy and the way… Especially in the British tradition, if you want, and that we in Canada are part of. And the basic idea is very simple, which is that people should be left free, uncoerced, uninterfered with by any authority, be it the state, the society, the church, or any kind of self-imposed or self-appointed authority of that kind. The individual has to be left to decide for himself or herself what to believe and how to live their life. But… And this is the big part, Markham, the crucial point, within the constraints of not causing harm to others. Hence, there are limits to liberty, which is you should be left to live and believe and choose and find your own form and plan of life entirely as you please. But you can’t do that in a way that causes serious harm or injury or damage to other people. You have to always be considerate of other people’s welfare and their interests. That’s the kind of intuitive, very simple ground.
Markham: And is this principle not baked into the foundation of modern law?
Paul Russell: Well, exactly. It’s fundamental. That’s exactly right. I mean, it’s the very basis of the difference between law and anarchy. Freedom comes within a society where there’s law and the rule of law. So you don’t just have license. Freedom isn’t license where I get to choose and do anything I want. I can’t drive down the wrong side of the road. I can’t take shots at people down the street and things like that because that’s just anarchy and that’s license. That’s not real freedom. And in fact, it’s kind of an interesting question that freedom really, as it were, is realized or possible within the rule of law that prevents you from harming other people.
Markham: In Canada we have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and my understanding is that it sets very clearly, it says that reasonable limits can be placed on freedom.
Paul Russell: Yeah, exactly. I mean, this is fundamental to our whole political culture and not just our own, but other democratic cultures. And in fact, to be honest, it’s almost like moral common sense. Any society needs some kind of limits of this sort. You might even say that even societies that don’t live by our own liberal democratic principles still need to be able to constrain and restrict people’s behavior. The problem is that they do it in a much more extreme way where they are invading people’s right to decide for themselves how to live their own lives and what to believe. That’s a very different issue.
Markham: So it would seem to me then that any public health measures designed to restrict freedoms. So whether they be a vaccine passport or a masking mandate, both they’re consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and they’re consistent with the concept of freedom as defined by Mill and the harm principle.
Paul Russell: That’s exactly right. As you know, that’s really essential to what I was just trying to say in that short piece, in the opinion piece in the province. Which is that of course, there’s a sense of which a mandate to get a vaccine or to wear masks… And actually, one of the reasons I wanted to write that piece was that I thought there was some confusion about this because sometimes people say it’s for your own good that you should get a vaccine or it’s for your own good that you should be wearing a mask. And of course, there’s some truth… There is truth in that. And there’s a lot of medical and scientific evidence to back that up.
But in the case of our society where we’re concerned with as we’re mandating people to behave in these ways or act accordingly, the reason for doing that is we can’t justify it in those paternalistic basis. If I don’t want to get a vaccine at the end of the day and it harms me, that’s my own business. But if I don’t want to get a vaccine, I want to go out to a hockey game or a concert or a political rally where I’m a real risk to other people, I’m risking harming them, and that’s a different situation altogether. And as you say, that’s completely consistent with our basic legal free structure.
Markham: Now, as a scholar of philosophy, Paul, can we look back in Canadian history and see examples where we’ve wrestled with this, the conflict between freedom and the harm principle in the past?
Paul Russell: Well, that’s interesting. It’s funny you should ask that because actually when this was all brewing up, I was thinking… I live in Victoria and [inaudible 00:05:40] in Victoria, there were islands where people were quarantined, people with [inaudible 00:05:45]. So this was a serious problem in the past. So there’s actually a very long history of quarantine law in Canada and well beyond that all the way back. And of course, quarantine is almost basic moral and political common sense, which is nobody deserves to get sick. It’s very unfortunate if somebody gets smallpox or leprosy or whatever. Sorry. But the point there is that you can’t have those people going out into the general population, or they will, as it were, harm and spread the disease and it will have catastrophic results. And of course, we know with the native community here that smallpox virtually wiped out a chunk of the native community, and there are all kinds of serious repercussions. So we have an even in just the simple, straightforward medical cases, but we have it all the time.
And it’s an interesting question because it raises the question of what constitutes a harm and risk? And this is where the principle itself in some sense is very simple, but it’s actually interpretation and application gets quite difficult because not only is it as it were, you can contest what’s a harm and what’s a real risk and how high that risk is and so on and so forth. But you can also sort of as it were worried that as it were, there are other competing considerations as well. So there are different kinds of harms and interests to consider. So there are these complications, and this goes through all kinds of legislation that we thought, like drug legislation, for example.
Markham: Now, we’ll wrap up the interview this way. About a month ago I interviewed Dr. James Talbot, who’s the Former Chief Medical Officer of Health in Alberta. So he was in a perfect position to comment on the work that’s being done and criticized, I guess.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, who’s the current CMO. And one of the questions that I asked him was, is it a principle of public health that you intervene only as much as required to reduce the risk and the harm to the population without unduly restricting their freedom? And he said, yes. But then that very quickly begs the question, how do you calculate that? Because then it’s a calculation, right? And I would argue, because I live in Vancouver Island as well, so in British Columbia, but British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta, there are a lot of people who think the calculation has been too cautious, and there’s been too much emphasis on freedom and not enough emphasis on the harm principle. On mitigating risk by restricting freedom. I’m curious about your take on that.
Paul Russell: Well, I think that’s exactly right, and that is why it’s a difficult call. And I really admire the public officials, both political and medical, who are stepping into this super difficult area to have to take these tough calls. And of course, there are complicated issues that deal with complex facts and considerations, and there’s new information constantly coming down the tube all the time. So about my own view about the balance, I think there is a responsibility in the public officials, political and medical to ensure public safety and the public health. That’s a fundamental responsibility that they have. And so I think they’re quite right to say, of course, we are reluctant to limit people’s ability to pursue their ordinary normal activities, but in these circumstances we have to weigh this carefully. So I think on the whole… In British Columbia and maybe generally in Canada, we’ve done this really well.
I’ve just come back from Sweden because as you may know, I’ve got a job in Sweden. I spend time in Sweden. And I was shocked in Sweden how relaxed they are about things like masks and stuff. Now, there’s been a huge debate in Sweden and beyond about the way the suites have handled this situation because they had certainly early on, very high incidents of deaths and mortality. So you’re into kind of… Moral life, ethical life, and concrete detail, as you know, is never easy. There are messy, difficult, complicated calls here. But the balance strikes me, I think that it’s been remarkably well done on the whole, and certainly in my own province here in British Columbia. I’ve been super impressed by the balanced approach and the sensitivity to the freedom issue. But as I say, freedom within the restraints, but also sensitive to the need to protect public health and public safety.
Markham: I think this conversation is useful, Paul, because as someone who spends a lot of time on social media and has participated in many of these conversations, I would say what’s often lacking is some way an agreement upon principles and a structure for the conversation. A gift too often gets… It comes down to we’re slinging accusations and so on. I’ll admit that I’ve done a little bit of that myself. Having said that, I will disagree with you a little bit because I think the calculation has not been weighted enough towards harm reduction. There’s been a little too much towards freedom. You can see it in Alberta with their overflowing ICUs. You can see it-
But now… Just to wrap, sort of tie a bow around our conversation, you and I can disagree but now that we have a structure and we agree on some basic principles, we can now have a reasonable conversation about that. And even if we disagree a bit, that’s fine. We now have a structure for that. And I think that’s what’s been missing from the provincial and national conversations.
Paul Russell: I totally agree with that, and I think this is what motivated a lot of…I wanted to do when I wrote this piece, because I not only wanted to articulate the harm principle and how in some basic sense it was very straight moral common sense, but also, as you say, kind of reach out. I’m someone who’s in support of the vaccine passport, the importance to ensure that people get the vaccine and the wearing of mask. But there’s a sense… And this is interesting in moral life in general, and it comes into politics, which is sometimes people’s virtues can turn into their vices. And the way I would reach out to the anti-vax community who’s sort of upset that their freedoms are being restricted is to try and say to them, “You’re absolutely right to value and care about freedom and to not allow government to inflate the notion of harm so that we’re constantly being interfered with and to respect the need for no paternalistic activity to leave people to judge for themselves how to live their own lives.” But that’s not what’s going on here. As you say, this is where you want to reach beyond that and say, I can understand those concerns, but this is… We’re trying to stop people from going and harming and risking serious harm to other people, which is a different issue. And surely people accept that.
Markham: Well, Paul, this has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you very much for this. Really appreciate it.
Paul Russell: Really nice to talk to you. Thanks for having me, Markham.