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By Greg Bourne, Executive Director, Lead4Tomorrow

Rights and responsibilities are opposite sides of the same coin – in essence, the currency of American democracy. They go together to define who we are as a people and society. The Bill of Rights builds on the ideal that all people have  unalienable rights – the opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our society is defined by a range of “rights” which are clearly, explicitly defined. At the same time, personal and civic responsibility are an expected element of the social contract which binds all Americans.

The reality is that focusing on just half of the equation can undermine the wellbeing of individuals and society as a whole. Being overly focused on rights can lead to diminishing a sense of our responsibility to our fellow citizens. Yet when rights are absent, impeded or withheld, greater focus is needed on rights to ensure equity. The symbiosis between rights and responsibilities is demonstrated where an inequity of rights leads back to responsibility, the responsibility of every member of society to work towards rectifying recognized inequities. In an era where those who extol individual rights seem to have the louder voice, we must not lose sight of the importance of individual responsibility.

Several decades ago, biologist and philosopher Garret Hardin reinforced the value of a social contract, noting the negative impact of the self-serving pursuit of rights, or sense of entitlement. His metaphor of the Tragedy of the Commons serves as a barometer. As he lays it out, a pasture can support the cattle of several families if each family limits, equally, the number of cattle it places on the pasture based on what is sustainable. But if one person acts out of a sense of personal privilege, and puts more cattle on the land than agreed and can be sustained, the land eventually becomes overgrazed and useless to all, including the person who abrogated the trust of the commons. For a healthy society, which functions for the benefit of all, circumstances exist where our responsibilities to each other should prevail. This is core to our social contract with one another.

While this foundational concept is sometimes challenged by those who focus on individual rights, consider circumstances when individual responsibility arguably has been deemed more important. All states have vaccination requirements for children going to schools. An individual cannot yell fire in a crowded place where there is no fire (a limit on freedom of speech) and large public protests typically require permits. These and other examples clearly demonstrate the societal value placed on individual responsibility over individual rights when public safety and the common good are at stake.

Currently this balance of rights versus responsibility is playing out around the issue of wearing masks during COVID (and arguably extends to being vaccinated as well). Given the context – a worldwide pandemic – ultimately, is it more important to rest on our individual “rights” to not wear a mask, a decision which can harm both self and others, or respond to our corporate “responsibilities” to wear a mask, which can prevent harm to both self and others?

Fundamentally, whether or not to wear a mask is no different from the other issues noted above, where individual rights take a back seat for the sake of public health and safety – the common good. In this context, it’s not a huge reach to require wearing an effective mask at school, or on airplanes, or in other places where the spread of the disease is more likely. Based on the concept that caring for the wellbeing of others takes precedence during a pandemic, the hope is that wearing a mask would be a simple voluntary action taken by all.

The tragedy in this case, resulting in the loss of lives, jobs and a sense of public wellbeing – is that what should be solely a public health issue has been reframed and misappropriated as a political issue, fomented by political forces for political purposes. Despite well documented scientific evidence that supports the value of wearing a mask for reducing the spread of COVID, a false narrative has continued to be motivated by political actors (the term “leaders” does not apply) more interested in their political futures and dogma than the common good. Instead of bringing our society together around a superordinate goal, and encouraging people to work together to fight a societal and world threat, as occurred in response to World War 2, some politicians and infotainers have pitted one group against another. This is unconscionable. And unfortunately, too many in our society have bought into this false narrative, swept up by the political frenzy spawned in recent years.

Common sense, and historical precedent, supports the idea that our individual responsibility for the greater good often outweighs our individual rights. This is fundamental to the social contract with our fellow human beings. Wearing a mask is but one signpost reinforcing that circumstances exist where individual responsibility to each other should outweigh individual rights. Garret Hardin had it right. Our well-being as individuals, and as a nation, rests more on cooperation and working together, especially during challenging times, than on self-serving competition, an unhealthy sense of entitlement – and political ambition.