Fall semester, 2021.  First day of teaching.  Three classes.  Eighty-eight students.  Seven masks.  And one of them is mine.  I am officially an “old guy,” more susceptible to the COVID virus than my decades-younger students.  I have been vaccinated.  I wear a mask when around other people.  I have a one-year-old grandson who I am desperate to see as often as I can, even though he lives in North Carolina.

But, according to laws passed by the state of Iowa and decreed by the Board of Regents, I am not allowed to even ask my students if they have been vaccinated.  Nor can I legally require them to don a mask while attending my classes.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have taught online and in hybrid classrooms.  From a teaching standpoint, I am excited to be back in the classroom with my students, and be able to converse with them face-to-face.  It is a much better learning environment, and it is a whole lot more fun.  But is it “fair” to me or my students to be exposed to nearly 90 individuals, each whom has the potential to infect each other and me with a still-deadly disease—without any way to defend ourselves, or even know who is most likely to carry the virus?

There seems to be little scientific doubt that the COVID vaccinations are safe and effective, nor that masks help protect the person wearing it, along with others.  In a recent contribution to The New York Times, two doctors affiliated with Duke University said, “We have learned a few things for certain: Although vaccination is the best way to prevent Covid-19, universal masking is a close second, and with masking in place, in-school learning is safe and more effective than remote instruction…”  Hence, this essay is not intended to debate the efficacy of masking or vaccinations.

Rather, the topic I want to explore is that of personal choice to wear masks and/or receive the available vaccinations.  Let me also set aside the valid concerns about getting time off from work to get the shot (or recover from its potential side effects), concerns arising out of past abuses of racial minorities, religious beliefs, and so on.  My intent is to explore the question of whether it is ethically justifiable to refuse the vaccination or mask based solely on one’s personal freedom to choose; conversely, whether it is morally defensible to mandate that people wear masks or get vaccinated.

On the surface, one’s right to choose what to wear or whether to receive a shot would seem to be nearly inviolable.  After all, in an individualistic country like the USA, one’s right to choose one’s own path in life is held to be sacrosanct.  But that view is fatally limited.  In order for me to enjoy unfettered freedom of choice places a duty upon all others to respect my right.  And that duty necessarily restricts the rights others are able to enjoy.

Many readers will be familiar with the saying, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” (quoted in the June 1919 Harvard Law Review article by legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee, Jr.).  Given the airborne transmission of the COVID virus, this aphorism rings even more true now, in a different sense.  Variously attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., John Stuart Mill, John B. Finch, and Abraham Lincoln, this statement bears special scrutiny related to the pandemic.  Utilizing Finch’s statement (interestingly for us, in an oration he gave in Iowa City in 1882), “…your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins,” every person in a classroom has only limited rights to personal choice, constrained by other persons’ right to be free from harm inflicted by others.

This relationship between rights and responsibilities is key to structuring individual and group relationships.  On the one hand, much of what Americans believe this country is about is enhancing individual freedom.  Every time we encroach on an individual’s right to choose, there is a justifiable concern about the morality of that encroachment.  On the other hand, it is equally true that exercising my individual freedom is very likely to encroach on someone else’s rights.  Trying to balance this tension between rights and responsibilities is at the heart of how societies are structured.  According to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, “…all societies must resolve a small set of questions about how to order society, the most important being how to balance the needs of individuals and groups.”  The USA leans heavily in the direction of the individual, but…we also recognize the primacy of groups in some instances.  For example, we require vehicle passengers to wear seat belts, some states require motorcycle riders to wear helmets, children are required to have certain vaccinations before they are allowed to enroll in schools, and so on.

How should we balance this conflict between individuals’ right to choose and the group’s right not to be harmed by others?  In “normal” times, we in the USA would tend to favor the individual’s right to do as he or she chooses.  But these are not “normal” times, and the danger of harm to others via transmission of the virus is extremely high—John Yang on the PBS News Hour of September 10, 2021 stated, “every two days this week, with COVID deaths, we have essentially had another 9/11 and also had another 20-year Afghan war in terms of the Americans who've died.”  Doesn’t it seem that we should rethink “…how to balance the needs of individuals and groups” during this perilous period time?

So, back to my classrooms.  The state of Iowa has come down solidly on the side of personal choice related to an individual’s freedom to choose whether to get vaccinated or wear a mask.  I don’t know what percentage of my students have been vaccinated—and I not legally allowed to ask—and the vast majority choose not to wear masks (that, I can observe every day in class—but I am denied the freedom to ask them to do so).  In essence, I walk into a room full of swinging arms and have been denied the right to expect they will stop where my nose begins.  By pursuing this balance of individuals’ rights versus corresponding responsibilities, the state of Iowa has plundered the rights of a large portion of its population—mine included.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.