By Cliff Guthrie
“Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.” This saying, or something like it, is often aired when people argue about their civil and human rights, and it is helpful as far as it goes. As children, we learn that our rights are not absolute when we have to stand in line for our turn on the swing, or when an adult stops us from hitting the kid in kindergarten who makes us mad. It makes sense to us that we all feel that we have certain rights. We also know that all rights have limits because we don’t live alone on an island but in a society with other folks who have rights of their own.
When we talk about rights in ethics class, we first learn the differences between human rights, that we believe we all have as members of the human race, and civil rights, that are actually guaranteed to us by law because we happen to be a citizen of a given country or state. For example, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the United States is a signatory, states in Article 24 that “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” But I have no doubt that many who are reading this now are in jobs that do not have paid holidays, and others have to work so many jobs that they might wonder when they get to exercise their right to rest and leisure. Human rights declarations have an aspirational quality to them. Though no signing nation can be said to live up to those rights perfectly, such declarations can help guide our efforts to make the world a more just and peaceful place.
Civil rights are those rights that are enshrined in the laws of particular countries, and we are fortunate to live in a nation where basic rights are not only enumerated in constitutional amendments, but in federal and state laws that clarify and expand those rights to people who have previously been denied them: slavery has been abolished, women granted the vote and same-sex couples given the right to marry. Like the swinging arm, however, there isn’t a civil right we can name, even if it’s in one of the amendments, that is absolute. My right to free speech, for example, ends when I use it to slander someone, or call 911 to report a false emergency, or make jokes to the TSA about having a bomb in my shoe.
In his profound book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Victor Frankl recounts how he managed not only to survive four different Nazi concentration camps but also to hang on to his fundamental humanity despite long years of starvation and horrifying degradation. He tells the story of finally being liberated from the camp by American forces, and later going out walking in his new freedom with one of his fellow prisoners. His friend grabbed him by the arm and started leading him across a planted field, destroying the young crops in his path. When Frankl said he shouldn’t, the man started yelling at him: “You don’t say! And hasn’t enough been taken from us? My wife and child have been gassed — not to mention everything else — and you would forbid me to tread on a few stalks of oats!” Frankl understood the desire of the man to pay back some of his suffering, and even his sense of having a right to do so. But he observes that it took time to guide such thinking “back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”
It’s easy to picture the limits of my fists and the beginnings of your nose. I can easily understand that I can’t swing my arms any old way I want when I go out in public. Viruses are harder to see and imagine, and the warm breath that comes out of my lungs and spreads through a store or in a line to buy an ice cream for my daughter doesn’t seem like a fist at all. But it can be far more deadly than a fist.
We are truly blessed to live in a nation that has a long history of believing in rights, both human and civil rights. I suppose it’s true that until there is a law saying otherwise, we may have a right not to wear a mask or take other easy health precautions while in public. After all, it’s not listed anywhere as a human right, nor legally as a civil right. But if we believe in our hearts that we have a fundamental right not to wear a mask in public or not to observe social distancing rules, I doubt anyone can persuade us otherwise. However, maybe we can understand that when we fail to be careful about spreading the virus, we are swinging our fists around as if no one else matters or exists. No circumstance in our lives, however much wrong has been done to us, gives us the right to do wrong to others.
Cliff Guthrie of Orland is a professor of ethics and humanities at Husson University.