On December 1 1955, in Alabama, Rosa Parks broke the law. But Parks was no ordinary criminal trying to take advantage of others. She merely refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person and was arrested for this reason alone. Parks is a hero because she stood up, or rather sat down, for the rights of black people.
Among other things, Parks taught us that we shouldn’t take the law too seriously, since a legal prohibition does not always imply a moral prohibition. In fact, there can be cases where we should actually do what the law forbids.
But we can extend Parks’ lesson and add another scenario where we shouldn’t take the law too seriously. Just as legal prohibitions (such as not to occupy seats reserved for white people) do not always determine what we should do, legal permissions, or rights, cannot determine what we should morally do either.
Consider the UK government, which now permits its citizens to visit public places without wearing masks, despite surging COVID infection rates. Does that permission mean that people in England now have good reasons to abandon their masks?
I think not. Just as Parks was not morally prohibited to do what she was legally prohibited to do, people are not always morally permitted to do what they are now legally permitted to do.
“Having” a right and “doing” right are quite different things.
Often, the law’s permissions are unable to give us good reasons for doing things because the law is a very blunt instrument. It creates only broad rules and is unable to be sensitive to the specifics of individual situations. The law cannot be precise enough to account for all aspects of our individual and fast-changing environments. Even if the permission granted by the UK government on “freedom day” in July was good overall, people should still think carefully about whether they need to go, at least sometimes, beyond the call of their (legal) duty.
By way of illustration, suppose you are on a crowded train. Some of the passengers will be especially vulnerable to COVID, but it may be very hard to see who is. We cannot see whether a person has a chronic illness, such as diabetes, or is not vaccinated, or would suffer a severe infection for other reasons. Wearing a mask in situations like these could save lives without causing any significant discomfort to ourselves, and this should give us very good reasons to wear them.
To get through the pandemic, we need to apply common sense and sometimes not exercise our legal rights. If we think that referring to our legal rights can settle the matter, we succumb to rules that were not designed to guide us fully in the first place. We become gullible. We may fail morally. And, most importantly, we might even fall back behind Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment maxim of sapere aude, the moral and political imperative to think for ourselves.
But to think “for” ourselves does not mean to think just “of” ourselves. We need to look out for each other, show solidarity and make a contribution to overcoming the pandemic. Governments alone cannot solve this crisis.
For this reason, it is now a civic virtue not to take the law, or your government, too seriously, in the sense that neither law nor government can provide the final word on what we should do in the specific and constantly changing contexts of our private and professional lives. Sometimes, we are morally required to go beyond the call of our legal duties.
So, let’s step away from merely considering what we have “a” right to do and start thinking about what it would “be” right to do.
Maximilian Kiener receives funding from The Leverhulme Trust. Maximilian is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Oxford.