Every. Single. Day.

I recently discovered that, 117 years ago, the United States Supreme Court enforced a Cambridge Massachusetts health board’s smallpox vaccination order. The plaintiff—an anti-vaxxer—claimed their ‘individual liberty.’ That liberty, it was said, included, not only the right to afflict themselves, but also the right to cause others to be afflicted.

When I learned of this legal proceeding, I was aghast. I couldn’t conceive of any person having the right to put others at risk. Where is the humanity in that?

My mistake was to continue reflecting on this precedent from a century ago. It wasn’t long before I developed a ‘short-list’ of activities to curtail if we are serious about not having the right to put other’s lives at risk. Since each of the following human activities have detrimental effects on the environment, they do exactly that:

  • Using motor vehicles of every kind—cars, boats, trains, and airplanes
  • Heating and air conditioning homes
  • Excessive use of fossil fuels to cook food
  • Heating water for bathing and showering
  • Mowing and watering lawns
  • Using plastic of every type, including buying food in any kind of disposable, or even recyclable, containers

I had to stop thinking. The list would have continued almost ad infinitum.

I’ve known for a long time these activities are detrimental to the environment, but when I think about them in relationship to a legal precedent that prohibits putting other lives at risk, I find myself clinging to the edge of a frightening cliff. If we extend the precedent to the lives of other species, there is a plethora of additional things we need to cease doing, one of which is mining, especially for rare earth minerals. That would put an end to virtually every electronic device we currently use.

I don’t condone peoples’ right to put others at risk, however, as it turns out, I do it…Every. Single. Day.

2 thoughts on “Every. Single. Day.”

  1. Your reasoning is sound. The conclusion seems inescapable, as if by fate we all are clinging to the edge of a cliff. I think that Nietzsche was essentially correct that the story of humanity is one of tragedy. Many if not all of our activities have a dark side, that of adverse consequences intended or not, for other living things. I guess that is the selling point of the Buddhist way of life, that minimizing suffering is the only sane way forward. For me the dividing line is to recognize that evil can and ought to be minimized, while not eliminated. To believe that we can eliminate malefic consequences is to be the occasion of the very outcomes we say we are dedicated to prevent.

  2. The reason the Supreme Court ruled in favor to enforce the Cambridge Massachusetts health board’s smallpox vaccination order in 1905, was distinctly put by Justice John Marshall Harlan who explained in his majority opinion … that the Constitution did not allow Americans always to behave however they chose. “Real liberty for all could not exist,” … if people could act “regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”

    Just thought you might be interested in the court’s logic.

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