What do we owe to each other?

Americans’ commitment to a shared sense of purpose has hit a low point with our response to COVID-19. Photo credit Noah Wulf via Wikimedia Commons.


The politicization of coronavirus vaccines and mask-wearing has been a depressing reminder of the downside of American individualism. The successful functioning of a free republic depends on people taking personal responsibility for their actions. Too often now that translates into a disregard for the rights of others, coupled with an insistence that our own opinions, even if they are founded on the shifting sands of rumor, must be given as much respect as any expert’s.  

In the case of COVID-19, the results have been catastrophic: the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives, hospital stays for millions more, and lingering disability for a number we can’t yet calculate. They are as much victims of the ideology of personal freedom as of the virus itself. 

Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers (usually but not always the same people) could choose to stay home so as not to endanger others by their choices, and perhaps some do. But many claim a right to go where they please, be served in whatever businesses they wish to frequent and send their children unmasked to schools that they insist must be open. Confronted with some version of the maxim that your right to swing your arm ends where the other guy’s nose begins, they insist the other guy ought to swing his arm, too, because bloody noses aren’t real. 

COVID-19 is not the only example of the damage that ensues when a large segment of society elevates the rights of individuals over obligations to society. Second Amendment absolutism has led to the peculiar result that the right to own a gun is valued more highly in law than the right not to be killed by one. 

I would argue that the refusal on the part of a vocal minority to even acknowledge climate change and the role of humans in causing it similarly has its roots in American individualism. To concede we are in a crisis is to accept the need for action to counter the rise in atmospheric CO2. Though the collective benefits of action are enormous (extending even to the ability of our civilization to endure), some individual sacrifice has to happen in the short term. Yet for some people, individual sacrifice in the service of the greater good is unthinkable. What’s in it for them?

That’s why climate activists (myself included) so often emphasize the benefits to individuals of the energy transition: cleaner air, the superior comfort of energy-efficient homes, lower electricity bills from cheap wind and solar. Even the appeal to parental love — Save the planet for your children! — assumes the primacy of self-interest. But that avoids the more difficult question of what my obligation is to my neighbor’s children, or for that matter, children elsewhere in the world. What do human beings owe to each other?

It may feel impossible to have a serious conversation about rights and responsibilities when our public sphere is so contaminated by falsehoods, mistrust and conspiracy theories. But we still have to try, because the ability of our society to navigate the many challenges ahead of us depends on a consensus about what we owe to one another. 

Successfully tackling the big issues – both familiar ones like the economy, racial and wealth inequality, and threats from abroad, and emerging threats like cyberterrorism, climate chaos, plastic pollution and looming ecological collapse — requires collective action. A nation of individuals all fiercely guarding their individual rights and recognizing no responsibilities towards others is on its way to collapse.

This column appeared first in the Virginia Mercury on August 28, 2021.

8 thoughts on “What do we owe to each other?

  1. I wholeheartedly agree, and I thank for this essay. To have a chance of avoiding the unthinkable worst consequences of climate change, the world must have the serious, unwavering commitment of the U.S. But our dysfunctional politics is thwarting our full engagement, largely because of our warped interpretation of freedom.

  2. I just read a humorous 10 worst result of climate change I think it was number five that was having to talk to people we disagree with this sentiment has completely set into our democracy
    We have become two different nations

  3. Another good one Ms. Main.

    “A nation of individuals all fiercely guarding their individual rights and recognizing no responsibilities towards others is on its way to collapse.”

    To be sure…though truthfully, there could well be some upside to this.

    Would you consider running for Governor in WV?

    Best regards,
    Craig McBurney

    • Thanks, Craig, but don’t get me started on West Virginia. Paradise turned into a feudal state for the extraction industries, and instead of revolting, the workers support the bad guys. What’s up with that?

      • Hah, I’m working on it. Your ‘observation’ is precisely why I’m here. When one’s mission is to kill fossil-poison generation, starting in a state where 92% of the energy is generated by dead dinosaurs provides a low bar to measure impact from!

        So I’m taking your answer as to candidate for Governor of Wild & Wonderful as a maybe? 😝

  4. Ms Main hit the nail right on the head with her comment: “It may feel impossible to have a serious conversation about rights and responsibilities when our public sphere is so contaminated by falsehoods, mistrust and conspiracy theories.” Problem is her blog post here contains so many logical fallacies, divisive innuendos, and falsehoods itself that she actually proves to be the source of her scorn rather than the solution. Bravo, Ms. Main, for choosing to make matters worse by spewing political activism (which displays a bad case of cognitive dissonance revolving around the clear lack of understanding of the U.S. Constitution) while ostensibly posing as a climate activist. I hope you find solace in your small political bubble that panders to your pointless diatribes.

    To answer your rhetorical question: The only thing anyone owes anyone else in civilized society is to follow the law. Nothing more, nothing less. To give you some additional insight into that obligation you should be aware that if folks do not choose to wear a mask when and where it is not required by law, or refrain from taking an experimental drug that they are not required to by law, then they are not abdicating any social “responsibilities to others” (whatever that means) whatsoever.

    Cheers!
    Sonny Wiehe

    • Even if the law is demonstrably corrupt and is supporting a relative handful of shareholders resulting in the death of the planet we all live on? Those laws?

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