Rather than unnecessarily expose myself to risk by addressing the board again, I decided to pen this open letter to the HCPS board members and submit it as my public comment for the record of the special called school board meeting taking place on Thursday, August 6th. Not only is this letter a plea for the board to unanimously vote to do the right thing, it is also a lament about how politically polarized we’ve become as a nation, which is both deeply distressing and disheartening.
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Honorable Hillsborough County School Board Members:
We live in trying times and today you must make an important decision that will affect us all, regardless of our individual needs, desires and, yes, even choices. As elected leaders, you have been granted the consent of “We the People” to carefully consider the common good, balancing that ideal with our cherished individual liberty. The tension that teeters on the fulcrum between these two concepts has always existed and should be in balance, but our polarized political ecology as of late has clearly tipped the scale so far over that our county, country, and culture all suffer from the corrosive nature of hyper-individualism. Now, more than ever before, we must seek to unite again. Today, let Hillsborough County put people over politics so that we may move forward together.
Our second most sacred American historical document, The Declaration of Independence, contains the famous line concerning certain inalienable rights, and “that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice the order in which those three fundamental rights are listed. Does liberty come before life? Absolutely not. Life must come before liberty because it is a prerequisite for autonomy itself. This simple idea underscores how perplexed I and many of my fellow Americans have been about these claims regarding the use of masks, social distancing, and why we must offer enlightened individuals a choice to send their children to schools in the midst of a public health crisis. But if preservation of life is the highest good, the ultimate aim of what a democratic government is to provide to its citizens, why must some continue to elevate the idol of free choice over the lives of our children, our educators and their families?
Please do not misconstrue what is being said. As Americans, our liberty is dear to us all. But I hope to offer a brief lesson in ethics through two philosophical giants, one of whom is a champion of individual liberty and the author of one of my favorite essays, On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. Although this tract looms large in the minds of many disciples of freedom, Mill is also the philosopher who perfected an ethical approach known as Utilitarianism, which fundamentally argues in favor of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” The other thinker is Immanuel Kant, arguably the most famous moral philosopher of the entire Enlightenment period, the very same fertile grounds on which our cherished ideals took root before being transported here by our Founding Fathers.
J.S. Mill is unambiguous in his assertions that individual liberty is the paramount good and that in all matters of one’s own body and mind, “the individual is sovereign.” He is the classic liberal who puts freedom above all else, except, like Thomas Jefferson, when it comes to potentially harming or killing others. In the introduction to On Liberty he states, “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Furthermore, in the concluding chapter regarding the limits of authority of society over the individual, he lucidly claims “there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons beside himself.” Clearly, the conduct of those who are politically pressing to open during a pandemic undoubtedly affects others by threatening the health and lives of our broader community, meaning a vote for liberty over life is a moral failure.
Make no mistake, those who continue to tout their individual liberty over the common good and public health are wrong, ethically speaking, especially in light of how our foundational American ideals and values were firmly established on these same philosophical principles.
Beyond the utilitarian argument of “the greatest good for the greatest number” and lone moral prohibition of harming others in the utilitarian way of reasoning, we should also consider another ethical approach, Kant’s deontology. Also known as “duty ethics,” to comprehend the complex Kantian perspective it is perhaps best to think of a coin; the obverse being our “rights” and the reverse of the same coin being our “duties,” both of which are inextricably linked. For instance, if we have a right to property, others have an ethical duty to not steal that property from us. If we have a right to truth and transparency from our government and its elected leaders, then it has a duty to not lie or deceive the people. And perhaps most critically above all else, if we have a right to life, others have a duty to not kill or otherwise deprive any individual of his or her life.
On both of these ethical points I rest my argument with regard to keeping our schools closed for at least the first nine weeks. I will go so far as to state that anything short of a unanimous vote in favor of keeping our schools closed in order to maximize the preservation of life—especially in light of overwhelming evidence and the urging of our local medical community, the only group who has the knowledge and expertise to guide us through this challenging time—is a dereliction of your duty as a constitutional officer of Florida. Your supreme concern should be the safety of our students, staff, and remaining citizens of Hillsborough County. Any vote that dissents against common sense and the common good sends a strong signal that you, as an individual board member, will continue to put politics over people. A vote of dissent will also be an abject moral failure on your part, and I will never let you live it down.
Now more than ever our county, country, and culture need UNITY. We are supposedly the United States of America, but the reality says we are the Divisive Political Tribes of America. As an NPA who is a fiercely, independently minded moderate, I only want what is currently best for everyone. Unfortunately, this also means shared sacrifice for all, as we must temporarily put aside our individualism and freedom of choice for the common good and public health. Life precedes liberty; by voting to preserve the former, you guarantee the latter for our futures.