Skip to content
Home of the finest science fiction and science fact


Personal Choice
by Stanley Schmidt

What do these things have in common?

The COVID pandemic. School vouchers. Very large families.

I collected clippings about all of these from the same newspaper on a single fairly recent day. At first glance they may seem unrelated, but I see them as examples of a single problem that’s larger than any of them.

The first item is a letter to the editor headlined, “If you’re not vaccinated, stay home.” Written at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was closer to its peak than it is now, it’s a reaction to large numbers of people protesting masking and vaccine mandates on the grounds that whether they wore masks or got vaccines was a purely personal decision and nobody else’s business.

The second is a big article about school vouchers, programs using public money to subsidize parents choosing to send their children to private schools instead of public ones. It would be odd to expect a provider of any service to subsidize its own competitors, but this field is unique in that many of the alternative schools specialize in curricula contradicting well-established and tested bodies of factual knowledge. An obvious and particularly glaring example is “Young Earth Creationism,” the idea that the Earth was literally created in six days just a few thousand years ago, which is drastically at odds with a huge body of observational evidence and logical deduction.

My third example is a warm and fuzzy essay about the many joys of large families. The author grew up with ten siblings and rhapsodizes at length about how much fun it was, and how much it taught her about living by serving as a “model society” nurturing many of the skills needed to thrive in society at large. Having grown up in a fairly large family myself (two parents, two brothers, two sisters), I can understand, sympathize, and even agree with much of what she says about the positives. But I can’t condone the way she almost completely downplays the negatives—not of large families categorically, but of starting one at this point in history.

In each of my examples people are saying that what they decide to do is a purely personal choice and nobody else’s business—even though the consequences of their choices affect many other people, often profoundly.

It may seem odd to some who know me that I should be writing about how wrong they are, because I, too, dislike governments (or anybody else) telling me what to do. I’ve always liked the principle, “That government is best which governs least.”1 The closest match to my personal political philosophy that I’ve found in print is the “rational anarchism” espoused by “Prof” (Bernardo de la Paz) in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. My favorite succinct statement of an ethical philosophy is the one my father phrased as, “People should be able to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else.”

The devil, of course, is in the details: defining exactly what constitutes “hurt.” That’s too big a can of worms to open today, but the basic principle seems to me a sound foundation for an ethical philosophy, though the years have made me think it needs a bit of refinement. I’d now say, “People should be able to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt or endanger anybody else.” The problem with Dad’s original version is that, taken literally, it would allow someone to drive through a schoolyard at 90 MPH as long as he didn’t hit anybody—which would require such extraordinary luck that no sane person would consider the risk acceptable. Most of us would agree that somebody should prohibit that kind of driving, and enforce the prohibition by force if necessary.

In other words, this is a situation that calls for some form of government. When large numbers of people share a living space, whether an apartment or a planet, they need ways to minimize people’s encroachments on each other.

The pervasive problem in my opening examples is this: large numbers of people so fiercely fixated on the first phrase of “Dad’s principle” (freedom to do whatever you want) that they’ve forgotten the second phrase (“as long as it doesn’t hurt or endanger anyone else”). If you base everything on only the first, you wind up with a “Wild West” situation in which I can take what I want just because I want it, or shoot my neighbors because they’ve planted flowers that I don’t like. Firing a revolver into a crowded theater is “a personal choice,” but not one that rational people allow.

None of my opening examples are quite that blatantly outrageous, but the principle is the same. Choosing not to get a well-tested vaccine against an active pandemic would be fine if you were risking only your own health and life, but if your decision also puts me in increased danger, it becomes my business, too. If you spend time close to me, without mask and without vaccine, that’s directly comparable to firing that revolver into a theater. You may not hit me, or anybody else, but the chances that you will are unacceptably high. Therefore I, or the theater owner, has every right not to let you in, or to frisk you at the door. The owner of a business—or the administrators of a much larger entity—has not only a right, but a moral obligation, to limit participation by people who haven’t taken available protective measures against an ongoing epidemic.

If you want to believe in a Flat Earth, or in Young Earth Creationism, you are free to do so. The consequences may not even be too severe, since those things have few direct effects at an everyday practical level—but I would never hire you as a navigator or a science teacher. If you want to teach your own children to believe those things, at your own expense, that may be tolerable, but the case for it is a lot weaker. Indoctrinating children with beliefs that don’t match the facts is a form of child abuse, and harmful to them. If you want other people to subsidize your indoctrination, that goes too far. Not only does it risk increasing the fraction of the population that’s poorly equipped to deal with reality, but it also weakens support for the public education that’s set up to provide that training.

And it isn’t just about scientific matters like cosmology or evolution. Another favorite target of “school choice” advocates is history. Private schools can teach distorted views of history, including such things as the “Lost Cause” myth (that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery) and the notion that freed slaves were rightfully disenfranchised during Reconstruction because they weren’t “prepared” to vote responsibly. Such thinking can easily be extended to “justify” disenfranchisement of targeted groups into and beyond the present—and as such poses a threat to many people.

My news article on this quoted the head of an organization called “Parents for Freedom of Education in North Carolina,” who, when shown the criticisms of a history textbook by a panel of college history professors, said, “Of course they’re not taking a biblical worldview . . . I can see that they’re going to arrive at their own conclusions.” For him, according to the article, “The focus should be less on what any curriculum says about certain topics and more on the overarching principle of parental choice. ‘It comes down to a person’s choice,’ he said. ‘It’s what works best for their family.’”

As a former educator, I beg to differ. Knowing some of the horrible things parents have done to children, sometimes with what they saw as the noblest of intentions, I consider factual accuracy and intellectual honesty a good deal more “overarching” than anyone’s right to choose whatever they want—especially for someone else. So I bristle at the last paragraph of that article, which quotes “an education consultant” as saying, “What someone takes as fact—be it about the earth’s age or what happened on Election Day 2020—comes down to a personal decision.”

No, it doesn’t; this is the “alternative facts” nonsense all over again. It’s true that what someone takes as fact comes down to a personal decision—but what is fact does not. One of the main purposes of a good education is to enable people to make those decisions based on the best possible understanding of the real facts. (It’s ironic that many people favoring these programs worry about “indoctrination” by public schools, when indoctrination of a different sort is exactly what they’re trying to do.)

The essay praising big families essentially ignores the vast complex of looming global problems caused primarily by excessive population and population growth, ranging from clogged landfills and resource depletion to climate change, which some people still manage to deny despite the mountain ranges of evidence of what’s happening. In a masterstroke of disingenuousness, the essay mocks the irony of Prince Harry and Duchess Megan receiving an environmental award for planning to have no more than two children to “reduce their impact on the earth” while living in a huge mansion and traveling by private jet. The irony is undeniable, but doesn’t change the fact that people can be both rich and too prolific, or both poor and restrained. And it doesn’t even hint at the fact that if each of those 11 siblings has his or her own 11 offspring, the original two parents will have grown to 130 or more in a mere few decades—a process that can hardly be viewed as environmentally inconsequential. To say nothing of the fact that it might make some other people who would like to have a child or two of their own reluctant to do so when they see others proliferating so prodigiously.

In contrast, abortion really is (or should be) a personal decision, affecting no person except the prospective parents. I realize some people dispute this, claiming (with no scientific justification) that even a fertilized egg qualifies as a full human being. They are certainly free to believe this, and even to expect the same of fellow members who have voluntarily joined a church that believes it. But if they expect people who have not joined such a church to act accordingly, they need to provide a better reason than, “The scriptures of my church say so.” For people who haven’t embraced such a faith, a small clump of cells is no more a person than a set of blueprints and a few boards are a house. There’s an impressive irony in politicians who talk a lot about minimizing government interference in private life showing such aggressive eagerness to interfere in the most private and intrusive way imaginable.

Government is a necessary evil, with equal emphasis on both words. It’s evil because imposing one person’s will on another is always an infringement. It’s necessary because some people will not respect that principle unless they’re forced to. Societies that work, even ones like ours that pride themselves on emphasizing individual freedoms and rights, have had to recognize that there have to be limits.

The fundamental questions of ethics can be summarized thus: How should I behave? In what ways can I justifiably insist that others behave (and vice versa)? Part of government’s function is to do that insisting, in cases where it’s necessary—that is, when things people want to do would endanger others.

My opening examples are clear and urgently important illustrations of this. People who feel free to do whatever they want in the midst of a pandemic, like getting in other people’s faces, not wearing masks, and refusing to use a vaccine that has been well tested and found highly effective and safe, are clearly endangering other people. That’s plenty of reason for governments and business owners to limit their ability to do so.

People who think that whatever they want to teach is worthy of public support, as long as they call it religion, are endangering their society if they teach things that don’t make sense or encourage categorical mistreatment of certain groups of people. Governments have every reason to withhold their support of such teaching.

There have been periods in history when conditions were hard and mortality rates were high, so societies needed all the members they could get. Those were reasons to encourage large families and discourage abortion. This is not one of those periods. Now very large families directly contribute to global environmental problems. I’m not comfortable with government dictating rigid limits on family size, and I hope we’re not nearing a point where such extreme measures will be necessary. But encouraging people to start such families, at a time when many of our most pressing problems are direct consequences of excessive population growth, is not just a personal choice. It’s irresponsible.

I had considered writing this for some time, and had almost decided that it was no longer needed. The worst of the pandemic seemed to have passed, and people flouting efforts to curb it no longer posed as much of a threat as they had. Then I spent a couple of hours browsing online comments, and was freshly appalled at the amount of dangerous nonsense I found. I found multitudes proclaiming that the pandemic was “over,” or had never been real in the first place. I found claims made confidently, but with no supporting data, that the measures taken to make as much progress as we’ve made were unnecessary or even counterproductive, and based on government lies. “Masks and social distancing didn’t work, and vaccines certainly didn’t,” some said, and even “Vaccines have killed more people than the disease.”

All of which is blatant nonsense, as anybody who actually studied the data and applied any logical analysis would know. Masks, social distancing, and especially vaccines did work, dramatically. No, they didn’t completely eliminate the virus in a few months; nobody who understood how they work expected that. But the rate of serious infections and deaths plummeted once they were introduced, and absurd denials of that fact are not serious arguments against them.

They are, however, a serious argument against trusting people’s personal choices to maximize the common good. It’s abundantly clear that governments can (and often do) lie; but it’s not a foregone conclusion that they always do. And when individuals left to themselves are endangering others out of ignorance and/or arrogance, it’s perfectly reasonable for someone else to step in and force them to stop the endangering actions.

Who should step in? We must be careful about this, but the least objectionable choice will often be an arm of government that is carefully chosen and held accountable for its actions. This would be something like the CDC, which has people carefully studying the applicable science: tested facts and logical inferences from those facts.

Some people say science is “just another religion,” and opinions based on it are worth no more than any others. This is not true. Science is based on observation, analysis, extrapolation, and testing. Anybody who studies the observations and analysis can repeat them and get the same results.

This stands in sharp contrast to religions, which people often pride themselves on believing without evidence, and disdain any suggestion that they should need evidence to justify their belief. If faith A believes one thing and faith B another, it’s unlikely that an adherent of one can be persuaded to believe the other. Neither can prove its reasons for holding its belief, and so cannot bring someone else to share it by logical argument. (Literally bludgeoning people into “believing” went out of fashion after the Spanish Inquisition. Let’s keep it that way.) The best they can do is respect each other’s right to believe what they want, even if it’s wrong.

But scientific facts can be tested and proved, and if they show that something I want to do is a threat to you, you’re perfectly justified in preventing me from doing it (and vice versa).

If you want to believe something contrary to science, that’s your privilege (as is living with the consequences).

But you are not welcome to impose your beliefs on me, unless you can present a fact-based justification for it. And facts cannot simply be waved away by blind faith.



1 Often attributed to Thomas Jefferson or Henry David Thoreau, but probably not original in that form with either of them. As with many such famous “quotations,” what matters now (except to historians) is not who first said it, but what it says.

Stanley Schmidt edited Analog for 34 years, with numerous Hugo nominations and one rocket, and has written quite a bit of fiction and nonfiction of his own, including half a dozen novels and about 400 editorials and guest editorials. Despite relinquishing the helm of Analog in 2012, he keeps creeping back into its pages in one way or another, in between hiking, playing music, and otherwise exploring this fascinating world.

Copyright © 2024 Stanley Schmidt

Back To Top
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop