A Very Unpopular Opinion

BJJ & The Empathy Gap

I have unsurprisingly been frequenting BJJ forums during the current pandemic. The dominant voices tend to echo the view being put forward by Trump and his administration when it comes to the necessity of ending local shutdowns throughout the country. In the case of the BJJ community, some members care about this at least in part because they feel entitled to train and they bridle at the thought that the government has the authority to paternalistically intervene in their lives. On this view—which we might call the “right to choose risk” view—if consenting adults want to gather to train thereby knowing they run the risk of contracting Covid-19 and all that involves, then that is their inalienable right. The mantra could aptly be described as My Risk, My Right. This line of reasoning is ubiquitous in BJJ discussion threads. It seems that in addition to suddenly being experts in epidemiology, virology, and public health, these members of the BJJ community also fashion themselves as moral, political, and legal philosophers. As an actual moral, political, and legal philosopher, I am writing this in an effort to put the My Risk, My Right movement in the BJJ community to rest. Obviously, I can’t force people to give up the view, but I can expose its many flaws.

The best place to start is with the source and limitations of government authority. The American founding fathers were deeply influenced by philosophers who broadly fall into the classical liberal tradition (not to be confused with contemporary liberalism) such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. Classical liberals all adopt what Gaus (1996) calls the Fundamental Liberty Principle whereby “freedom is normatively basic, and so the onus of justification is on those who would use coercion to limit freedom. It follows from this that political authority and law must be justified, as they limit the liberty of citizens. Consequently, a central question of liberal political theory is whether political authority can be justified, and if so, how.” Given that freedom is foundational on this view, one of the key questions is where the government gets its legitimate authority to intervene in our lives (when it has such authority).

According to social contract theory, governments get their authority from the consent of people who sacrifice the radical freedom they have in the absence of government in order to secure the safety and benefits that go along with communal living under governmental rule. On this view, there is always a trade off between liberty and safety—the only question is where we decide to draw the line. Classical liberals suggest that in deciding which balance to strike in this regard, we should defer to what Mill calls the Harm Principle. On this view, paternalism is never justified. Here it is suggested that we have the liberty to do as we see fit so long as the only harm we cause is to ourselves. Our liberty with respect to our own interests is here sacrosanct and inviolable. Mill captures the idea in the following way: “the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition…. The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom…” The presumption of freedom means that governmental intervention must be justified. The question is then when and why it is justified (when it is).

The answer given by Mill and other classical liberals is that the government is justified in regulating our affairs only when our behaviors create unnecessary risks and harms to other people. So, while I am allowed to take my own risks and thereby harm myself, I am not permitted to create unnecessary risks and cause harms to other people. On this view, while we ought to be free to commit suicide (at least when doing so only harms ourselves), we are not justified in committing murder, rape, robbery, assault and battery, etc. In this way, our freedom both is and should be circumscribed when it comes to harm to others.

This line of reasoning justifies all manner of paternalistic interventions on the part of the government: seat belt laws and helmet laws (which cut down on medical costs and insurance premiums for society), civil commitment laws (which allow the government to temporarily detain anyone who poses an immediate threat to themselves or others), licensing for drivers, doctors, etc. (which minimize the likelihood that incompetent agents harm others), and, most relevant to the present discussion, quarantine. If someone returns to the U.S. from abroad and is infected with a highly transmittable infectious disease like tuberculosis or Ebola, the government quite understandably has the authority to detain such a person indefinitely until they no longer carry the risk of infection for other people. Only the most radical libertarians think this amounts to a governmental overreach. While these infected individuals are free to do as they see fit as a matter of principle, as soon as they pose a threat to the welfare of others and society more generally, their freedom is rightly curtailed.

Now I am not suggesting that Covid-19 is a perfectly apt comparison when it comes to the other diseases for which we quarantine people in the traditional sense. I merely use the quarantine example to make clear that we do not have an absolute right to do as we see fit regardless of how our actions might negatively impact others—especially where communicable diseases are concerned. It is part of the government’s job (indeed, classical liberals would suggest it is the government’s primary job) to protect its citizens and promote both their liberties and well-being as much as possible given the invariable tension between the two. But this makes it clear why the My Risk, My Right movement in the BJJ community is so wrong-headed. On the one hand, it is not in keeping with the American tradition (based as it is on classical liberalism). On the other hand, it is based on a stunning lack of empathy when it comes to the risks BJJ practitioners are willing to create for others in order to satisfy their enjoyment of what is ultimately a hobby for most practitioners.

To have empathy is to have other-regarding feelings when it comes to the interests of other people. When one is largely indifferent to these risks, one is egocentric. Egocentricity can lead to the externalization of costs to others in the name of one’s own self-interests. It is clear that the advocates of the My Risk, My Right movement in BJJ are lacking in empathy given the very way they frame this issue. It is always about them and what they petulantly want to do. No consideration is given to the fact that insofar as Covid-19 is highly transmittable even when people are asymptomatic, by deciding to train in the middle of the pandemic people are running the risk of unknowingly infecting their families, friends, co-workers, and even the strangers they interact with on a daily basis. This risk is unavoidable. Indeed, just as it is to be expected that churches and meat-packing plants are uniquely situated to increase the risk of infection, BJJ gyms are also highly likely to become vectors for the virus. The very nature of BJJ means that it is difficult for gyms to adopt all of the preventive measures that minimize the risk of transmission—social distancing, wearing masks, etc.

This means that those proudly and loudly carrying the banner of the My Risk, My Right movement are wrong on many fronts. First, they’re wrong to think that their freedom is inviolable (at least as far as the American tradition is concerned, influenced as it was by classical liberalism). Second, they are wrong to think that the government does not have the authority to regulate our behavior during pandemics (where highly contagious diseases are involved). Third, they are wrong to think that it is only their risk that is at stake. Fourth, while they are right, in principle, that they have the right to run whatever risks they want, they are wrong to think this protects them from intervention when the risks they run also create obvious risks for others. Given that the entire My Risk, My Right movement is driven by the egocentric desire to do what one wants no matter the risks to others, it is strikingly lacking in empathy and the very fellow-feeling emotions that make collective living possible. Yet, despite all of these flaws, this will continue to be the dominant view in the BJJ community for the foreseeable future. For my part, I just hope I have done enough to problematize this view and encourage people to find better arguments for reopening gyms during a pandemic. As I have already argued elsewhere, such arguments exist (see here). They should be our focus moving forward.

p.s. I do believe that gym owners and practitioners who take the pandemic very seriously could take preventive steps that would sufficiently minimize the risks involved to justify people's right to train. The problems is that the many gym owners who openly endorse the My Risk, My Right mindset will not take these steps and thereby pose an undue risk to their members and the local community.

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