In theory, humans are rational decision-makers — or, at least, I wanted to think so after reading John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty.” He argues that humans are smart and reasonable enough to pursue their best self-interests, and as long as they do not harm others, they should be given the freedom to act however they please. Therefore, the promotion of individual liberties and trust in human nature improves society in the long run. Reading this was almost refreshing; it restored my optimistic belief that we, humanity, are constantly making progress and becoming a better version of ourselves.

But to what extent is this true? Can we really argue that people always act reasonably and make the best decisions for themselves without harming others around them? And more importantly, to what extent can the state trust human nature? I am well aware that our liberal ideals are, in fact, founded upon this trust. Protecting individual liberties necessitates a degree of belief that humans are inherently good and rational.

Witnessing exponentially increasing COVID-19 cases worldwide, however, has shattered my positive, and almost hopeful, view of human reasoning. Take masks. The most basic, yet also the most crucial, rule of this pandemic is that everyone should wear a mask that covers both the nose and the mouth. Why? Because masks can prevent the transmission of droplets that actually spread the virus. However, from the first moment experts announced the necessity of wearing a mask, fierce debates began all around the United States. Could we force individuals to wear masks for the sake of public health? If humans are rational decision-makers and pursue their best self-interests, would they still need specific rules to govern their actions? Wouldn’t they wear these masks despite the slight discomfort to protect both their individual and public health?

If everyone decided to wear masks and follow quarantine guidelines, this could drastically shorten the period of lockdowns and prevent the shutdown of businesses. But considering that we are now entering the ninth month of this pandemic, we were clearly all proven wrong. People did not act rationally. During the summer, I observed that there wasn’t even a decrease in the number of people who went on holiday in Turkey. This was reflected in COVID cases — all cities started reporting record-high numbers of cases. People did not wear masks, saying that they could not breathe.

Turkey is not alone. In July, when the numbers from the first wave of the pandemic were spiking, only 38 percent of Britons were wearing masks in public. And maybe worst of all, people willingly chose to go to parties, concerts and other high-risk events that became hot spots for the spread of the virus. Just in August, young adults became the reason for the second surge of cases in California, as they couldn’t stop partying and attending large social gatherings.

How much trust did countries put in their citizens’ ability to act rationally? In my home country, Turkey, the government imposed a lockdown relatively early. Across the world, a lot of other countries, such as Italy, Singapore and New Zealand, also declared nationwide lockdowns. This policy didn’t necessarily suggest that the government is always the best decision-maker. But the idea behind these lockdowns was that when people lack the common sense and rationality to make the best possible decisions, the government can — and arguably should — intervene to fix the shortcomings of human nature. The purpose of this intervention is not to oppress the people, but instead to create a safer and healthier environment for individuals to exercise their rights and liberties. Of course, the limits of state intervention have to be determined very carefully, and the failure to do so can have drastically negative consequences. But when we look at the United States, the government’s reluctance to take definitive action only exacerbated the consequences of irresponsible behavior and resulted in the death of more than 200,000 people.

The current American president’s lack of concern about the pandemic and his deliberate ignorance of sick and dead people could possibly explain why American people didn’t always act rationally. But then do humans always need a higher authority to decide for them and instigate change? If so, this election has shown us that Americans are clearly divided on the best ways to tackle the virus and on who should lead that change.

As humans, we need to at least accept that we are not as rational or good as we think we are. This is not just about the election results or the new surge of cases — though they matter a lot. It is also about how many excuses we find to justify our behavior. Most societies that consider themselves to be democratic think highly of human autonomy and individual liberty. But while doing so, we should not be ignoring the shortcomings of human nature. The stakes are too high, and as humanity, we are not so far from the point of no return.

Being aware of our inherent failures and trying to fix them might be our only solution to actually make social progress. Elections shouldn’t be the only time we care about civic engagement: Let’s combat our own selfishness on a daily basis to help others — working towards our goals collectively and incrementally over time would be a more reasonable way to get to where we want. Rational thinking shouldn’t necessarily mean considering our self-interests first. We don’t have to give up our personal lives, but sometimes it is important to put others’ needs before our own. This may not be the easiest message to hear, especially during these times, but it is realistic. And we need this sense of realism to start questioning and combatting our inherent selfishness. Maybe then our ideal of social progress will be more than a fragment of optimism and turn into an actual attainable goal. 

SUDE YENILMEZ is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact her at sude.yenilmez@yale.edu .