As the Northeast recovers from Hurricane Sandy, during which many people who ignored mandatory evacuation orders had to be rescued by emergency response workers risking their lives to perform their duties, the public is once again (think: Katrina) considering an important question: is it wrong to defy mandatory evacuation orders? 

As always, there are at least two sides to the debate. One group, represented by people such as Ray Nothstine of the Acton Institute, believes that mandatory evacuation orders should be viewed as potential infringements upon individual rights.

[Nothstine] says individuals must weigh various factors, from the likelihood of requiring rescue to the value of defending personal property; they can’t just let officials decide for them.

“Anytime there’s drastic government encroachment, even in the case of mandatory evacuations, you’re going to see your level of liberty erode,” Nothstine says.

But, another group asks, what about the common good? Consider this statement by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on those who were defying evacuation orders:

“This is putting first responders in significant, significant danger. … It is not fair to their families for you [on the islands] to be putting them in that danger because you decided that you wanted to be hardheaded.”

Or this one from Rev. James Keenan, a moral theologian at Boston College.

“We need to educate people that morally, you can’t simply say, ‘I’m not going.’ It’s not simply a matter of choice. It’s actually a matter of responsibility to the common good.”

In other words: your individual rights do not trump the well-being of other human beings in society. It’s one thing if, due to health or transportation reasons, you have no way to evacuate. In such cases, the government should provide assistance. But leaving aside practical barriers, there is no moral justification for intentionally putting the lives of rescue workers at risk, and stretching thin limited emergency response resources. This not only potentially harms yourself, which would simply be a bad choice. It also potentially harms countless others, including both rescue workers and people who might need their help. Put another way, it places your individual rights above the individual rights of others. And that’s not simply a bad choice — it’s unethical. 

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