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Hardheaded Philosophy

Julia Mulqueen

Up until my first philosophy class last semester, I was wholly uneducated about most matters concerning political philosophy, and indeed philosophy in general. Complacent as biology major I had always remained simply indifferent. When I was required to take my first philosophy class, however, I was unprepared for the astounding results. Slowly, I realized that philosophy class flew by each day, but I frequently counted the minutes to the end of organic chemistry. It was not that I did not still have a deep love for science, but just that I yearned for some sort of examination into the more obscure aspects of our lives, not simply the physical world. I thirsted for discourse concerning the roots of our notions about politics, God, and morals. Philosophy has finally satisfied my often over-active brain, and has provided me with answers to questions I had never even dreamed of asking. Now the physical world has become less of a place to make observations about and more of a space in which I am living while I ponder the meaning of life.

Recently in philosophy class, we began discussing John Stuart Millís On Liberty. At the same time, we as Mount students were made aware of the new helmet law. I happen to be an avid recreational bicyclist, as well as a faithful helmet wearer. When I read the details of the law, however, the contents of my newly formed philosophical mind were roused to action. Quite melodramatically I marched into philosophy the next morning and demanded to know whether or not forcing me to wear a helmet was a fundamental attack on my basic liberties as a human being. Certainly Mill would argue that we should be free to pursue "our own good in our own way." Why then was I no longer allowed to choose between life and wind in my hair? After making a deal with my philosophy professor to receive extra credit if I sent a letter in to the paper about the law invoking Mill, I was quite astonished to receive the urging to offer a longer commentary on philosophy.

As far as the law is concerned though, the issue for me is not about whether or not I should actually wear a helmet. It seems only natural to wear a helmet while riding a bike, even despite the fact that helmet hair is difficult to tame. Rather, the issue is about whether or not the government should be given the authority to infringe upon my freedom as both a bicyclist and a citizen. My refusal to wear a helmet hurts no other than my reckless self, unless I were to fly over the handlebars of my bike and cause harm to another on account of my particularly hard head. Thus I would argue that it is solely the privilege of concerned parents to impede the crazy whims of their offspring, and not the governmentís. Perhaps if the law were intended for children 18 and younger, my sensibilities would not have been so offended. Regardless, it seems unnatural and imprudent for the government to step into the shoes of big brother and boss its younger sister around.

To me, laws such as this that specifically restrict actions done by an individual that affect solely himself seem to be indicative of the desire of government to alleviate the duties usually expected of a parent. As I was growing up, it was my parents who enforced the bike helmet law, not the government. I dutifully obeyed them, just as I will continue to obey this law, but I would still prefer to be allowed to make the choice for myself now that I am a free-living college student, or at least be told by my parents over the phone to put a helmet on. Do not mistake me, I personally agree that it is smart to wear a helmet; I just do not think it is appropriate for the government to tell me that I must wear one. Certainly I am flattered that my personal safety is so well-protected by our political leaders, but at the same time the John Stuart Mill deep within me finds objection that is not so easily silenced.

Perhaps to add some context to my firm opinions about liberty I should make it known that I come from a family of soldiers. My father, in fact, is still an officer in the United States Army, and has served for well over 20 years. Both of my brothers, too, are soldiers. Throughout my childhood, I was instilled with a strong belief in freedom. I have been taught that our liberty as American citizens is a precious gift from those soldiers who have come before us and those who currently fight for us. Thus even before reading Mill in philosophy class, I have been acutely aware of the delicate balance between freedom and assertion of power through governmental protection.

Philosophy, however, has simply served to give me an arena in which to unabashedly express my thoughts and has shown me that there have been others before me who have been resolute, and perhaps foolish, enough to make their particular opinions known to those around them. I pray the law is changed. Until then however, I will certainly be seen wearing a helmet while riding my bike in Emmitsburg, if not for physical protection, at the very least to shield my sensitive head from rotten tomatoes being hurled at me.

Julia Mulqueen is a Senior at the Mount majoring in Philosophy.

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