James Dwyer examines appeals to individual liberty in the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed ethical shortcomings in social and global arrangements. These shortcomings included a lack of transparency about the initial outbreak of the virus, shortages of equipment and personnel, baseless claims amplified on social media, political posturing that undermined public health measures, inequalities that resulted in health disparities, and a failure to fund and provide vaccines for all.
The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed shortcomings in dispositions, ways of thinking, and political philosophies. These shortcomings are often implicit in individual actions and political protests. At first, I thought that political protests against public health restrictions and requirements were a particularly American social pathology, but then I read about similar protests in Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. What are people thinking?
What I hear most often are appeals in terms of individual liberty, bodily autonomy, and the limited role of government. I believe these appeals fail in two ways. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the greatest champion of individual liberty, defends individuals’ right to regulate their own lives when their actions do not impinge on others, but he is clear that society may restrict people’s conduct when it endangers others. We allow people to drink alcohol, but not to drive while intoxicated. We allow people to smoke tobacco, but not to impose second-hand smoke on others.
Of course, Mill realizes that most human actions can indirectly affect other persons. So, he tries to draw a line. He comes to the view that people’s conduct should only be restricted when it violates a distinct duty to another person or to the public. In that case, people may be held to norms of justice for the sake of others. A moral duty to protect others from a serious and sometimes fatal disease is what ultimately justifies vaccine requirements, limitations on public gatherings, mask mandates, and other measures.
I believe that contemporary appeals to individualism fail in a second way. Many of the most troubling problems that we face involve more than individual interactions; they involve social structures that disadvantage groups and classes of people. This is true of the pandemic. It is also true of climate change, where the contribution of one individual is marginal, but the overall impact is catastrophic – especially for low-income groups and countries. It is also true of the legacies of slavery, colonialism, and sexism, where past practices influence present structures. An emphasis on individual liberty doesn’t help at all to address these kinds of problems.
What seems left out of contemporary appeals to individualism are the duties, virtues, and hopes of democratic citizenship. Democracies only work well when most citizens are concerned about public goods and social justice. They only work well when most citizens are active and informed participants in trying to shape the way we live together. We need to see more clearly the ways that we are connected and related to each other because we need a felt sense that we are all in this together. Obviously, the collapse of hospital systems, for example, will impact us all.
My judgments in these matters are relative to the problems that we face. Some thinkers judge ideas in terms of an objective reality that they discern, posit, or argue for. I’m not one of them. I try to judge ideas in terms of how they help or hinder us to address the most pressing social problems that we face. The forms of individualism that I hear and see don’t really fit the problems that the pandemic is raising. They tend to obscure what we now need to emphasize: appropriate forms of social solidarity and wise collective action.
Sometimes, I even think that the emphasis on rugged individualism is blocking the development of new and better individuals. We need to emphasize forms of individual development that contribute to social renovation.
James Dwyer is Professor of Bioethics and Humanities at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York.