Some musings on self identity and freedom in the time of COVID-19

A lot of the debate around our current global pandemic as been around the curtails on our freedoms and what that means for our rights. I am hardly the first to acknowledge that this is a thoroughly modern debate in many ways – the authorities have always used their right to curtail the freedoms of citizens for what they consider their own ends, be it through conscription, barred city gates, serfdom, etc. And, it seems, the fact that this seems alien to us now can, on the whole, be considered a good thing. The days when individual lives were considered the property (to a lesser or greater degree) of the person who ran their land, free to be thrown away on whatever selfish endeavour those leaders involved themselves in (a selfish desire to invade France, for example) are not to be desired. If the government chooses to engage in an unjust war, naturally I should not wish to be made to fight in it.

This right runs deeper. Since the enlightenment, we have increasingly learnt to respect the rights of the individual. That right, necessarily, begins with the right to respect people regardless of any natural differences – race, sex, disability, and so on. But, importantly, this brings with it the right of individual expression and choices, regardless of how much it conflicts with our own moral standpoint. This last one is of course the most controversial as it is often cited as a reason for making horrendously prejudiced, hurtful actions and statements. But, personally, this always is missing the point – our universal rights are a set of individual rules, but a general right of humanity – the right of the individual to be respected in their own personality and in their own choices applies equally to the individual with the questionable life choices. Put simply, someone can have the right to be a bigot, they do not have the right to impose their bigotry on others (by whatever means) in a way that brings harm. Thus, liking a particular type of music that others find aesthetically offensive should be respected, actively hurting people through one’s homophobic behaviour should not.

That right for individual expression has always felt very important for me. I should not need to justify the way I dress, the things I like to do and take pleasure out of (as long as it harms no one else). It is for this reason I have always maintained that the right be gay or bi is not tied up with any form of biological determinism and, indeed, should not. It might transpire that there are some form of genetic reasons for sexuality, but even if sexuality transpires to have no pre-determined cause, it should still be respected.

Which returns us to our current predicament. Should we be obliged to stay at home, not to see our family, our friends, due to a governmental edict?

Of course, the answer is not quite as simple as referring to the ‘harm’ discussion above. We could argue that someone who has COVID-19 should be barred from leaving the house and interacting with others because interacting with them would be actively harming them. But where we have an individual who is certain they are not ill and not in any danger of harming others, it does not seem quite so clear. The reason for that is that we are being asked to engage in a form of social responsibility – something that seems to run in direct contradiction to all our feelings about individual rights. There’s a sense in which the command to stay home because your act of enjoying your freedom could encourage others to follow suit and thus cause the individuals who are either a risk or at risk to mix, feels a little like the idea that we shouldn’t display homosexual behaviour attractively in front of children for fear that someone who would have enjoyed a healthy ‘normal’ life might be influenced by this ‘fad’ and lead an unfulfilled life as a result. Of course, in that kind of argument, it should be immediately clear that the former involves the possibility of provable risk of something objectively harmful, whereas the later is a hypothetical risk of something that has not got anything more than a questionable degree of harm attached.

Ultimately, we now find ourselves having to make decisions as global citizens when we had, many of us, assumed we only ever needed to consider ourselves individuals tied to the responsibilities of family life or of social bonds we had formed (for example, those that come with being a employee at a workplace). Many of us, myself included, do not consider ourselves ‘subjects’ of any government and, therefore, expect to be able to make decisions based upon our own, individualistic, needs and wants, without reference to the needs of society. I chose not to pursue a career in engineering, for example, despite the fact that such a decision would no doubt have been more ‘socially responsible’, working for the direct advancement of my country’s economy. But there is a world of difference between being a subject and a citizen, or even just a ‘member of the global human community’. A citizen, if we are considering this in an idealistic sense, is someone who is both a possessor of individual freedoms and personality, free to form their path through life, but who is also perfectly attuned to the world in which they live. The idea of any individual, including the hermit in the mountain, being an isolated entity without connection with the world around them is clearly a fallacy. To be in the world is to change it, to effect it, and therefore every act we do is a moral one. For as long as we consider ourselves individuals isolated from the responsibilities of the world, we will need governance to ensure we do not enact harm, deliberately or unintentionally, on others. We should be free to make the decision whether to leave the house or not, to see our family and friends or not, but we should also attuned enough into the needs of the world, as global citizens, that we would not that, knowing the risks, or would only do so in genuinely safe and needful ways.

Our problem is that many of us believe that we are capable of making sound and rational decisions: the majority of drivers believe they are good drivers, when questioned about their willingness to break the speed limit, their response is that they know how to control the car at those speeds and therefore are not a danger to others. We know this to be a fallacy. Until we can turn that unfounded belief into genuine philosophical knowledge, we are not fit to be the self-governing global citizens we need to be.

The rights of individual autonomy, of expression and choices, are fundamentally tied up with the responsibility to use one’s reason and judgement objectively and with consideration for the other. The reason we cannot allow ourselves to have absolute individual freedom is because we ourselves are fallible and have limited understanding of the harm we can do through our negligence. This seems always to have been the case, that our individuality is tied up fundamentally with our identities as bodies existing the the world, but in some ways it only seems very recently in which that status has felt so real. Our community is increasingly global. It’s obviously always been the case that the decisions and actions at one point in the planet can have an affect on another, but never before have the effects been so obvious, so immediate.

This seems to be to be a good thing, even if it is one in which the immediate consequences can seem more negative (populist opinion rides on immediate responses to events without careful judgement, for example), because we surely cannot help but understand that we are not merely individuals speaking into a void. It’ll be a major shift in self-perception, but perhaps, in the long term, we will reach the stage where we all consider our actions through the eyes of the global citizen.