COVID-19: Are we truly free or merely enslaved to ourselves?
By Hamza King - Brent Youth Debates Trainer
‘Through discipline comes freedom’. Over two thousand years ago Aristotle warned that freedom means more than just “doing as one likes”.
Ancient Greek societies survived plagues, though the hardship they endured tested all constitutions and often caused a breakdown in traditional values.
The present COVID 19 pandemic has reminded liberal societies about the extent and limits of their freedoms and that we must sometimes prioritise the collective interest over individual rights. Rawls describes how the restriction of individual rights ‘is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice’ (COVID-19 patients overrunning the NHS).
But as we are forced to ‘stay at home’, for fear of sanction, many of us are left trying to make sense of our freedom. How can we be considered free citizens right now, and what will freedom look like once this has all blown over?
COVID-19, for all the tragedy and catastrophic disruption it has caused, perfectly illustrates the point Aristotle was making millennia ago. And although we have lost touch with the virtue of discipline, it is in times like these that the connection between freedom and discipline becomes stark.
A liberal understanding of freedom must be suspended in times of national emergency. Freedom defined as letting rational people do as they like, provided no harm is done to others, becomes problematic when a handshake can have such fatal consequences. Mill’s harm-principle becomes impracticable and many of our rights vanish temporarily. But we only agree to sacrifice these rights under the promise that they will be reinstated after the crisis has been resolved. We sacrifice the right to travel around freely only because we expect this sacrifice to be temporary.
This liberal understanding of freedom fails to capture the full picture. If the travel ban was lifted tomorrow and we were all allowed to go about our lives as normal, would this make us free citizens? I would think not. It might feel so, until the number of COVID-19 cases shoots up rapidly. Society would eventually crumble and our rights along with it.
Friedrich Engels claimed that ‘freedom is the recognition of necessity’. From this perspective, it is those able to recognise and respond to external threats that are free. Self-isolating and social distancing will allow for the survival of society, which is necessary for us to thrive as individuals. Freedom in this sense is collective; the rights of the group outweigh many individual rights. Though the UK is a liberal society, COVID-19 is forcing us to apply a more collectivist approach to freedom. This collectivist approach is inherently illiberal. Many of us, unsurprisingly, have found it difficult to adjust to this change.
When social distancing was only government advise, record-numbers of people still found their way to Snowdonia. Police enforcement powers were then increased to control those refusing to listen. But we are only in week two of lockdown, and our ability to continue social distancing will be a true test of liberalism’s optimistic assumption about humanity’s rational capacity. People are creatures of habit. And we have no doubt become accustomed to only feeling free, when allowed to do what we want. The real question is – will enough of us be willing to continue sacrificing individual rights to tackle COVID-19, or will the government need to impose stronger restrictions which rescind even more of these rights?
The WHO praised China for the speed and transparency of its initial response to COVID-19. Chinese authorities stopped movement in and out of Wuhan in mid-January, transport was suspended, and some 760 million people were confined to their homes. This allowed China to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases, saving thousands of lives. The danger with this is that individual rights are disproportionately neglected for the collective good. The WHO’s praise for China has been criticised for failing to acknowledge how China’s management of COVID-19 breached multiple human rights. Similar concerns have been raised in India, where a 24-hour lockdown was imposed leaving millions stranded across the country.
The UK is a liberal democracy and its citizens expect things to go back to normal once COVID-19 subsides. It is therefore concerning that the new measures to tackle COVID-19 will last for a period of 2 years and can be extended further. Rushing to pass laws like this would be unacceptable in normal times. Recent developments in the way laws are enforced, such as the use of drones to catch out those breaching travel restrictions, are rightly creating concerns about a Big Brother state. It seems we have a COVID-19 action plan, which is altering our whole society. We will need an exit plan that can quickly reverse these monumental changes.
Each approach to managing COVID-19 has its shortcomings. In one sense, people’s rights must be restricted, if they fail to do what is necessary to save us from collective ruin. Doing this, however, paths the way to tyranny, as the government can use the crisis to justify oppressive policy. Freedom cannot be letting people do as they like, without COVID-19 doing as it likes. And freedom cannot be the recognition of necessity, without the UK Government having absolute authority on what is necessary.
There is no quick-fix to COVID-19 now, though we can certainly build a society more capable of handling national emergencies in the future. A society where everyone has individual rights, but everyone also has the discipline to sacrifice these right when necessary, leaving no justification for excessive government intervention. This middle ground between a liberal and collectivist (illiberal) position, must draw on an ancient understanding of freedom.
The ancient Greeks considered true freedom to be a state of attainment, only achieved when one learned how to conquer and overcome one’s base-desires. These insatiable base-desires enslave us to ourselves, blinding us to what is rational and necessary for our survival and fulfilment. This explains our tendency to chase short-term pleasures (intoxication), rather than things which fulfil us in the long-term (regular exercise). Through training, we can emancipate ourselves from this inherent self-enslavement, to become ‘the best of animals’. But without cultivation, we fall into bad habits. These bad habits make it easy to socialise with friends, despite understanding the need for self-isolation during this national emergency.
In Why liberalism failed?, Patrick Deneen describes how liberalism rejected and redefined this understanding of liberty; ancient Greek societies aimed to cultivate disciplined citizens, while we have built a society based on a ‘hedonistic’ understanding of freedom. This can be dangerous to society, as it infiltrates our culture and behaviour. We have become so accustomed to thinking of freedom as doing what we want, that we find it difficult to do anything otherwise, even when it is for our own good.
Liberalism’s promise to let people do as they like relies on the assumption that all are born free. Personally, I prefer the ancient understanding. We are born with the potential to be free, but wholly dependent on others. We rely on our parents to teach us during our youth and on the youth to care for us in our old age. With guidance and support we flourish, but when deprived, we fall victim to our own fallibility. Freedom is doing what we must, not doing what we like. Central to freedom, is the ability to identify what is for our own good. Letting people do as they like does not make a society of free citizens. A society of free citizens is made from a government which has taught citizens about the need for discipline, not only in times of crisis but throughout life.
There is simply not enough evidence to accurately suggest how we will response to COVID-19 over the coming months. I can only hope we proceed with a humbler understanding of freedom. One which acknowledges not only the faults in our own nature but how vulnerable we are to the natural world. Politicians have been quick to frame COVID-19 as a war-like scenario. In this conflict our weapon is discipline, which is the only viable route to freedom. This discipline is not inherent. It is developed, through educating citizens about how to manage both internal and external threats to freedom.
The importance of having educated citizens has been neglected throughout our history, perhaps because an educated population is more difficult to manipulate. It is through an educated society, however, that the middle ground between a liberal and collectivist (illiberal) understanding of freedom becomes possible. A system built on individual rights must equally be built on education. Not only an academic education but an education in the broader sense. Whatever profession we choose in life, we are citizens first and foremost. An education into how to be a good citizen, should therefore come before all others.
In an ideal world, each of us would immediately recognise and respond to COVID-19, with no need for the recent restrictions, and continue to follow the rules until they were not longer necessary. Ideals can be fuzzy concepts but if it is stability we are seeking then we must return to a quote from Aristotle: ‘The greatest, however, of all the means we have mentioned for ensuring the stability of constitutions – but one which is nowadays generally neglected – is the education of citizens in the spirit of their constitution’.
For all the suffering and hardship which COVID-19 will cause, it has provided the perfect challenge to the liberal understanding of freedom. If the spirit of our constitution is freedom, then its stability rests on citizens being educated about the importance of discipline.
Original posted on: www.respublica.org.uk