The Greek philosopher Aristotle emphasized that human beings are by nature social animals. So, of course, are bees and ants and elephants. But humans, argued Aristotle, are particularly complex social animals because of speech, an evolutionary gift at the heart of the diverse ways humans have politically organized themselves into groups or societies.
Since groups are comprised of individuals, from the beginning the relationship between the individual and the group has been a contentious issue. What are the rights of the individual? What are the rights of the group? Whose rights take priority? This conflict can especially become contentious when the group is the political society, that is, the state or the national government. This issue dramatically presents itself in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have taken to the streets demonstrating on behalf of the individual’s right to work and play when and wherever in opposition to the political group’s decision and direction for individuals to shelter in place.
Some philosophers, professional and otherwise (and anyone who thinks hard about matters that matter is philosophizing), celebrate and defend individual freedom, sovereignty and autonomy. They value highly the importance of thinking for oneself and choosing freely how to live. This position focuses on the human capacity, right and obligation to choose one’s own values, one’s own ends or goals, to live one’s life unimpeded. Even the most adamant proponent of such individual rights, however, would acknowledge that such freedom is always subject to the same rights for others; the goals one pursues, the life one leads, the choices one makes must not inhibit or interfere with the right of others to choose freely their values and goals. This defense of and celebration of individual rights is sometimes referred to as the liberal conception of freedom. The classical expression of this position is the 1859 essay “On Liberty” by the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill.
Other philosophers are made uneasy by this valuing of autonomous choice. They emphasize that individuals always live in a particular place, at a particular time, and that persons inevitably and legitimately have obligations that grow out of the community or communities of which they are a part. This position stresses that the well-being of the community depends upon cultivating in citizens the moral virtues necessary for the group to survive well, including, preeminently, the virtue of valuing the common good, which always involves constraining individual choices. This view, because it emphasizes the value of community, is sometimes called the communitarian conception of freedom.
As is the case in all controversies, there are strong arguments for both positions. That is precisely why there is controversy. One has to decide where the weight of the evidence lies, and equally intelligent people weight the evidence differently. Why intelligent people can differ so is itself a complicated philosophical question. But for now, the reality is that thoughtful people disagree over which should take precedence, the rights of the individual or the rights of the group.
And it gets even more complicated because in some situations a person might argue for the individual’s right to pursue unimpeded his or her interest, while in another situation the same person might argue that the rights of the group take precedence.
In general, my own philosophical tendency is to defend the liberal conception of freedom. Emphasizing the value of individual rights is and always has been the major bulwark against oppression of various sorts — political, religious and economic. How we admire those Germans who bravely chose their own individual way in opposition to the Nazi government. How we praise those individual abolitionists who fought against America’s legalization of slavery. How we wish those who flew the planes into the twin towers had rejected the values of the group to which they belonged. To be a responsible moral agent sometimes requires that one reject the values of one’s own group. If this were not true, there would be no individual moral accountability. Moral maturity is the willingness to think for oneself, sometimes in opposition to the community of which one is a part.
On the other hand (and this is why moral decision-making is so often hard), surely the well-being of the whole at times takes precedence over the desires of the individual. The COVID-19 pandemic should help us understand that the communitarians are often right. We should not think of ourselves as individual atoms simply pursuing our own self-interest. An undue emphasis on individuality and autonomy can undermine any sense of communal commitment to public order, any sense of commitment to the physical and emotional health of society; in a word, any commitment to the common good.
Even John Mill, the most prominent spokesman for the liberal conception of freedom, recognized that “no person is an isolated being.” Ironically, in this time of social distancing we have become aware of our dependence on one another and the importance of sometimes sacrificing individual interests for the common good. At times we do need to share in the affirmation that “we are all in this together.
Postscript: We do, however, need to bear in mind that sheltering in place for the common good is easier for some than for others, makes less demands on some than it does on others, affects the financial and emotional well-being of some less than it does of others. The cry that “we are all in this together” should also make us aware of this. Being sensitive to the variety of meanings COVID-19 has for individuals can also be a valuable way of serving the common good.