No man is an island of individual freedom
lecturer in theology and public issues at Otago University
We have entered a new stage of our relationship with Covid-19. The initial novelty of lockdown in early 2020 has been replaced by fatigue and weariness. The adulatory glow from being seen as world leaders in the battle against the virus has dimmed. There is heightened anxiety as the Delta variant of the virus now spreads.
It has been instructive to see the speed at which people appear willing to discount and discard the shared narrative and behaviour that has given meaning and afforded us security during the past 18 months. The truth of scientific experts is diminished by alternative ‘‘facts’’ proffered on social media. The collective understanding of five million people in solidarity against a shared enemy is being replaced by public discourse characterised by resentment, distrust, and acrimony. The vocabulary of ‘‘team’’ finds itself challenged by a rise in the terms ‘‘freedom’’ and ‘‘personal choice’’.
But what do we mean by these terms? What are the unexamined assumptions and moral frameworks that underpin them? When we use ‘‘freedom’’ and ‘‘choice’’, what are our conceptions of, and aspirations for, human relationships?
Within modern Western liberal thought, the ‘‘freedom of the individual’’ is accorded the highest moral priority. But is understanding ourselves as individuals an honest description of reality? And should we really aspire to autonomy, of being a law ( nomos) unto our self ( auto)?
This modern Western conception of being human, which elevates individuality and independence, ignores the fact that our identity and very existence are inextricably tied up with others. Biologically, each of us is a result of the relationship of our parents, and our physical sustenance depends upon the food produced by others.
Likewise, psychologically, our understanding of the world, our character, our behaviour, is formed through interaction with other humans – whānau and the wider community. We are social beings constituted by our relationships with others.
This understanding of the fundamental relational character of human personhood is eloquently expressed in the famous lines of a sermon given in 1642 by English clergyman and poet John Donne: ‘‘No [hu]man is an island entire of itself; every [hu]man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any [hu]man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in [hu]mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’’
We are not atomised, isolated individuals, but persons inextricably shaped by and for relationships, and this radically alters our understanding of the phrases ‘‘freedom’’ and ‘‘choice’’. To be genuinely ‘‘free’’ is not to seek to cut our ties from others – to assert a false and impossible independence – but rather is to acknowledge our interdependence and connection to others.
Living within the context of modern capitalism, we have come to view ‘‘choices’’, like all other aspects of our life, as primarily about expressing our personal preferences. However, understanding ourselves as constituted in and through our relationality with others challenges this understanding of ‘‘choices’’. To exercise ‘‘freedom of choice’’ is to seek not our own individual good, but to act in ways that bring life to both ourselves and others. Authentic human freedom is not freedom from others, but rather for the other.
There has been a strong reaction by a vocal minority to the decision of the Government to make vaccination mandatory in many public sectors. While the performance of the Government in recent weeks has left much to be desired, it strikesme that its decision is not, as many stridently claim, an erosion of individual freedoms.
Nor does it constitute an element of some grand conspiracy. Rather, such a decision is consistent with the intent expressed repeatedly throughout the past 18 months – protecting the health and wellbeing of the population at large.
As we enter into this new season of our Covid-19 reality, the exercising of our choices remains critical. Earlier, we enacted our freedom by choosing to comply with lockdown restrictions – preventing the spread of the virus. Now the virus is present and spreading, we can exercise our freedom for others by choosing to get vaccinated.
Being vaccinated increases our own safety and the safety of others – particularly the most vulnerable within our society: unvaccinated children and those with existing health conditions. To fail to enact this choice potentially has a huge impact upon ourselves and the wellbeing of others.
Ultimately, however, we don’t really have a choice. Community transmission is now a reality. Sooner or later in the coming weeks, months, and years, each of us will encounter the virus.
The question is: do we limit its impact by vaccinating now, or take the risk of seeing how we fare whenwe encounter the virus in an unvaccinated state? My hope is that all of us express our love for our neighbours and ourselves by making the choice for the former.
To be genuinely ‘‘free’’ is not to seek to cut our ties from others ... but rather is to acknowledge our interdependence and connection.