Manawatu Standard

No man is an island of individual freedom

- Andrew Shepherd

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 The initial novelty of lockdown in early 2020 has been replaced by fatigue and weariness.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.

 ?? KEVIN STENT/STUFF ?? ‘‘Freedom’’ protesters in Wellington yesterday. But to be free from everyone else is an impossible independen­ce, argues Andrew Shepherd.
KEVIN STENT/STUFF ‘‘Freedom’’ protesters in Wellington yesterday. But to be free from everyone else is an impossible independen­ce, argues Andrew Shepherd.

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