We now live in uncharted times following on from the sweeping pandemic of which we have become so accustomed to. But will we adhere to the social responsibilities required in these changing times or should we still go about our business in the name of personal liberty and freedom? John Gloster-Smith discusses.

Fighting the pandemic has brought into focus in the West the question of personal freedom as against the need for controls to combat the spread of infection. Many are resenting the lockdowns and other constraints, especially amongst young people, and there have been large gatherings such as masses going to the beaches in hot weather, street parties and illegal raves. The resentment merges into other issues like a strong tradition of libertarianism in some countries like the USA, heavy-handed policing, racism, rapidly rising unemployment, and unequal access to healthcare. Over all this is that a number of these freedom-loving countries are experiencing very high levels of Covid-19. There are those who say that people should exercise “personal responsibility” and the state should not intervene, others that the state should take a firm stand to protect the common welfare of all. It raises the question of how far should personal freedom and self-responsibility be asserted as a principle as against the needs of the community and the use of regulation. How far can we take the principle much used today of personal responsibility?

Personal responsibility as a concept

Personal responsibility as a concept was widely used during the era of the “New Age” in the 1960’s through to the 1980’s and in humanistic psychology and psychotherapy. As a therapeutic tool, it has proved an effective approach to encourage people to see where they could “take responsibility” as against being the “victim” of situations. In both Third Wave psychology and spirituality people could understand that they “create their own reality”, that what was key was the meanings they made, the perceptions they held. In terms of building a greater sense of authorship of their behaviour, thoughts and feelings, and thus understanding that they had choice and could change, this was powerful material.

According to the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI or EQ), people who have well-developed EI have strong self-awareness but they also have empathy for others or social awareness. People with strong EI can effectively take responsibility and manage both themselves but also their relationships with others. Put simply, when we’re well-tuned into ourselves and others, we respond appropriately both for our own needs but also those of others. By contrast a narcissist is purely self-referring, and manipulates and controls others to serve themselves. What matters most to such people is their self-importance and grandiosity. Such people have little or no EI or empathy. Thus for a person with strong EI, with personal responsibility comes also a strong sense of social responsibility and a disposition to act taking account of both.

Personal responsibility has also however been adopted politically by the Right, often to bring about a reduction in the role of the state. Individuals, according to this view, should be encouraged to “take responsibility” or accountability for their actions, such as dealing with their impoverishment or health issues, and not expect state assistance. In the UK, social welfare was cut back under Ian Duncan-Smith after 2010 to reduce the incentive to “live off the state”. When the lockdown was eased in June 2020 and concern expressed by scientists that this might lead to more infections of Covid-19, it was said that people were capable of exercising personal responsibility to make the right decisions. “Stay alert”, they were urged.

Personal responsibility in the pandemic

In personal encounters and on social media there has been a lot of controversy about how far this should go during the pandemic. Quite clearly there has been a lot of resentment over the controls and restrictions. Why can’t people go and enjoy themselves after the lockdown? Why do people complain about huge numbers on the beaches but support the Black Lives Matter protests? One can see how such issues turn into a culture war over libertarianism vs liberalism or other such divides. Indeed, so divided and febrile is society at present, that the very campaign against Covid-19 becomes a divisive issue, “us versus them”.

The apparent dichotomy between the individual and collective has ancient roots. It also varies across the globe, and in, for example, East Asian societies, there is a far greater readiness to exercise self-discipline for the needs of the community.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, wrote the Metaphysical poet John Donne in Devotions, 1624, expressing a classic view of the early 17th Century. Yet a century later, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains, at the start of his seminal work The Social Contract (1762), and Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1848) promised that the proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. The tension between the individual and the collective has a long history.

Humans are social beings

Humans, it’s often said, are in psychological terms social beings. A child needs socialisation as part of its development and being isolated from others can be very damaging. According to holistic theory, the whole is the sum of its parts, or indeed even greater than the sum. In systems theory, the self is relational and responds and reacts according to its part in a “system”, be that for example a family or an organisation. Both in science and in spirituality, humans are today increasingly seen as interconnected, both with each other and with nature in general. What one person does affects not only themselves but others at some level. There are social consequences for individual actions.

Politics aside, government exists in part so that these relationships between people can be managed. The rule of law exists so that there are principles through which this management takes place. In the case of public health and a pandemic, laws were passed to give authorities, usually local, the power to intervene to protect public health. In the 19th century there were a series of pandemics of cholera due to polluted water supplies and bad sanitation in the rapidly growing towns and cities. The cause was unknown but there was enough empirical evidence to require bodies to be set up to ensure certain standards were observed. There were those who opposed this, partly on cost grounds, partly on the impact on vested interests and also partly on libertarian grounds. These people became known as “the Dirty Party”. In a wealthy suburb of London, residents had clean water and drains. In the heavily overcrowded slums, there was only the communal pump for water, drawn from underground and polluted water levels, and the uncleaned street for waste disposal. The latter areas were swept by cholera, which in turn posed a hazard to the wealthy areas. It took a lengthy struggle before effective public health and good water supply and sanitation saw cholera off.

There’s a balance to be struck

There’s a balance to be struck between personal and social responsibility, between selfishness and compassion and altruism, between concern for oneself and concern for others and the community in which one lives. That balance will shift according to circumstances, opinions and values of any given time. Sometimes the collective can seem oppressive, at others personal responsibility foolhardy. There’s a moral judgement to be made. There’s also a pragmatic decision, as to what works and what best serves us. Indeed one might even suggest that, as a result of personal responsibility and choice, one voluntarily yields to the needs of the collective. From the perspective of holism and the whole, another person’s needs are also mine. If I neglect another’s needs, at some level I also neglect mine. We are all interconnected. It can be hard to see that through service to others we also serve ourselves.

What price love and compassion?

John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/

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