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[Listen to an audio version of this blog entry here.]
Only the very naïve believe that we live in a free world. Where you have a conflict of human interests, the concept of true individual freedom is unattainable.
My doing whatever I want has the potential to negatively impact on somebody else. It’s why, as an interconnected species in pursuit of both personal and collective goals — or happiness if you will — we have rules and regulations in place to act as checks and balances on individual and communal wants.
It could be thought of as a sort of negative utilitarianism: aiming to inflict the least harm on the greatest number of people.
In an imperfect, unfair world, it’s perhaps the best we can aspire to. The perpetual problem inherent within it, for “freer” societies in any case, is finding that balance between allowing individuals to go about their business with as little interference as possible and protecting others’ rights as well as the environment we share.
Of course, at times one’s personal goals merge nicely with the collective good. Everyone’s a winner, to a certain extent.
When this isn’t so, an arbiter, normally the state in its various forms, is needed to decide how much give and take is allowed in a particular situation.
‘If the vaccine is not a success, we’re going to have to seriously reappraise the damaging containment measures we’ve implemented.’
Thus, said arbiter must hold the respect of the parties in dispute in any given conflict. If this is lacking, the carrot-and-stick approach can bring the warring factions onside, provided there is a genuine effort to engage as fairly as possible by the arbiter.
If one or all of the disputing sides feel this fairness is absent, if favouritism or a lack of sincerity is perceived, then we have quite the tricky situation.
The wrong way?
This is a constant challenge for our leaders and decision-makers. We’ve seen it very much at play in dealing with coronavirus where there is a not-insignificant minority, this writer included (see also my interview with the renowned British author and journalist, Peter Hitchens), who question the efficacy of the various measures introduced in a bid to contain the virus.
Not only are we sceptical that they actually work, but we also highlight the consequences they are having and could have for years to come across society. Coming back to our negative utilitarianism, we are potentially inflicting great harm on a great number. It needn’t be this way.
Alas, this perspective is given scant serious thought as the majority stance of doing all we can to stop coronavirus dominates the discourse.
Perhaps the majority will be proven right — history will be the judge of that.
For now, we must hope that the vaccine is a success for those who most need protection. (I personally won’t be rushing to get jabbed and I don’t think it should be compulsory — more on that another day.)
If it’s not a success, we’re going to have to seriously reappraise the containment measures we’ve implemented. This is because asking people to stop living in a bid to, potentially, save some lives is not a strategy that can go on indefinitely.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.