The Fragility of the Individual and the Ethics of Sacrifice
Camilla Pagani 19 March 2020

Never have we understood the importance of freedom, in the very essential form of freedom of movement, as we do today, quarantined to stem the Covid-19 emergency. Until one is restricted, reclused or immobilized by external forces, one cannot fully understand the beauty and importance of being able to move about. The liberal English philosopher, Isaiah Berlin called it “negative freedom” due to the absence of external influences, that which Thomas Hobbes defined as the absence of external impediments to movement (Leviathan, Ch. 21). Today instead, we find ourselves at the windows and balconies of our homes, scared and lost, impeded from leaving our houses if not for reasons of extreme necessity (work, health, to buy groceries or medicines).

Two conditions exemplify the privation of freedom of movement of our society and in this particular moment, thoughts of empathy and solidarity should go out to those within them. The incarcerated quintessentially embody this internment. Perhaps it is the angst and confusion that this context induce that pushed prisoners to revolt in Italy on March 8th. Due to the law that suspended family visits for preventative health purposes, many prisons erupted in violence against their guards, which led to the death of 13 prisoners, a mass escape in Foggia (Puglia), fires and destruction. Scenes of unprecedented violence revealed a tense climate in which unease and rage contributed to the already precarious conditions in overcrowded prisons. The second condition is that of the migrants and refugees that are deprived of their right to international movement due to their having the “wrong” passport and they are ready to fight for it, even if it should cost them their life in a Libyan prison, in the Mediterranean, at the Greco-Turkish border or between the United States and Mexico.

The closure of borders due to pandemic panic or to geopolitical prejudices, like America’s abrupt choice of suspending all flights from the European Union, puts into question the very idea of globalization based on freedom of movement. Many European countries deceive themselves that the suspension of Schengen can stop a virus that does not know checkpoints or national identity. It follows that many citizens end up facing a schizophrenic situation, blocked in countries through which they were only passing or living in simply for university or work reasons or as tourists.


Neighbors or enemies?

It is the bio-political dimension of our existence which has emerged above all else. In liberal democracies we have grown with the conviction that we are subjects with unalienable rights and never imagined ourselves to be simple means. When we see the few other passers-by in our sporadic outings for essential goods, we do not see them as people, but as means of contagion for the virus. And here the despondency consumes me, as I realize that we have lost our Kantian idea of humanity, that in which we should see every person as an end unto themselves and never as a means, reducing Man from Leib, a sentient being, to Körper, flesh, as the German philosopher Edmond Husserl would have put it. Worse still, we have reduced the idea of a human being to a simple means of viral transmission, a potential bearer of danger.

In this phase, the virus has won its battle against our humanity, against our identity and against our ability to live together. The virus has simply demonstrated all the fragility that surrounds our notion of the individual, a pillar of western, modern liberal societies. In this process of “de-humanization”, Man is no longer considered as an accomplished individual but as a fragile and vulnerable being that must be protected or as a biological substrate that must be identified, traced and controlled. The French philosopher Frédéric Gros defines this condition as the notion of “biosecurity” implying methods of identification, complete traceability and control (The Security Principle).


Emergency dilemmas

How then to respond to the virus? According to medical authorities and the World Health Organization (WHO) we should deny our sociality, overturn our habits, traditions and daily gestures. No more shaking hands, hugs, visits to our friends or families; we should even prevent our children from playing ball with their friends. Everything should be mediated by a protective screen and in most cases, we use our screens as surrogates for our affections and rebuild relationships through digital means.

The implementation of these laws and recommendations, however, raises a key problem. Which values should take precedence in this fight against time? And, above all, which political models should be favored: authoritarian or democratic? How do we establish the threshold between blind submission to a despotic power and a sense of individual responsibility among citizens? The Chinese case has demonstrated the effectiveness and efficiency of a vertical bio-political surveillance model in which the individual is veritably altered to support traceable, locatable and predictable behaviors for the virus. Thermometers that take temperatures at a distance, facial recognition that works through facemasks have led to the implementation of bans, fines and controls. Power has materialized in the total control of movements, with no guarantee of respect for privacy, of the use of sensitive private data belonging to legal persons. If health security should be guaranteed and respected, individual freedoms should not have to be compromised. As the French sociologist Didier Bigo reminds us, liberty and security are not opposites: security should be considered a tool to enjoy one’s liberty and not vice-versa.

Two principles distinguish these two political models. Firstly, the public availability of information and transparency in the government’s decisions. The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen theorized that the importance of public discussion and the availability of information are key to prevent or solve human security problems like ecological disasters and famines (The Idea of Justice). In China, at the start of the epidemic, it was precisely the lack of information and government censorship that inhibited a resolution to the problem. The second principle has to do with the accountability of those in power. If citizens are not satisfied with the measures in place, be they drastic quarantine measures or a laxer laissez-faire approach, they can condemn their leaders’ behavior in elections. These are the fundamental values of liberal democracies and they shall not be bartered for any reason. In all European countries, the juridical stiffening should therefore go hand in hand with the respect for the Rule of Law, implementing a process of individual accountability in the context of a communal ethical effort.

The state of confinement, which Italians have now experienced for two weeks, and that was recently adopted by France, Spain and other European countries, is a gesture of individual responsibility and civic mindedness that translates into a strong sense of community. Certainly, it is a difficult sacrifice but one that is made in favor of the most vulnerable and in solidarity with the extraordinary work of doctors, nurses and healthcare personnel. Negating our nature as social animals, temporarily disavowing our need for physical contact, we adopt an ethic of sacrifice to protect the less fortunate. Precisely because every person, even the eldest and most fragile, is an end unto himself and not a means to be abandoned for the collective good, as the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson callously implied with his initial cynical strategy of herd immunity, we have to temporarily adopt an ethic of sacrifice to reconstitute a more comprehensive sense of humanity and a new way of creating community.




Camilla Pagani, PhD, is Lecturer in Political Theory at MGIMO University, Moscow, and Sciences Po Alumni Board Member

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