How can individualism coexist with a global pandemic? 

Oliver Grant

5th year
Marys College CSSP, Rathmines

In this essay I’m going to briefly define individualism, analyse how covid-19 has challenged this common ethical-framework and inspect the legitimacy of this challenge in a pandemic-ridden world. 

Individualism is a highly popular ethical framework that emerged in the enlightenment that puts emphasis or value on each person having freedom to achieve what they deem the best life for themself. This is in contrast to more collective ways of thinking that are outlined and characterised by thinkers such as Karl Marx, which are willing to sacrifice the ability of the individual to attempt to secure their own prosperity in exchange for the wellbeing of all. The opposition to individualism speaks largely to the notion of the ‘common good’, but where these arguments interact is really on an ethical plane, in questioning the legitimacy of the concept of the individual, and in questioning the importance of  ability to seek your own prosperity in comparison to the prosperity of society as a whole. 

Coronavirus has forced huge amounts of people all around the World to forego their individual freedom for the sake of the common good by staying at home. The pandemic, instead of increasing our sense of self-reliance while we are isolated in our own bubbles, has forced us to look beyond what is best for ourselves and consider what is important for the community. In the case of coronavirus, huge swathes of young and healthy people who would likely suffer little symptoms for the virus have given up their freedom in order to facilitate the ‘communal good’. Even though they recognise the spread of the virus poses no real threat to their lives, they are willing to sacrifice their lifestyle in order to protect and maintain others in society’s well being. This is an act in defiance of individualism. 

Looking closely at the ethics of the situation, first we must consider how the virus has posed a challenge to the legitimacy of the narrative of the individual. As can be seen in our heightened veneration and admiration of those who have been deemed ‘essential workers’, more than ever people are aware of how much they rely on others for aspects of their life. The popular individualist and capitalist rhetoric of each individual or household being an individual unit within the economy that Milton Friedman equates with a ‘Robin Crusoe’ relies on many false presumptions, a startling one being that if push came to shove, that unit would be able to produce food for itself by growing it. We are deeply reliant on others in this way, we rely on those who produce essentials such as food and basic household items (like toilet paper). In addition to this, illness is often a catalyst to question our individuality, as we realise that we are not in control of our fate and destiny, but we are in fact a victim of chance, and in addition to this in states of illness we are shown how utterly reliant we are on others, particularly health workers. This reliance on others demonstrated in both a medical and economic capacity - which is so emphasised by the current pandemic - begins to question the validity of the individual, it implicates that the true nature of our society is a collectivist one, and thus our pretense of the individual is a bad fit for the actuality of mutual interdependence.  

John Donne's famous passage of “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” epitomises a sentiment that is emerging during this coronavirus lockdown. Our collective acts of selflessness to protect the vulnerable within society has highlighted the truth of Donne’s idea. Through collective action, society has been giving a new understanding of the truth that the common-good is better for everyone than each person seeking individual prosperity. The idea that the way one should act is the way that is best solely for them is now quite literally dangerous, and when the common good is equated to something as high-stakes as thousands of lives it becomes clear that it’s a cause worth making sacrifices for. The care we give to our societies - and thus to others - should be just as strong as the care that we show to ourselves, for the humanity that makes us worthy of such care does not belong solely to us but is shared by many. While of course it is impractical to care deeply and personally for millions of people, we are able to conceptualise the idea of the ‘common good’, and thus can act in the interests of others without a personal connection to them. 

In this way, coronavirus has brought the flaws and fallacies of individualism to the fore, and shown the importance and effectiveness of a morality that focuses on the common good.