Crises bring into relief tensions easy to ignore in more normal times. Any thoughtful person recognizes that the individualism that is not just taken as a given but celebrated and even raised to a virtue in contemporary liberal capitalistic societies lives in an unstable relation with the idea that we have positive moral obligations to others. In normal circumstances, however, when we aren’t asked to do too much for one another, when the pursuit of our individual interests has no negative effect on others, and when Mandeville’s praise of private vice as contributing to public good seems just about right, the relation is more or less peaceful and of only theoretical interest. These are not normal circumstances.
So, I am asked to stay home in order that the curve of the pandemic might be flattened. Businesses and parks are closed. Churches don’t meet. We’re dissuaded even from being outside much, unless it is in our own yards. Those of us who have no yards are to stay indoors as much as possible.
Already in week four (where I am) people are starting to bristle at the not-very-stringent conditions under which we are living. Some of this is a desire to see people again and to return to routine. I feel the same things. I want to joke around at the gym, I want to go out dancing, and I even want to go to a bar. One of those I would normally do daily, one only once or twice a year now, and the last almost never since I stopped tending bar myself.
Some of it, too, comes from a different place. People are saying that they’re willing to risk it, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to gather or party or open their businesses or patronize those of others? Those who are most at risk can opt to stay at home. Beyond the assumption that we can know who is most likely to become infected or whom is most likely to be seriously affected, this is the voice of the individual. We can, it says, each look out for ourselves and, really, that is the only responsibility we have. I’m not saying I’m immune to this voice, either.
The response to this individualism is to talk of our obligations to the community, but such talk is dissonant to our ears. I think this is so because of the way we have resolved the tension between the individual and community through a peculiar metaphysics of community.
At least since Locke in the English-speaking world—maybe it’s Hobbes in his state of nature—we’ve taken society or the community to be metaphysically and conceptually posterior to the individual. Individuals exist first and then they come together voluntarily to make up societies and communities and states. Those groupings have whatever value they do only because of the service they are able to offer the individuals who make them up. So, the metaphysical priority leads to an ethical one. Even Locke’s account of the rights of parents and obligations of children makes it appear that the family exists for the production of more individuals.
That the causal and historical direction goes from community to individual is obvious. There was a different we before there could be an I. We’re born into and raised by communities. They form us, for better or worse. They sustain us. Whatever some survivalists and perpetual adolescents may think, we are not the kinds of beings that can survive without communities. Of course, we leave some kinds of communities behind us, too. Our actions profoundly affect what those communities are like, so that we are at least causally responsible for them.
Those facts lead some to reverse the metaphysical, conceptual, and ethical priorities. There can be no individuals without communities in which they come to be, they say,. Individuals inherit all the good that exists within their communities and leave traces in the communities they inhabit. It is the community that is most important; it is the community that transcends. So, communities have rights to which individual rights are subsidiary.
That latter approach is so foreign to our way of thinking to appear self-evidently wrong. I don’t put much weight on what is self-evident, but I do think the solution lies somewhere else.
The individualistic observation that communities are made up of individuals and must be evaluated in terms of the good they do to individuals is correct. This is why we can talk of bad and good societies, of nourishing and toxic communities and groups. The communitarian insight that there are no individuals without communities and that individuals benefit from them and owe something for that benefit and to the community that will succeed them is as correct. This is why we can see people as ungrateful and why we excoriate the anti-social.
There is no priority, but only mutuality. The individual and the community are together in their birth, the individual is an individual only within a community and the community exists only because of the individuals who make it up. The community owed nourishment and nurturing and support to the individual and the individual owes concern and respect and effort and even resources to the community, both conceived as a collection of individuals and something that transcends those particular individuals. A community is something for which it makes sense to sacrifice, but only if that communities feeds and makes possible the flourishing of the individual.
It’s this lack of metaphysical, conceptual, and ethical priority that makes so difficult questions about what I owe to my community in times of crisis and what is owed to me. As this crisis deepens, those questions are only going to become more difficult, but recognizing the tension as necessary—unable to be definitively resolved in either direction—is essential to arriving at the right answers and right balance.