In capitalism, where the competition among the contending economic groups is unabashedly encouraged, economic activities are by and large individual, will the Covid-19 further provoke individualism?
Diane Coyle intervenes in an old but essential understanding in his article "Covid-19 and the end of individualism" about the ending of individualism.
The ending of individualism is a theory that is empowered by Hobbesian psychoanalysis. Individualism arises from the extreme or moderate egoism that overrules social compatibility and empathy.
Diane argues that human beings are essentially social, so every decision they make affects other people living in the same society as theirs.
He says Aristotle is right in thinking that if a man thinks he doesn't belong to a society, he must think of himself to be a creature of an extra-terrestrial world.
Until you are thinking that as a member of the society you can't disrupt the unintermittent communication with other people, this pandemic shows the reality that each of us is morally responsible for the infection risks we pose to others through our own behaviour. However, Diane's cognitive observation about the relationship of individual to society might not be completely flawless. The issue Diane raises is rather delicate because no simplified proposition on human nature should be adequate in this connection.
Of course, there is a substantial ground to be hopeful about collectivism regarding socio-economic relationship of humans; but it contains a modicum of reality.
Human beings by and large could never leave off psychological barriers. Individualism in a broader manner is the most fundamental character of human beings that nullifies social contract, or at least the way people construct a social umbrella.
Bertrand Russell is right. He says man is a semi-gregarious animal because he is neither a lion nor a bee since a lion leads a completely solitary life and a bee entirely follows social integrity coming from instinct.
Russell feels that moral education is imperative for human being because human life neither entirely follows the order of instinct, nor does it social ordeal.
Covid-19 educates a very interesting and thoughtful learning to us. It combines two opposing practical phenomena: to keep physical distance from others for antimicrobial resistance, and to create a social umbrella to feed off distress.
Accordingly, the two opposed realities of personal resistance and social protection come within this outbreak.
Apparently, it may follow that it ends individualism, as Diane argues, but it is not true in a strict sense. To remember, it needs to see both sides of the tunnel.
We have a dichotomy where you must maintain a considerable physical distance, and also jump in to respond to their sufferings of your community during the crisis.
Physical distance will protect your life but on the contrary, social empathy could save your community. If you don't maintain distance from others you may cease to exist, and if you don't express solidarity with others your society may be in collapse.
Diane Coyle's best proposition of his article reveals, "The pandemic has shown that it is not existential dangers, rather everyday economic activities, that reveal the collective, connected character of modern life. Just as a spider's web crumples when a few strands are broken, the coronavirus has highlighted the risks arising from our economic interdependence."
This is undeniably true but logically flawed because economic activities depend on social choice.
In capitalism, where the competition among the contending economic groups is unabashedly encouraged, economic activities are by and large individual.
Again, addressing biodiversity and climate degradation, carbon emission, and facing coronavirus are not issues of an individual or particular community, however, individuals are largely responsible for climate degradation which may be the cause of such deadly catastrophe. As a result, an individual's responsibility is technically engendering all, including the countries that are not responsible or less guilty of.
Undeniably, the world is now more connected than ever, more dependent than the last century or before. Even people of the world are now likely to be more humane than any other time in history.
But, at the same time, it is also true that human beings are now more individualist than ever, more ego-centric than other time in history.
This comes from the collapse of authoritarianism of seventeenth century's Europe, as described in Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations, "Many of the above features of Western civilization contributed to the emergence of a sense of individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties unique among civilized societies3. Individualism developed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and acceptance of the right of the individual choice … prevailed in the West by the seventeenth century. Even claims for equal rights for all individuals … were articulated if not universally accepted."
The clash of culture and civilization is inevitable, particularly, where there is a considerable disparity between incomes.
The economic status of people, living standard, religious and racial discrimination provokes individualism.
After the Second World War when the people had been struggling to survive first, existentialism, a new doctrine of self- realization depended on own value and intangibility, arrived in the west whose principal advocate was Jean-Paul-Sartre.
Individual liberty and political freedom were the centre of this new doctrine. Since then, people learned to think of their own anguish, despondency, ecstasy and joy.
However, individual freedom doesn't impede social responsibility. Freedom of individual is largely stretched to the liberty of community, existentialists argue.
Diane Coyle also argues, "the current emergency is only an acute symptom of increasing interdependence".
This is absolutely true, but this increasing interdependence doesn't imply that the affected countries are forgetting their own stature.
For example, if further research on Covid-19 discloses a bitter reality about the countries which are directly responsible for climate degradation and an unethical carbon emission that finally snatches millions of lives, what should their environmental approaches be then?
Will those countries ban their activities that may shun gas emission or global heating? Are they ready to cut their different development projects off for global interest?
China and USA, for example, are the leading carbon emitters in the world, emitting more than 9,838.8 and 5,269.5 million metric tonnescarbon dioxiderespectively every year, followed by India and Russia.
Interestingly, the top 10 carbon emitters account for more than 70 percent of the world total.
As a result, poor counties badly suffer for the irresponsible conduct of rich countries but when the question of compensation for the vulnerable climate-risk zone arises, developed countries or United Nations too plays a dirty game. This discrimination obviously disrupts the chance of bringing all societies together.
Finally, Diane writes, "and now California and Georgia, Germany and Italy, and China and the United States need each other to recover and rebuild. No one should waste time yearning for an unsustainable fantasy".
I am not sure enough about the optimism that he makes here because the character of these countries is substantially different. At least we cannot expect this so-called social equity for the poor and developing countries. Let us wait and observe the post-Covid world order.
The author is a professor of Philosophy at Jagannath University, Dhaka.