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Emergency ethics

Abandon freedoms, focus on duties to society

20 05 04.slim3

In an emergency we become acutely aware of our social duties, and are willing to surrender individual rights and freedoms to fulfill them. But this should not be a passing realisation. We must persistently remind ourselves of the roles we all have to play, as individuals, in the protection of the rights we fight so hard for. 

One of the most striking things about the politics emerging around the Covid-19 emergency is its clear re-balancing of human rights and human duties. Political, social and economic life has become urgent for us all. The State risks being overwhelmed and we are all asked to do much more for one another as citizens and neighbours. Fulfilling our duties to one another has suddenly become essential to protecting and realizing our rights.

The return of human duties to public politics is overdue. The sheer dominance of rights has been a weakness in the West’s approach to political theory and practice as it has evolved since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This approach simplistically frames politics and the search for social justice as an ever-proliferating series of demands against the State – a sharp-tongued political and legal discourse of complaint and redress.

It is revealing that only Article 29 of the UDHR talks directly of our duties to one another, stating that “everyone has duties to the community” and limiting our rights and freedoms to ensure “due recognition and respect for others”. Apart from this, the whole basis of modern human rights is framed as the State’s duty to respect and realize the rights of its citizens. Modern human rights do not give any of us much to do except determine new rights, demand them from the State and then monitor State compliance.

The Covid-19 emergency reminds us all that rights are only really half the picture. Human rights are profoundly important to agree and vest in law but so too is everyone’s duty to work to get them protected and realized throughout society in the careers we lead, the choices we make and the small actions we take.

The COVID19 emergency reminds us all that rights are only really half the picture. Human rights are profoundly important but so too is everyone’s duty to protected and realized them throughout society.

The British political tradition is historically driven by an equal concern for human rights and human duties. John of Salisbury was probably Britain’s earliest systematic political theorist, writing his Policraticus in Canterbury in the twelfth century. Drawing on St Paul, Cicero and Plutarch, it was John who resuscitated the metaphor of the “body politic” and brought it to the modern world. Essential to his vision was how all parts of society have duties to one another and how equity and justice will only thrive if the different parts of society are working reciprocally together for the common good.

John sounds remarkably modern when he says things like “public welfare is therefore that which fosters a secure life both universally and in each particular person”. Like many in the British tradition, he writes staunchly in favour of free speech and against corruption, self-serving politics and tyrants. He sees the “distribution of duties” and mutual respect between the head, heart, arms, feet of society as vital to a healthy political body.

John’s theory is a deeply feudal political vision led by Church and Prince, but it also has a core belief in all people’s natural and lawful rights, and he clearly thinks well-ordered and reciprocal duties across government and society are the best way to realize rights and law.

In more recent British political history, this commitment to living out our duties as a means to realize rights saw a huge surge in the social reform movements of the nineteenth century that abolished slavery, reformed industrial practices and improved health and education. Doing good things, and working together respectfully as people and government, was extremely important to the duty-minded activists and politicians who bequeathed to us our modern rights-based British State.

Everyone, not only the State, has responsibilities in practically realizing a more just society and today everyone has clear duties once again in the deep crisis of social, economic and cultural rights posed by the COVID pandemic and the deprivations necessary to restrain its damage in the short term.   

Everyone, not only the State, has responsibilities in practically realizing a more just society.

So, what are the duties we all have in the new political ethics emerging around the socio-economic emergency of this pandemic? They are mainly twofold.

First, we need to focus firmly on the common good and work hard to realize people’s rights wherever we can.

This means passively disengaging from direct human contact in social distancing and so deliberately not enjoying some of our social, economic and cultural rights to congregate for work, as friends and families, and religiously in mosques, churches, temples and sports stadiums. Actively, our duty is to contribute in any way possible to government and mutual aid initiatives springing up in our neighbourhoods to help and include especially isolated, deprived, impoverished and threatened people around us. Their rights must be important to us and we must share a deep concern to deliver an equitable response to the crisis on the ground, which treats all people as fairly as possible on the basis of their need.

How we spend our money really matters too. We have a duty to mitigate the economic disaster of lockdown and rebuild an economy that serves the common good. We should be supporting capable, fair-minded people who are consciously driving recovery and steering a responsible commercial pathway through the crisis. We should be spending as much money as we can to keep businesses going, restart ones which have stalled and back new ones that are adapting ethically to changed conditions.

In all this, as the saying goes from disaster relief after the Asian Tsunami, we should be backing people who are “building back better”. Those who are advocating that we should “rebuild green”, “rebuild fairly” and “rebuild feminist” are focusing on important public goods.

The second set of duties we have in today’s emergency ethics is to ensure a binding, discursive and accountable political contract between people and power. This ethical ambition sets us firmly in the mainstream of the British rights tradition which has long been determined to make public power answerable to the whole population. A couple of hundred years after John of Salisbury’s call for justice and equity in government, the English Franciscan philosopher, William of Ockham, led a fierce attack on the “tyranny” of a corrupt Papacy in the fourteenth century and its resulting “iniquities and injustices” that are “opposed to the rights and liberties given to all people by God and nature.” William, like John, repeatedly insisted that power should be negotiated with the people and exercised in their interests.

There is a duty on all of us – people and politicians alike - to work privately and publicly to generate understanding and consent for new policies of emergency and recovery.

This deeply British commitment to political contract and accountable government developed heartily through Locke, Paine, Smith and many others up until the present day. It insists on people’s rights and on the duties of government and governed to work out together how best to realize these rights.

The new emergency politics around the COVID pandemic needs this political contract. There is a duty on all of us – people and politicians alike - to work privately and publicly to generate understanding and consent for new policies of emergency and recovery. This means working truthfully together in honest deliberation and discussion about the difficult choices our leaders must make in the inevitable “rights clashes” and trade-offs that we face between health, education, economics, culture and environment.

This second line of duties will be hard. It means thinking together on difficult judgements of how we can best protect both human lives and human livelihoods. It involves re-balancing healthcare to a more equitable mix of routine and emergency provision so that the we are not caught in the headlights of COVID deaths and overlooking the increase in indirect deaths in cancer patients and many thousands of others who are ordinarily ill. It also means due care in rapidly developing new medicines and new surveillance technologies for emergency use.

This political and ethical deliberation must be done together, at speed and with insufficient information, which is the nature of emergency ethics. But there is a duty on us all to take an active interest in how choices and political decisions affect the rights of others in the UK and throughout the world, and to ensure our leaders are telling us what they are thinking and how they are deciding. In this process, we should accept that it is truthful and legitimate to say “I don’t know” and “we’re not sure” as well as “I think we should try this now.”    

Finally, if the politicians of this emergency are doing their duty by being honest and deliberative with us, and if we sense they are working with ethical integrity in search of the common good, then we also have a duty to treat them with compassion for any misunderstandings and misjudgments they may make while working under intense pressure. But, of course, we are relieved of this duty if they prove to be unjustifiably deceitful, negligent and tyrannical.

See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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