Liberty in Lockdown

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John Harris in the Guardian has just written a very good article on how Coronavirus has deepened prejudice against older people. It is hard to be definitive on how we should think about this very real set of issues, other than to feel things deeply personally. My Mum, 93, has all of her mental faculties, and only needed to enter a care home two years ago. So far, she is OK, but there is always worry. We will not be able to see Ingrid’s Mum next month in the Netherlands for her 90th. She lives alone.

Talk of ‘locking down’ older people (which may include me) might be good for public health, but it is also discrimination in other ways.

It is very difficult to see ‘right’ answers, though I am minded to quote from John Stuart Mill:

Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric’. (pg. 66. Chapter III: Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being).

Mill considered us social animals, and saw benefit in social living. But he was a champion of the individual. An appropriate commentary on today – to what degree do we hold our individuality in check, and to what degree does our (social) media and political class terrorise us into conformity? The essence of liberalism is in question.

With respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases‘. (pg. 74. Chapter IV: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual).

Don’t get me wrong. Mill would also argue that, e.g., the current regime of ‘social distancing’ is a public good, outweighing individual liberty – he would not be protesting. But he would also argue that if an individual is not harming others, they should be free.

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Header: Mick Yates. 2017. The Tour.

MILL, John Stuart. 1859. On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays. 1991, 2015 Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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