The journey to accepting our freedom during a pandemic
This article is part of the Time Capsule 2020 project, click here to find out more.
by Toby Tremlett
“I don’t choose to exist, but I am. An absurdity which is responsible for itself, that’s exactly what I am”The Blood of Others; pg 108, Simone de Beauvoir
In a sense this essay is quite personal. Though it is written as if from an impartial standpoint, the argument it contains is addressed to someone who sees themselves in the above quote, someone who feels responsible for the consequences of their own existence.
If you do feel this way, you aren’t alone. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre are two philosophers who spent much of their work struggling with the implications of this view. In Beauvoir’s post-war novel The Blood of Others, the character Blomart personifies this feeling. Throughout the novel he struggles with an intense awareness of his own responsibility: he tries to deny it, to subsume it in an adherence to characters and roles but, ultimately, he finds that he must accept it. I want to suggest that this conclusion on our freedom and consequent responsibility is as relevant today, in the midst of a global pandemic, as it was in post-war Paris.
This pandemic operates on the level of invisibility, potentiality and risk. The outcome of our actions, even previously inane ones such as going to the shop, walking with a friend or attending university, could mean the death of another person. To some extent this is always the case: the consequences of our actions are often alienated from our intentions. But with this pandemic comes a specific awareness of ourselves as potential vectors of disease.
For those of us that share Beauvoir and Sartre’s view of responsibility, that everything that flows from our intentional actions is ours to own, anguish in the face of our choices will be a defining feature of this time.
It is not easy to acknowledge the fact of our freedom, not least when we are constantly reminded that that freedom could lead to someone’s death. When we are overwhelmed with our anguish at our danger to others, our desire might be to escape our anguish and avoid the danger. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction; overt obsession with the negative consequences of our actions will lead to irrational behaviour. We might be driven to extreme and objectively unnecessary caution, or in contrast, to a total abandonment of our responsibilities. The former is painful for the bearer of the attitude, and with such an infectious disease circulating- the latter could be even more painful to others.
So we are facing a forced choice, we must either find a way to escape our freedom or redouble our attempts to accept it. We will explore two methods of escape- denial and deference, and one route to acceptance- the affirmation of the freedom of ourselves and others.
“It’s all very well having moral anguish, but it’s really too convenient if we limit it simply to what suits us”The Blood of Others; pg 137, Simone de Beauvoir
Firstly, Denial. The relevant denial here is the denial of the fact that Covid is a dangerous disease, and that our actions could pass it on to others. If we simply rejected the truth of this, then we could side-step those pathologies of responsibility, the extreme caution or total abandon. We could return to life as normal, no longer worried that we are partly to blame for untimely deaths.
But what would this require of us? In his major work Being and Nothingness1, Sartre argues that at each moment, we are – at least in principle – free to reconfigure every aspect of our identities. For him, it is possible that you or I could stop valuing the arguments of science, or develop radical new standards for evidence that render our current situation unconvincing and unimportant to us.
This initially seems quite radical on Sartre’s part- can we really change deeply held beliefs at will? Surely it cannot be so easy? Luckily, Sartre’s final analysis is more qualified. He thinks it possible that you or I could cease to believe in something as close to our identities as the legitimacy of scientific fact, but very unlikely. This is because – if it is true that valuing scientific fact is close to your identity – to let go of this belief would require more than the decoupling of yourself from a single idea. In fact, your identity, or in Sartre’s terms your “fundamental project” (a sort of aggregate of your life’s intentions) would have to change. We do not let go of our values as a tree detaches itself from a withered leaf- replacing such deeply held views leads to far more fundamental change that requires a radical restructuring of our identities.
In order to deny the existence of the virus that so manifestly surrounds us, we would have to effect a fundamental modification to the web of our personal values and intentions, a web which is perhaps the closest thing we have to an understanding of ourselves.. Not only is it difficult to see how to do this, but when we reflect on it, it is unlikely that we would really want to. Is it worth becoming the kind of person who turns a blind eye to the evidence of the suffering of others just in order to save ourselves some pain in the short term?
It seems then that this route of escape is blocked… Those who choose denial at this stage, and of course there are many of them, likely already have a space in their web of beliefs to accommodate it. For the rest of us, denial is not simple, and the cost of fundamentally altering who we are is too high. Where is there left to run? Perhaps we might attempt something more holistic- denying that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions. How might we go about doing this? One way is to find someone else who is responsible…
We defer when we consciously or unconsciously rely on the opinions of someone else, especially on topics which will guide our actions. Deference in itself isn’t bad and we often defer on matters that we know little about, such as deferring to climate scientists to tell us how serious the threat of climate change is. However, moral deference almost always has a problematic character. When we defer to someone else on our moral opinions, we shift our responsibility. The soldier who kills another man might tell themselves that their actions were not their responsibility because they were acting as a soldier should. If they have done something wrong, it is the fault of the creators and maintainers of that role: their superiors, fellow soldiers and society. This is what makes deference attractive – the weight of blame on our actions is shifted. But “just following orders” is no excuse. In deferring entirely to the edicts of an authority we seek to subsume our own freedom into theirs.
Beauvoir’s Blomart, and Sartre’s Mathieu (from The Age of Reason2) are characters constantly wrestling with their freedom and responsibility. In the novels, they are thrust into existentially difficult situations and consequently, feel the appeal of deference. Mathieu explicitly takes freedom to be the central value of his life. Yet he is jealous, or at least admiring, of his old friend who had tied his destiny to the communist party, thinking: “He had joined up, he had renounced his freedom, he was nothing but a soldier. And everything had been rendered unto him, even his freedom. He is freer than I”3
Similarly, when Blomart is conscripted into the second world war, his primary emotion is one of relief: “[Blomart] did not have to choose to want a thing: he wanted it. He was at one with himself. There were no questions to solve. The goal stood peacefully and clearly before him: victory against fascism”4.
These two characters, filled with anguish at their total freedom and responsibility in their normal lives, dream of subsuming that freedom within the orderly lives of soldiers and party members. Mattheiu’s friend in the communist party tells himself that he does not have to answer to his own freedom, that his freedom has been “rendered unto him” by his superiors as a tool to use for a specific purpose, a purpose he didn’t choose. Blomart finds the life of a soldier relieving because he is given the grand goal of “victory against fascism” and all of his actions are justified in relation to it. In both cases, the underlying form of the escape is deference. Mattheiu and Blomart dream of having their freedom taken away, of subsuming it into an overarching goal, identity or authority which will issue clear edicts, set clear rules.
Now, in our current situation we are not exactly lacking in rules- can we use them to render us free of our responsibility?
The most obvious source of rules is the government. They tell you what you should and shouldn’t do down to very personal matters usually outside the bounds of governmental regulation (who you can meet, where you can meet them, how many people you can invite to your wedding etc…). Faced with this wealth of directives, it is perfectly possible to affirm them and follow them as moral givens. This could reasonably remove the anxiety and irrationality which stem from taking the responsibility for your actions upon your own shoulders.
When you are making a decision, you could simply refer to the government advice and act accordingly. Should I go to the pub? Should I meet my friends indoors? The government says I can, so yes. This kind of attitude might even allow you to say that Covid deaths are the government’s fault- that even if your actions lead to a death, as long as you followed government advice, the blame would lie with them, not you. The issue is that assuming this attitude towards a set of guidelines that you didn’t set yourself is a direct repudiation of your own freedom.
Of course, it isn’t a problem in-itself that people are following government advice. Actually, the fact that many people have followed the advice – even under an attitude of deference- has doubtless saved many lives. And yet, the UK government has frequently contradicted its own rulings. During the summer, while discouraging people from breaking social distancing in certain spheres, they encouraged pubs and restaurants to open and fill their tables, especially with the eat out to help out scheme. If you had previously managed to bury your anguish at your own responsibility through abdicating to the government’s authority, this contradiction (and many others like it) should have made you question your deference.
On the one hand, you know that Covid can be a deadly disease, that it spreads best in non-ventilated conditions like those in many pubs and restaurants and that it is your responsibility not to be a danger to others. On the other, the rules which you are following are suddenly offering the opposite edict, while purporting to retain the justification (of keeping people safe). What can we learn from this contradiction?
The fact that we see a contradiction here shows that we took the rule-maker as having reasons for their rules. While we were deferring to the government to guide our behaviour, we did so on the implicit assumption that they were following reasons that we would assent to if they were made transparent. The contradiction shows that this is not the case, that the real reasons behind the rules are confused or inherently flawed.
The truth is that we can only follow moral rules that we take ourselves as having reasons to share. For example, we should follow social distancing rules because we take ourselves as having reasons to follow scientific recommendation, and not to cause harm. It is an illusion to think that we can follow a set of rules without being responsible for their outcome, because in following them, we are choosing to act as if they are true.
It is this reason/ rule interaction which ultimately shows us that deference is no real option. It is impossible to lose your responsibility in a set of rules. You cannot blame the government for the outcome of your actions if you chose to follow their rules in the first place. Further, this point holds even for those who were never inspired to adopt the government’s rules to begin with. You might defer based on the fact that your friends or contemporaries act in a certain way… but in that situation it would still be down to you to show that conformity is a good enough reason for you to act in a way that is dangerous for others.
We do not follow rules without a reason, and it is always our responsibility to act for the reasons we take to be right. Blomart and Mathieu realise that there is something wrong with craving deference, it isn’t possible for them to lose themselves in the roles of soldier and party member because doing so would mean rejecting their own freedom. They could not help but be conscious of the fact that they were lying to themselves. It would only be possible for us to shift blame to the creators of external rules if those rules directly governed our lives, as physical laws do to objects. But rules set by other people do not work this way- there is an irreducible space between the rules and ourselves, a gap that can only be crossed by our assent. In other words, for rules to apply to you, you must in some sense agree to them yourself. The rules that you follow might perfectly match those of the government, or cohere with the behaviour of your friends, but they must hold up to your own justification. Deference then, is not the answer. You cannot help but use your own freedom to defer, therefore you never truly shift responsibility.
It looks like we only have one option left: to affirm our own freedom and the freedom of others.
Throughout this article we have been skirting around the notion of freedom. Without it, we are reduced to objects that can be subject to external rules, but with it we are doomed to be responsible on a level that can make the current situation hard to bear. What is left to do?
First we must accept our own freedom. We are free to act in whichever way we think right. Denial of Covid’s potential deadliness would deny aspects of ourselves we hold dear, deference to an external authority would render us unfree. There is no excusing ourselves from our freedom, and our consequent responsibility, however heavy the burden of doing so.
Fortunately, we can also extend this conclusion on the behalf of others- they are free too. This essay has discussed responsibility from an individual standpoint, but we live in a world that is populated with other free people. Blomart’s realisation in the last few pages of Beauvoir’s novel is that though he is free, he is less impactful in the lives of others than he thinks. Throughout the book, he has been tormented by the anticipation of a woman’s death- a death that he feels is his responsibility. But as she lays dying, she tells him: “I did what I wanted. You were just a stone. Stones are necessary to make roads, otherwise how could one choose a way for oneself?”5
The dying woman, Helene, is telling Blomart that for her, he was nothing more than a solid fact in her life, a fact which she could predict, build on, and define herself in relation to. Just as he knows himself to be free in a world filled with others that he can impact, so does she.
Does this mean that we can have no impact on others? That they are radically free and cannot be touched in the depths of that freedom? No, not quite. Of course someone who catches Covid and suffers because of us is affected by our action. Even if we foresee that our actions are of some risk to others, we would be wrong to feel wholly responsible if that suffering occurs. Those people are also free to take on the risk that they do. Affirming their freedom means acknowledging a level of shared risk taking- the weight of the whole pandemic is not on you, it is on everyone.
I’ll acknowledge here that this analysis, in virtue of being based on my personal experience, doesn’t take everything into account. As a student during this pandemic, I have always ultimately had control over how I act. For those who are forced, or heavily encouraged, to act in certain risky ways by economic necessity, this account may seem foreign. However, no matter your circumstances, it can still be tempting to flee whatever responsibility we have in the face of the anguish that it provokes.
Perhaps the idea of the other’s freedom is a salve for those of us who feel overly responsible for the risks we put those others in. But it is just that, a salve- and not the most effective one at that. If we want to accept that our actions are our own and that we bear some responsibility for them, then we must also accept that the consequences of those actions can be terrible. Ultimately, this essay cannot end on a note of absolution.
“You have not given me peace; But why should I desire peace? You have given me the courage to accept forever the risk in the anguish, to bear my crimes in my guilt which will rend me eternally. There is no other way.”The Blood of Others; pg 240, Simone de Beauvoir
1- Sartre, J.-P. (2003). Being and Nothingness. Oxon : Routledge Classics.
2- Sartre, J.-P. (1961). The Age of Reason. (E. Sutton, Trans.) Penguin Books.
3- Ibid. pg: 120
4- Beauvoir, S. d. (1964). The Blood of Others. (Y. Moyse, & R. Senhouse, Trans.) Penguin Books. pg: 178
5- Ibid. pg: 237