Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

When liberalism fails

Liberalism has shown to be extremely inefficient at tackling problems unfolding at a community-scale. Where at stake is the well-being of an entire society, and the action can only be taken collectively, both liberalism and human rights lead the population nowhere.

It’s entertaining to see the eagerness with which people defend their right to die under the label of human rights. It’s especially visible in Russia – with more than 1,000 people dying from Covid-19 per day and one of the strongest anti-vaccination movements in the world.

The takes are usually the following: ‘It’s unlawful to subject individuals and their bodies to the injection of medicine that they didn’t give permission for. It violates our human rights’. This should rather be formulated as following: ‘Our natural human right is to make the population die naturally at a rate of 1,000 people per day. This right should be respected and defended’. Weird preference, but OK – in absence of objective morality, everything is permissible. I just doubt if anyone would subscribe to such a statement, the logical premises and implications of which are outlined that clearly.

Liberalism essentially manifests that an individual and his personal pursuit of happiness is liberated and decoupled form that one of a society (on the level of either family, country, or a religious group). The ongoing pandemic has clearly shown the deficiency of liberal doctrine in emergency situations. The pandemic is an issue affecting the entire population, and only collectively it can be approached. Pandemic can be tackled in two ways: either the entire population develops a natural immunity to the virus (naturally, however at a cost of many lives of the weakest community members), or through artificial immunity by means of vaccinating the majority. A mix of these two methods cannot work. Therefore a personal choice of one individual is not a factor that can determine the success of tackling the pandemic. It cannot be. The problem is of entirely different scale.

Of course, I’m not a big fan of serving community interests either, and as an individual I’m in favour of liberalism (under normal circumstances). However not in the situations when survival of an entire social group is at stake. In the end, long-term survival of civilization can be considered as yet another selfish interest of an individual. Perhaps the most important one.

We should be mindful that human rights are an abstract idea, and don’t exist in nature. They’re granted to individuals and safeguarded by a liberal society they live in. But without such a society, no human rights will remain. In a way, the concept of human rights essentially has a contradiction rooted in it – taken to absolute, the pursuit of human rights may destroy the very foundation of their existence. Therefore, the preservation of society is one single value that is justified to stand above human rights. Cultural preservation has more nuances of course, but the problem of biological survival is quite straightforward.

Political alternatives

If liberalism proves to be inefficient in solving large-scale problems (individuals are essentially too short-sighted), which other agents may act on such a scale then? Plato wrote that even democracies may opt for a temporary instalment of an authoritarian government in case of a crisis or a war. Democracy is the slowest and most inefficient system when it comes to urgent matters that require quick action. Which proves to be right.

The communist regime of China has successfully tackled the pandemic in less than a year. More than 80% of people got vaccinated, and the virus is effectively gone. Communists do it well. Another example: have you ever heard of the quickest and most large-scale vaccination campaign in the history of mankind? In 1959 a Soviet artist returned from India where he had attended a ritual cremation of a Hindu Brahmin (don’t ask). The artist brought to Moscow a carpet that belonged to the deceased as a souvenir, as well as… the virus of smallpox. Mostly eradicated by that time. Nothing could save the artist, who died a week later, however the subsequent actions of the Moscow government were unprecedented. In 3 weeks, the municipal authority mobilized more than 25,000 medical workers and performed vaccination of almost 9,600,000 people in Moscow and its region. In the end, the deadly virus infected only 45 people, and killed 3. In less than a month the virus was completely eradicated from the country.

If we compare that story to the current vaccination rates in the same location… Well, It’s been almost a year since the start of the vaccination program, and only 8,000,000 people in Moscow region got vaccinated (given that the city population has grown twice(!) since the 60s). It hurts to say it, but the measures of communist governments are clearly more efficient in the epidemic realm.

But that was the totalitarian reality of the Soviet Union. We now live in a liberal democracy, and I don’t know how the practice of alternating the political strategies is realistic outside of Plato writings. The hybrid models of governmental policy that combine occasional strict measures and a simultaneous reliance on human rights didn’t prove successful – in absence of fundamental commitment to community interest established as unalterable goal, the policy will always be myopic and inconsistent.

Variability of ethics

When the reality is doomed, we can at least contemplate problems on a theoretical level. How justified is it to ditch liberalism and the doctrine of human rights in the exceptional situations? In fact, from the perspective of applied ethics, it is quite justifiable. It’s interesting that in the sphere of practical ethics, different moral systems are considered appropriate in different situations. For instance, it’s a common knowledge these days that utilitarianism is a default moral code applied in the war settings, where loss of lives must be avoided at all cost. Under the doctrine of just war, if a life of one civilian must be sacrificed to avoid deaths of many – the war logic will deem it justifiable. I would assume that pandemic is yet another case of a situation that presents a deadly threat to lives of people, therefore the most logical ethical system to apply during this high-risk emergency is utilitarianism too.

At the same time, as we know, the doctrine of utilitarianism contradicts the idea of human rights: whatever is good for majority may easily violate the rights of minority. Think of the most common example: the Romans watching Christian slaves fighting with lions at Colosseum for fun and joy. This is why entertainment is not a credible sphere to apply utilitarian ethics at. But the biological survival of a community is.

Anyway, I think the current political circumstances have brought us to the point that offers no way out. Liberalism, even though beneficial for an individual, has some destructive long-term trajectories rooted in it. And I see the same trend unfolding in other spheres too. For instance, the long-term population reproduction. As individuals have a right to pursue happiness in any way they prefer, not being subjected to any obligations (imposed by family or community), it’s natural that people prefer not to reproduce. Reproduction is something that’s primarily beneficial to the community. In the Western countries of 21 century, it’s viewed as a cost to an individual. And does the Western civilization have a chance of survival, when it cannot even ensure its demographic sustainability? Well. It seems like the West was built on some fundamental principles that had a time bomb installed in them.

We will easily survive this pandemic, no doubt. But the next crisis may be fatal. And whatever doesn’t kill us quickly, will destroy us slowly.

Update: alright, turns out the accusations of human rights were not entirely necessary. I’ve read the UN Declaration of Human Rights the other day: out of 30 articles, only one deals with human duties as opposed to entitlements (the Article 29), and it pretty much summarizes everything I’ve composed here. I assume that anti-vaxxers refer to the American interpretation of ‘unalienable human rights’ from the US Declaration of Independence (the famous right for ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ – with the last component missing from the UN text). Which leaves us with an interesting implication: United Nations document essentially leaves room for a non-entirely-liberal interpretation.

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