The pandemic we are currently experiencing shook the world and our generation at an unprecedented level. It is still impossible to know what will be all the outcomes of this event, or for how long it will affect our lives. Pretending to know what exactly will be the situation in our world in a few months would be highly dubious; it may even fall into the realm of divination. In no way, it is a reasonable approach. However, what we can do and should do is asking ourselves the good questions, raising the right issues. The world is going to change but it is up to us, as a society, to decide how are we going to be changed. Indeed, crises reshuffle the cards and tend to reshape history, sometimes for the best, and often for the worst. In a few weeks, the tragedy of the coronavirus enabled us to see how mankind can be admirable when challenged; but also how human behavior can be nasty and inhumane.
Even though it is impossible to say exactly how all aspects of our post-modern civilization are, or will be, deeply impacted by the epidemic. Our health is threatened. The biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s was already announced. Social interactions will be governed by the fear of contagion. Geopolitics may enter a new era of uncertainty and a setback from liberal globalization. Culture, through art and lifestyle, too will be changed like after every traumatic event experienced by a given society. Furthermore, this is our entire leading philosophy, especially in the Western World, that might shift with the unexpected comeback of a concept as old as civilization but forgotten for a few decades: the idea of Collective Responsibility.
In simple terms, the notion of Collective Responsibility refers to the fact that a group as a whole and all of its members, are held partially responsible for the actions of an individual member fo that same group. Over the centuries, this idea has been widely used to justify horrendous actions of “collective punishments” carried out by authoritarian regimes or used as the basis of racist ideologies and acts of discrimination. For example, Jewish communities were persecuted by the Church because of the sin of one, Judah.
This misinterpretation of the very concept of collective responsibility is highly regrettable but rejecting this notion would be a mistake. After the traumatic experiences of the 20th century, the post-modern Western civilization turned to a philosophy of life-based on individualism and personal rights. By doing so, it managed relatively well to prevent any other instance of savage “collective punishment” carried out on innocent populations. Nevertheless, by focusing primarily on the individual, we slowly forgot one of the most important aspects of human nature. We are, per definition, social animals, consequently, our existence is defined by the group we are belonging to; all of our life is dependent on the society we are living in.
At the very beginning, the first human beings belonged to small communities of no more than a few dozens of individuals; but over the course of history, those groups became bigger and bigger. There were the cities, the nation-states, the cross-border religions, the international ideological movements, and eventually, the world as a whole. Globalization has extended the small tribe to the entire planet since every interaction made in one part of the globe has consequences on everyone. The quick spread of the virus is a perfect example. I do not believe that this “universalism” is necessarily a bad or a good thing, it is rather the logical course of History, but I do believe than it in this type of “ World-Society” that consciousness of Collective Responsibility is absolutely critical.
The notion of Collective Responsibility is famously featured in one of the most beautiful poems of English literature: The Rime of Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In this text, a sailor cruelly kills an albatross without any apparent reasons. The rest of the crew quickly approves that act and as a consequence, a curse falls upon all of them to avenge the crime. Death itself would pursue them in order to take their souls:
“The souls did from their bodies fly,—
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my cross-bow!”
l. 220-223, Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1921). Coleridge, Ernest Hartley (ed.). The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Oxford University Press. pp. 186–209.”
Obviously, this poem is a metaphor and is not to be taken literally; but it does show us the importance of collective responsibility and how it can affect each others’ life. Disregarding the fact that we are not a mere aggregation of individuals, but a coherent body called society has slowly led us towards great catastrophes. Economists, like Garrett Hardin, would call it the “Tragedy of the Commons”; a concept proving that the pursuit of self-interest does not always serve the common good. Sociologists would rather consider the replacement of the “We” by the “I” and the subsequent rise of feelings of loneliness. Ecologists would look at the “Global Warming” and our duty to hand on a liveable world to our children. Despite all of these warnings, we comfortably decided to keep our eyes shut so as not to see the precipice we are heading towards,
But today, a more immediate and shocking signal was sent to us: the coronavirus pandemic. More than any other instance stated above, the pandemic realizes how much we are dependent on the responsibility of others and that the individualistic attitude is a delusion. It is only through collective action and consciousness that mankind would be able to overcome this crisis. General lockdowns and social distancing measures would only be effective if any single citizens become self-conscious that he is responsible for all humanity. This is precisely where collective responsibility becomes so important: this is not because you are not the source of the issue that you are exempted from dealing with it. This statement may be obvious for the case of the COVID-19 but is no less true for any other instances. If wars still occur in the world, if murders and rapings still happen, if poverty still afflicts billions of people; it is not only because there were bad people out there, but also because we were not collectively good enough to prevent it.
More than ever individualism kills. And a sense of worldwide collective responsibility might be the vaccine.