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Irresponsible Citizenship

The Cultural Roots of the Crisis of Authority in Times of Pandemic

Jean-François Caron

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the serious crisis of political authorities that liberal societies are currently experiencing. Indeed, a significant number of individuals living in these societies did not hesitate to defy the sanitary rules enacted by their government which has made it difficult for them to stop the virus from spreading. What can explain such a situation? This is what this book is discussing. Whether it is the growing popularity of conspiracy theories, the distrust towards governments or cultural and religious beliefs that take precedence over the respect of governments’ directives, all these factors that have led so many individuals to act in an irresponsible way during the pandemic find their roots in the liberal tradition as it originated in the 18th century and in its more recent development which has had the effect of decentralizing the individual from his collective responsibilities in favor of an almost unlimited enjoyment of his individual freedom. This health crisis has revealed the urgency for liberal societies to establish a better balance between collective interest and individual freedom through responsible citizenship capable of protecting its citizens against the adoption of draconian measures when they will be struck again by upcoming pandemics that appear to be unfortunately inevitable.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how fragile the respect for political authority is in Liberal societies. Around the world, governments have encouraged their citizens to comply with very simple measures to limit the spread of the virus that has proven fatal to more than 3 million individuals (and counting): “wear a mask when you are outside your home and in the company of others,” “stay at home and only go out if it is truly essential” and “avoid unnecessary gatherings” have been the most widespread instructions. However, although these instructions are more than reasonable given the presence of a virus that spreads from person to person through oral or nasal secretions, they have been ignored by a significant proportion of the world’s population, thus contributing to the acceleration of the spread of the virus and even the development of a second and of a third wave of infections after initial freedom-restricting measures, such as the strict isolation of old and vulnerable persons in their places of residence, the quarantining of entire cities and even a ban on leaving one’s home for any non-essential purpose, were implemented in many societies. This unwillingness of many people to follow the instructions of their respective governments ←1 | 2→has thus demonstrated just how relative and limited the power that the political sphere holds over citizens really is.

The following metaphor, taken from Michael Huemer (2013), illustrates the situation that liberal societies are now confronted with. Let us imagine the following scenario: you...

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