Individual and social responsibility

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There were many who resented Margaret Thatcher when she said, “There is no such thing as society” – not that they would not resent her if she didn’t. Even today, many politicians (without belonging to the left) repeat the buzzword with a grimace of abhorrence for its quasi-social neoliberalism. Rightly, as long as this phrase is isolated...

Of course Thatcher said more than just those seven words. Many people, she claimed, cast their problems on society.

“And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors. People have got their entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There is no such thing as an entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation,” she said.

This reasoning is becoming extremely relevant now with the pandemic. As the British politician would say: Many tend to shift the problem to society. But, as you know, society does not get sick. There are only institutions, men and women, and there is no state that can do anything without the contribution of individuals.

People must first protect themselves from the virus. It is our duty to protect ourselves first and then to protect our neighbor. People have in mind the rights to assembly, entertainment etc, without obligations. There is no right to assembly unless one first fulfills the obligations of protecting oneself and others.

A metaphysical absurdity has recently been making the rounds, postulating that there is no such thing as “individual responsibility,” there is only “social responsibility.” It is metaphysical because it does not explain how social responsibility is produced without the pre-existence of individual responsibility. But the truth is that, just as there can be no society without individuals, social responsibility can be nothing more than the sum of individual behaviors. Unless they are implying “state responsibility” in order to oppose the government.

Then the risk of a serious violation of individual rights arises, because the primary and basic job of the state is enforcement and repression. We can’t imagine that the Left, ostensibly the champion of individual rights and freedoms, is propagating – albeit unwittingly – the imposition of comprehensive solutions to limit the pandemic, regardless of whether among its ranks are those that are nostalgic for the old totalitarians.

Published in eKathimerini.com 15.8.2020