The narrow path to freedom

On this year’s UNESCO World Philosophy Day, we need philosophy more than ever before.

A group of protesters are protesting against the use of the green pass and the restrictions for the unvaccinated on July 24, 2021 in Milan, Italy. [Lorenzo Palizzolo/Getty Images]

Philosophy is dead; long live philosophy! In the past few centuries, many a Cassandra touted the demise of this elusive method of understanding and addressing general and particular problems. But philosophy is still here. As we celebrate the 2021 UNESCO World Philosophy Day, it seems this discipline is still as crucial and irreplaceable a tool as it has always been – if not more so – for interpreting the meaning of the year’s events.

The COVID-19 pandemic was the event of 2020. This year, the main event is not the pandemic itself, but the vaccination campaigns aiming to bring it to an end and their many social consequences.

On both occasions, philosophers stepped up to the task of helping people make sense of what is happening.

When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, the world’s philosophers immediately started to talk about the pandemic and the lessons all peoples of the world could learn from it. French philosopher Bruno Latour, for example, suggested the pandemic should be understood as a “dress rehearsal” for the ongoing ecological crisis. Slovenian thinker Slavoj Zizek, meanwhile, framed it as an opportunity to question, think, and imagine new ways to create a better future.

This year, we are facing problems and questions even more complex than those of last year, and thus the need for the proposals of philosophers is more pronounced than ever.

The beginning of mass vaccination campaigns around the world gave rise to questions not only about the efficacy and viability of our chosen paths to immunise populations against the virus, but also their effect on our freedoms.

There is now a whole new debate over vaccines, vaccine mandates and so-called “vaccine passports” that demands establishing the limits of freedom concerning politics, ethics and science.

Scientific knowledge is obtained through trial and error, which should prevent us from perceiving science as a dogmatic religion. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. This is why, the impact the war against COVID-19 had on our freedoms, and its social and political implications, cannot be addressed by scientists alone. This is a problem that needs to be brought to the heart of society and discussed with intellectual rigour. This is why the world once again needs to turn to philosophy.

It seems the eternal philosophical problem of freedom has made a comeback. Yes, but what freedom?

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, there has been a movement in philosophy towards the question of freedom, but also away from the understanding of it as a property of the subject.

Freedom has increasingly come to be seen as a practice – as something one does rather than has. Along this path, existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir saw man as a work in progress, a constant creation, and a project always beyond itself. Their point was that our existence is at the centre of a set of meaningful relations comprehensible only against a broader background of social practices we do not always control. These practices strive for freedom in a historical, temporal, and contingent way, giving the subject a fundamentally interpretative role. This is probably why renowned French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who passed away a few months ago, defined freedom as “nothing more and nothing less than existence itself.” A brilliant definition that exposes the inadequacy of the simplistic definition of freedom promoted by the anti-vaccination crowds today.

Indeed, as they chant “freedom, freedom”, these people are adopting mainly the negative approach to freedom based on the Liberal idea of non-interference with individual preferences.

But there are broader concepts of freedom. Karl Marx distinguished between political emancipation (liberal) and human emancipation (communist). The problem is that he never openly defined the latter. This lack of clarity tells us that despite our naïve wishes, there is no easy way out.

Today, there may be many reasons to oppose those protesting against vaccines. Still, their right to protest must be fiercely protected – after all, can we really expect a neoliberal global system based on structural inequalities to adopt the point of view of human emancipation with the help of monolithic science? Is there really no need for discussion?

The problem arises not from protest and opposition, but the elevation of “freedom” into a supreme value that compels people to make decisions that they are unqualified to make. Although the vaccine issue is a paradigmatic example of this, there are many other examples relating to education, finance, and politics. Take the recent fuel and trade crisis in the United Kingdom. The crisis, exacerbated by the impact of Brexit, was another indication that the majority of those who voted in favour of Britain leaving the European Union were not properly informed of all the possible consequences of their decision.

This line of thought seems to favour the “people don’t understand, let the experts work” stance. It leads us into the old trap of the eternal 1 percent, and that of “the specialised class”, which insists that it has our best interests at heart, but drags us around like journalist Walter Lippmann’s “bewildered herd” while serving the interests of the few rich and powerful.

But it does not have to be this way. Philosophers across the world are publicly debating the social and political implications of the measures taken against COVID-19 for our freedom. Their insights can help us all make better sense of the unfolding situation without falling prey to the manipulations of the “specialised class”.

Take the philosophical debates around vaccines and vaccine passports in Italy. Giorgio Agamben, a political philosopher internationally celebrated for his works on the state of exception after 9/11, warned that the pandemic and the consequent vaccination drive in Italy is being used to transform the country’s democracy into a dictatorship. And together with Massimo Cacciari, he compared Italy’s vaccine passports to the “propiska” – the restrictive migration cum residence permits of the Soviet Union.

Against this radical position, Gianni Vattimo, another renowned Italian philosopher, invited his colleagues to remember there are millions of people in the world who are still waiting for the vaccine to be delivered to them. Despite accepting the political issues they raised as legitimate, Vattimo argued that his colleagues were thinking from a privileged position that ignores the global health emergency we are still suffering.

Taking the discussions on vaccines beyond the usual propagandist vitriol of the Italian media, Italy’s philosophers also underlined the fact that even the most seemingly scientific discussions surrounding the vaccines and vaccine passports are actually embedded in a political frame – and decisions about them should not be left solely in the hands of scientific specialists.

Indeed, Italy already spent billions of euros on vaccines, and will likely continue this spending in the foreseeable future due to the need for boosters. This means, as already acknowledged in the Italian government’s document of economic forecast, DEF 2021, cuts will need to be made to other public health services that will likely affect the wellbeing of the population at large beyond the pandemic.

Vaccine passports are also not a solely specialist issue for which the cost-benefit calculations can be done singlehandedly by scientific experts. Unlike vaccines, the passports are mandatory and they have an impact on people and their freedom (however they may define it) that expands beyond the scope of the pandemic. Hence, they are inherently political and cannot be justified only by “science”.

So, regardless of whether or not the philosophers’ debate in Italy helped the people reflect on the limits the government, European institutions, and scientific experts imposed on their freedoms during the pandemic, it hopefully showed them that scientific experts should not have a monopoly on discussions surrounding vaccines and other steps taken to fight COVID-19.

World Philosophy Day is an opportunity to step back and think about how science and politics have narrowed our freedom this year. Philosophers can help us see how “the specialised class” is using this crisis to further their interests, but without turning us into people who oppose the vaccine – meaning they can provide us with a path to accept the vaccine and the risks that come with it, without losing sight of our freedom. Is this not the only way out?

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.