It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. – JK Rowling, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets
In his documentary The Century Of The Self, Adam Curtis lays out a history of how the developed world learned to reject the paternalistic modes of authority with the aim of developing a culture of self-actualisation. He argues that this was driven by economic interests; if individuals had greater control over the decisions that influence their lives, then they’d spend more money on products or services that represent their ‘identity’. By giving people more choice in how to enact their lives, then they are inclined to invest more in serving their own needs, as they continually make those choices to define what they want from life; be this ultimately in their own best interests or otherwise. Rather than self-actualising, modern society has locked itself into buying a personality through product ownership.
An example of this is when you go to the doctors. Rightly or wrongly, 100 years ago you would go to the doctor and they would diagnose what is wrong with you and then tell you what to do about it. These days this has evolved; a doctor will diagnose what is wrong with you and then suggest options for you to take to help you deal with it. Partially this is as a result of a litigious culture that has grown in the last 30 years, but primarily this is rooted in the belief that humans are rational beings and know what is best for themselves.
The COVID-19 epidemic has thrown this concept of the importance of personal choice into the spotlight for greater scrutiny. When the message to (hashtag) STAY AT HOME isn’t followed by a significant proportion of the populace, is this ignorance, misunderstanding or personal choice?
For me, it’s the latter. When you are raised in a culture that personal choice is a fundamental right, no matter the stakes, then people will take that choice, whether or not it is in the personal or national interest. The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows is that it is not necessarily in one’s own interest to cooperate with your peers. Now, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a model of completely rational behaviour, an economic model – and here we are, with people making personal, economically rational choices like going to Skegness like it’s a Bank Holiday, because that’s the culture they’ve been raised in; in any situation, YOU are the person who knows what’s best for YOU.
Sadly, we are seeing this behaviour in supermarkets, schools, on the roads, in parks, everywhere. “I know what is best for me”. Yet ironically, it’s these very people undertaking this behaviour who will be the ones who lose out most severely – increasing their own exposure, and likely ending up ill. Worryingly though, it places the rest of us in an increasingly long tail of continued infection, illness and potentially worse.
I hear many stories of people saying “I’ll not let this virus hold me back”, like we are dodging V2 rockets whilst gripping a ration book. By fostering a culture of humans acting in their own self interest, we’ve increased their risk of exposing them to the ultimate example of a ruthlessly rational actor: a deadly virus.
So what’s the solution? That’s a great question. We live in a world where we’re told not to believe experts, to ‘Just Do It’ because ‘You’re Worth It’. The tide will turn when the underlying message is to serve the interest of many, rather than the few, across politics, economics and marketing.
I’m not sure we’ll ever get to that.