Individualism Doesn't Justify Endangering the Lives of Others

It is crucial to resist selfish behavior when others pay the price.

Posted Mar 15, 2020

Maurício Mascaro/Pexels
Source: Maurício Mascaro/Pexels

Many of us saw the pictures of revelers over St. Patrick's Day weekend who refused to heed the advice of health experts around the world, to practice social distancing, which helps slow the spread of COVID-19, the deadly coronavirus sweeping the world.

What's more, many of them proudly flaunted the fact that they were acting against this advice, saying they weren't scared, they wouldn't be defeated, and they were just enjoying themselves. For example, in response to a call for social distancing on Twitter from Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Nevada school board candidate Katie Williams wrote: "I just went to a crowded Red Robin, and I'm 30. It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I'll do what I want."

When Ms. Williams wrote that "this is America," I assume she is referring to our reputation as a country of individualists, as discussed by Julia Ioffe at GQ recently in reference to the same behavior. This understanding of individualism, unfortunately, makes the same mistake I've discussed before, one that confuses individualism with selfishness.

Let's start here: As an individual, each of us is free to make the choices we want to (within the law, of course). We can make choices affecting ourselves that seem silly or stupid to others, as long we are willing to live with the consequences. For example, we can eat too much or too poorly, we can drink too much, and we can smoke—and our own health will suffer. We pay the price for those choices and are free to make them, no matter what others think of them or how much they warn us against them. I'm not saying these choices are smart, wise, or ethical in regard to our future selves, but we can still make them.

I'll say it again: As an individual, each of us is free to make the choices we want to. But that doesn't mean those choices have to be selfish ones—that's the sort of thinking that gives individualism a bad name. As I've argued before, in a book as well as previous Psychology Today blog posts, each of us is individual in essence and social in orientation, meaning that we make our choices ourselves, but we still make them in an undeniably social context.

When making our own choices, we are ethically bound to consider the rights and well-being of those in our sphere of influence—which, in the context of a pandemic like COVID-19, means everyone.

One more time: As an individual, each of us is free to make the choices we want to. But we should want to make the right choices, the ones that respect the rights and well-being of others, not just serve our own desires and preferences. We should want to be more than selfish people with no regard for others.

We are certainly free to risk our own health and well-being, even our lives, but we do not have a moral right to impose significant risk on others—which, in the context of an extremely contagious and deadly disease, we are doing every time we defy the common-sense advice of social distancing. Sure, avoiding group activities does not come naturally to everybody and is difficult for some, but it is necessary to try to slow the spread of this deadly virus, especially to those more susceptible to its effects.

Proclaiming one's individualism does not justify selfish behavior—rather, it emphasizes the fact that so many individuals, who had a capability to account for the potentially catastrophic ethical ramifications of their actions, instead made choices in bold defiance of them (and some even bragged about them, as Ms. Ioffe discusses).

As individuals—and as Americans—we are capable of so much more.



For more on what exactly social distancing means for you, see "The Dos and Don'ts of 'Social Distancing'," by Kaitlyn Tiffany at The Atlantic, and "Social Distancing: This Is Not a Snow Day," by Asaf Bitton, MD, MPH, at Medium.

In terms of showing the effects of social distancing (or lack thereof), this virus simulator at The Washington Post by Harry Stevens is unsurpassed.