Individual Will versus Social Will
This was highlighted in readings we discussed during the daily 2-hour Colloquium sessions. A couple of these described scenarios that explore the conflict between individual and collective well-being. In one story, a subsistence farmer stops chipping in to the community fund used to support the poor, and forces his family to live on the bare minimum for two years, in order to save enough money to create productive assets he can use to trade its way to a higher income. This eventually benefits his family and the larger community, but the community ostracizes him and his family while he’s doing it, first because he has broken the social contract, and later because they begrudge his wealth. In another story community members fail to speak out against a moral crime that the community allows to go on because they believe their collective happiness depends upon the crime’s perpetuation. A few people leave, but they do not speak out.
The power of social pressure to keep us from doing what is right, or to obscure what the right thing actually is, was on my mind. On the one hand, there is the right of the individual to pursue his own happiness. Then there is the common good, which in some cases, temporarily or permanently, conflicts with individuals’ rights. And there is the issue that the common good and the common will may not always be aligned—communities may resist change that would actually benefit them. I was mulling this last aspect of how social pressure conflicts with self-interest and even collective well-being when I was on the airplane.
At the airport, before I got on the plane, a friend from the Collaboration (who was taking a different flight home) had mentioned to me that he had caught a cold that he thought might actually be swine flu. A few other people had gotten bugs too with similar symptoms. My immune system was already weaker than usual at the moment for other (non-contagious) reasons, so although I was pretty much recovered I was conscious of the risks of catching a more serious bug. My significant other at home had encouraged me to buy a facemask to protect myself while traveling, and I was sitting there knowing that I ought to put it on, but feeling very reluctant to do so. I was thinking about why this was, when wearing it would certainly not do any harm to anyone else and would be good for my health, and maybe even for others.
The problem was that I realized I was reluctant to wear it because of what it might suggest to my fellow travelers: that either I was a threat to others, or that I thought of other individuals as a threat to me. The social signals were contradicting what I knew would be the prudent thing to do. I realize this equivocation may sound silly, but on the other hand not a single person among the hundreds in the airports and planes I had seen coming and going to the meeting wore a sanitary face mask, yet surely some of them were sick, and some others of them (perhaps nearly all) were reasonably vulnerable. I must not have been the only one subject to this social tide.
So I thought about the readings, and about when it’s worth doing something different and risking making one’s community uncomfortable in order to make something good happen… and I put on my mask.