What does people’s refusal to wear face-masks during a pandemic tell us about the possibility of Kant’s self-governing humans?

Arguably the founder of modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that the power of reason would lead to universal self-governance. Today, it seems laughable to claim that if people were left to their own devices that they would form a society in which all members strive towards virtue and happiness. Indeed, much of modern education is predicated on the idea of developing people’s self-control. However, this self-control is much different to the kind of autonomy Kant envisioned, rather this should be called, according to philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), discipline.

In early 2020, the covid-19 pandemic was declared and national governments around the world put in place various levels of restriction of movement and assembly. Not only were members of the public (and governments) restricted from meeting each other, even in private, but businesses were forced to close, workers made to work remotely or be furloughed, and everyone was told only to shop for necessities. The goal of this was supposedly clear- reduce close-contact with each other so as to reduce transmission of the virus.

Obviously, some businesses and services needed to remain open, and those working for such businesses were suddenly lauded as “essential workers”. These were now the economy’s heroes and the public owed it to them to reduce their risk of contracting covid-19 by following the government’s instructions to stay at home, only go out when necessary, and when doing so, following “social distancing guidelines”. Here in the UK, that meant keeping at least 2 metres away from people outside of your household, washing your hands more often, only buying essentials, and, eventually, on top of various confusing and contradictory rule changes, wearing face-masks on public transport.

Around the world, to various extents and according to various guidelines, people followed the new rules. However, not everyone did and the reasons for this can give us some insight into the ideas of both Kant and Foucault.

Foucault observed that the methods of the state, through institutions like healthcare and education, people are acted upon with disciplinary power in order to increase their “rational self-control”. This rational self-control is constantly improved through examinations and produces what Foucault called “docile bodies”. Unlike the Kantian rational subject that understands her own interests as interconnected with the self-interest of others and overall collective interests of humanity, Foucault’s docile bodies are disciplined towards socially acceptability and obedience.

The idea that the state, with its economic interests particularly, wants a docile population that does what it’s told, is a good worker that won’t complain about poor conditions or waste time, is nothing new. And it’s this fact, along with our entry into the so-called “post-truth” epoch (basically the amount of fake news tipping the masses towards skepticism of all media), that leads us back to Kant.

For Kant’s autonomous subject to be moral, obedience to the rules is not enough- it is our understanding of these rules- our knowledge that following them is reasonable which makes them moral. For the state however, only immediate consequences are understood, and only obedience is demanded. Due to this, in spite of scientific arguments which should appeal to our rational nature, we see widespread refusal to follow government “guidelines”.

Does the refusal of so many to follow what seems to so many others as rational rules which benefit us all individually and collectively then disprove the Kantian hope of self-governance? Does Foucault accidentally provide the state with an argument for more disciplinary power, given new evidence of people’s apparent inability to follow their rational self-interest? The answer to both questions is a resounding maybe.

As much as the mainstream media, doing nothing to discourage them, disparages those who refuse to wear masks, we might be tempted to pessimistically conclude: people cannot be trusted to self-govern- Kant was wrong. Moreover, we might be tempted to argue that, just as Foucault saw the productive effects of power (power being in his theories, an epiphenomena- product of collective action that isn’t necessarily good or bad), this situation gives the state a further mandate to act upon the population with disciplinarian power. It’s for our own good that we do as the state says.

However, this thinking ignores that the subject who refuses might just as well be acting in their own rational self-interest against the state. Indeed, the bloody history of the 20th century shows us how dangerous blind obedience to a state can be. And, with the public disillusioned by the mainstream media, perhaps naively so albeit skeptical of the news, does choosing to disobey really go against one of Kant’s most famous prompts: “Dare to know!”?

Furthermore, what kind of disciplinarian powers has the state wielded over the masses to inculcate such obedience and discipline? Are those who follow the government orders out of fear following their own rational self-interest, or like when they obey the factory foreman, the middle manager, the over-prescribing physician, are they simply obeying out of fear and/or docility?

Of course while Foucault comments on the more negative aspects of disciplinarian power in education- examinations, detentions, and back when Foucault was writing, corporal punishment was still common- he also saw the benefits and how disciplinary power in education could help produce, instead of docile bodies, rationally self-interested humans.

To some, it might seem as though Foucault kills the Kantian dream and covid-19 is the proof. The pandemic shows that people cannot be trusted to act in their own self-interest through something as simple as wearing a face-mask which is why, as Foucault explains, the state must discipline the population- for its own good.

But, there is still hope as Foucault also sees the potentially positive uses of disciplinarian power in creating those rationally self-interested humans Kant dreams of us becoming. The obvious answer, as has been quite often on CleftHabitus, is prioritising education. Moreover, the mainstream and state governed media must be held more accountable for poisoning public trust in state institutions. This is further complicated by another topic beyond the scope of this article- the state versus Black Lives Matter. For now, the answer to whether people’s refusal to obey pandemic rules disproves the possibility of Kant’s universal democracy, in which people follow the rules not because the state says they should, but because they understand it is in everyone’s self-interest to do so, is simply that only time will tell- and it’s how Foucault’s disciplinarian powers are used that will make the difference.


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