Dr Vittorio Bufacchi: The myth of private responsibility laid bare by political philosophy

Both Covid-19 and Cop26 are dealing with great threats to our wellbeing and existence, and in both cases, governments around the world are trying to offload their obligations unto us citizens
Dr Vittorio Bufacchi: The myth of private responsibility laid bare by political philosophy

How can Ireland be doing so poorly when over 90% of people are fully vaccinated? First, that number is misleading: it is over 90% of people over the age of 12. Lest we forget, children are people too, so if we include children the percentage of fully vaccinated people is much lower.

What do Covid-19 and Cop26 have in common? Both are dealing with great threats to our wellbeing and existence, and in both cases, governments around the world are trying to offload their obligations unto us citizens.

When it comes to fighting climate change, all individual citizens have a duty to make an effort, by using less plastic, eating less red meat, not lighting coal fires, and being aware of our carbon footprint. However, ultimately it is governments that must do the heavy lifting, even at the risk of
becoming unpopular with the electorate.

Personal responsibility is also at the forefront of discussions around Covid-19. In Ireland, we have had 480,000 positive tests (roughly one in 10 of the population) and 5,566 deaths due to Covid-19. As we approach Christmas, the number of cases keep rising, with the seven-day average reaching 3,190, the highest in the EU. That’s even worse than the UK, and that’s saying something.

Some people are baffled by these numbers. How can Ireland be doing so poorly when over 90% of people are fully vaccinated? First, that number is misleading: it is over 90% of people over the age of 12. Lest we forget, children are people too, so if we include children, the percentage of fully vaccinated people is much lower. The 2016 census tells us there are 880,000 children under the age of 12 in Ireland.

Secondly, some people have relaxed their guards: Very few of us wear masks outdoors, and socialising has increased steadily since the start of the year. This has not gone unnoticed by politicians in Leinster House.

The Government wants us, the citizens, to take responsibility for our actions, and also to take responsibility for the state of public health in our nation. In a republic, every citizen has rights, but also duties — a basic concept that anti-vaxxers fail to grasp. During a pandemic, the concept of personal responsibility plays an important role.

This emphasis on personal responsibility is understandable, but also unwarranted. 

What is most objectionable in the present Government’s rhetoric on personal responsibility is the concerted effort by our leading politicians to offload their responsibilities and blame on us for the shortcomings of their policies.

Two key sectors in our society are chronically underfunded: Health and education. The fact the HSE is struggling not only to recruit, but also to retain, its frontline staff speaks for itself — two thirds of nurses are considering leaving their jobs, and one quarter are either likely or very likely to leave the profession within the next 12 months.

The collapse of Sláintecare is lamentable but should not surprise anyone. Ambitious plans for reforming the health service never seem
to go beyond the fanfare of their original launch. Covid-19 has fully exposed the longstanding inadequacies and shortcomings of an overstretched health system.

Schools are also lagging behind in investment.
There is no tracing and testing in schools, teachers are demoralised, and children with special needs are not a priority. At third level, the ratio of students to teaching staff is 23:1, higher than the European averages of 15:1, and Irish university students pay more fees compared to many of their European counterparts.

The reason this Government is dragging its feet on public investments, in health and education, is that it is ideologically opposed to policies that require more State intervention in the economy, and therefore higher taxes to fund public expenditure. This has nothing to do with Covid, but political identity.

Market-driven ideologies always put private responsibility at the core of their political outlook, according to the well-rehearsed mantra that the market will reward those who are responsible and punish the reckless.

The Government’s doctrine on personal responsibility is disingenuous and misguided. It promotes personal responsibility as the most basic and essential of all individual virtues: effort, sacrifice, achievement, and above all success. 

But these virtues of personal responsibility also have a dark side, causing the
proliferation of the credo ‘you only have yourself to blame’ when things go wrong. It is because of this blind faith in personal responsibility that all sorts of inequalities, far from being challenged, are consolidated and legitimised.

Without proper equality of opportunity, personal responsibility becomes a malicious myth. The inequality in the access to resources experienced by different social classes in Irish society makes a shamble of the idea that anyone can achieve any goal, if only they put their minds to it, and that failure is always one’s own doing.

The best remedy against climate change, and the best vaccine against Covid-19 and all future pandemics, at a national and global level, is less inequality and more social justice, less emphasis on personal responsibility and more public investments, less blaming and more accountability. We all need to step up, but none more so than the present government.

  • Vittorio Bufacchi is the author of Everything Must Change: Philosophical Lessons from Lockdown (2021). He teaches philosophy at UCC. vittoriobufacchi.com

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