Would Jean-Jacques Rousseau Get Vaccinated?

In the name of liberty and inherent individual rights, many people are refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Demonstrators demonize political leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron who have the audacity to impose obligatory vaccinations. Government interference in citizens’ health choices is equated with fascism; anti-vax websites flourish, all prioritizing the right of the individual to choose versus society’s need for herd immunity. More than 80 million American adults are not vaccinated.

Those who refuse to be vaccinated or refuse to accept a government’s decision to oblige them to be vaccinated believe that they have inalienable rights to do as they choose. They believe that their rights trump society’s needs. But, following from this, I also have my rights. And my rights include not being exposed to others who are not vaccinated. If those who believe in non-vaccination believe I should respect their rights, will they respect mine?

Why are individual rights so dominant that my needs and society’s needs are secondary?

The idea of absolute individual rights is associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A small plaque in the Old Town in Geneva commemorates his early years here. Most significantly, a small island and park bear his name near the Mount Blanc Bridge in downtown Geneva.

A small island is a fitting tribute to the 18th century philosopher known for his theory of the social contract. Rousseau is remembered as the philosopher of man’s inherent goodness and happiness which become corrupted and spoiled once he enters society. A social contract is needed to guarantee the individual’s rights and limit government intervention. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the French Revolution directly reflect his ideas. A modern version of this absolute individualism would be the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society.

What if Rousseau’s idea of the isolated individual born separated from society is not true? What if, in fact, man is born into a society, and that that society is not corrupt? What if we concentrated on the bridge that connects the Rousseau Island with the mainland instead of focusing on the island itself?

One way of answering these hypothetical questions is to examine current changes in physics. Traditional physics – from Newton, Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus on – began from distinct entities. Electrons, protons and neutrons make up atoms which then make up molecules which then make up … and so on. Each individual part, like Rousseau’s individual, has distinct characteristics. Each part can or cannot join with others. Individually, each part has an identity

Going back to Rousseau, our image of our physical world resonates with our image of society. In this sense, we are all lonely electrons that can join to other entities to form higher forms of being. But that joining is not necessary. We can survive alone. Robinson Crusoe was fine on his island. Electrons can be free floating.

The American scientist David Bohm has a different vision of the physical world. Based on his understanding of quantum physics (“Anyone who claims to understand quantum theory is either lying or crazy,” a noted physicist is supposed to have said), Bohm sees all parts of the physical world as interconnected. What Bohm does not have is a vocabulary to relate how all parts are interrelated. In numerous articles, books, interviews and speeches, he strives for a new vocabulary to describe our world’s interconnectedness.

Bohm searches for a vocabulary because we are so ingrained in the separated world of Newton and Rousseau that we cannot see or express how it could be otherwise. What if we were all born into a larger whole? What if we didn’t need a social contract to connect to others?

The Rousseau Island does have a bridge to connect it to the mainland. Imagine that the bridge was natural and that the connection to both sides of the river was part and parcel of the original space called Rousseau Island. Imagine that individuals were not born isolated and that they did not need a social contract to connect with others.

In this interconnected world, not only would everyone volunteer to be vaccinated, they would also accept decisions by the government in what they understood to be in the interest of the common good. And that would not be considered fascism, socialism, or communism. It would be considered common sense and respect for others.

The statue of Rousseau sitting in a chair with a book in one hand, a quill pen in the other with the chair and feet piled with books is a fitting tribute to an important 18th century philosopher. But we have moved on from the 18th century. The books at Rousseau’s feet do not reflect advances such as quantum physics and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Somehow Rousseau’s ideas of isolated individuals and corrupt society have remained. Although we have yet to invent a vocabulary to reflect this new paradigm, we should keep trying to find words for a different quantum social relationship. We could certainly start by insisting that vaccinations can and should be part of a new “quantum contract.”

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.