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In political thought — which generally means liberal political thought — there is a tendency to “unmark” or play down political orientations that are unethical, unpopular, or are simply meant to be taken for granted. For example, in John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (1971), a book which revitalized liberal thinking and provided a blueprint for its development, he describes what he calls a “thin theory of the good”. This theory is “thin” because it is “restricted only to the bare essentials” so as to be able to kickstart a process of political agreement while not having enough content to get in the way. In Rawls’ “original position” — the position Rawls thinks political actors need to be in to come up with a just political order — “the parties have no knowledge of their particular aims and ends except what is contained in the thin theory of the good [itself]”. Rawls’ thin theory of the good was taken up in subsequent political thinkers like Ronald Dworkin to argue that a properly functioning liberal state and society should have no substantive notion of the good at all, but should restrict itself to good procedures. Only in this way, Dworkin and others argued, could the liberal state allow individuals the freedom to pursue whatever ends they themselves think are good. The government gets out of the way, as it were, providing the framework and infrastructure for individual decisions and rational choice, but does not impose any particular option on people. The kind of freedom this view entails is what Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty. Negative liberty, for Berlin, was an answer to the question, “What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” Berlin thought negative liberty to be preferable to “positive” liberty, which answered the question “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”. We can see Berlin’s preference in the phrasing of the question (“interference”) and in the way Berlin sets up negative liberty as the normal (or “unmarked”) form of freedom: “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity.” Berlin saw positive liberty as leading inexorably to totalitarianism, and negative liberty therefore as one of the unchallengeable qualities of liberal society. This absolute adherence to the principle of negative liberty is a hallmark of the worst, most inadequate responses to the pandemic. Boris Johnson blamed the failure of the British government’s response on the “fact” that England — as opposed to all other countries — was a “freedom-loving country”. The freedom Johnson means is one that conforms to the thin theory of the good, proceduralism and negative liberty: the government stays out of people’s way in their own rational choice of the best way to achieve their individual notions of the good. Similarly, Alberta premier Jason Kenney has often repeated his view of Alberta as (singularly) possessed of a culture of “responsible freedom”. In refusing again and again to implement stronger measures to control the spread of COVID-19, Kenney has said, “A lockdown constitutes a massive invasion of the exercise of people’s fundamental rights and a massive impact on not only their personal liberties, but their ability to put food on the table, to sustain themselves financially.” We can see here how Berlin’s “interference” has become Kenney’s “invasion”, marking Kenney’s adherence to Berlin’s absolute preference for negative liberty. Kenney’s adherence to negative liberty is on display in the recordings leaked to the press today. But, it turns out, Berlin’s idea of “negative liberty”, like Rawls’ “thin theory of the good” is fundamentally flawed. Both concepts obscure the extent to which some other substantive good is being hidden or played down. In most cases, this obscured good is “the economy” (which really means the extraction of profits at the rate necessary for capitalist growth). The economy is, indeed, the “positive” good that, in Berlin’s words, “is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” Only in the case of the pandemic what someone does is die. In both Alberta and the UK — to take just two examples — the government’s adherence to the economy over people’s lives is seen as “ignoring the science” However, this still falls for the idea of negative liberty, proceduralism, and the thin theory of the good. It mistakes “scientific method” for a neutral, apolitical procedure that should ensure social good without itself holding on to any notions of what the good is. The problem with this view is not just that science has its own obscured assumptions about the good (Western reason, eurocentrism, positivism, etc), but that it continues to support the idea that the correct form of government is a procedural one that takes no account of any positive form of good (people surviving, thriving, and flourishing, for example). If “science” dictated that certain people needed to be executed for the good of society, it would be hard to challenge that perspective if we remove politics from the equation. Science can be pressed into the service of negative liberty just as much as politics can. Image for post “Negative” liberty and the “thin theory of the good” allow governments to pretend that they are neutral, objective and providing the best basis for the achievement of individual rights. It allows them to hide the fact that they are in fact committed to goods inimical to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”: the extraction of profit at any cost, for example, and the maintenance of social hierarchies through oppression of different identities. Because citizens are brought up also prioritizing negative liberty, we believe the government’s line that they are protecting negative liberty and negative liberty is what is best. This is constantly being exposed as fallacious, but in a pandemic this view is particularly heinous. Science is a historical set of social relations, like everything else. Reifying science — making it an autonomous thing — simply reproduces the same problem as reifying the economy: by making “science” or “the economy” the locus of the social good, we make space for sacrificing people — who, of course, make up the social relations of science and the economy in the first place — to whatever reified form of the good seems to “neutrally” present itself. Disabled people, Indigenous people, People of Colour, and Jews are all painfully aware of how this works, and have been aware of it for generations. By basing our critique of a government’s pandemic response on “prioritizing politics over science” we end up in the same trap we always do. Better to not take the government at its word when it extols the love of freedom it shares with its people, to expose the unspoken goods to which these governments are sacrificing those same people, and hopefully, at some point bring them to some kind of justice. Science and politics are never autonomous from each other. This way of understanding science can lead to trying to replace politics with it. This only replaces one field’s adherence to a hidden good with another’s, and we are left with the same problem to solve.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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