The coronavirus pandemic has substantially limited individuals’ freedom. In Europe, people have been shocked not simply because of the threat to lives, but also because of the threat to their freedom. Many governments prioritised public health and lives over freedom. There are still debates going on whether such lockdown measures are the right things to do: they argue with the perception that “individuals’ freedom” is the absolutely prioritised value than any other values. As the countries explore the exit strategy of the lockdown, there are now debates between the value of freedom, privacy and public health.
The question is whether freedom or public health (and saving lives) or privacy has a universal and absolute priority than another. Are they values that we can make a complete rank regardless of which context you are?
In the political philosophy of social justice, liberty has often been considered as the priority among any other values. This view has been predominant in many European societies. For instance, according to Jonh Rawls’ Theory of Justice — the most prominent philosopher whose theory of justice has been influential in twentieth-century — the liberty value rules over any other principal values.
But, can we really rank one value over another, among freedom, privacy and public health? According to Amartya Sen’s Idea of Justice, plural values can exist parallel, and not all values can be ordered in a complete rank. The value of freedom, privacy and public health are not necessarily the values that we should define their complete order. Even if society agrees to define a complete ranking of those values, the rank is not necessarily static.
If we look at the issue of conflicting values between freedom, public health and privacy from Sen’s perspective, we need to perceive that the order of those values can be flexible. For instance, we may prioritise public health for the time being by limiting our freedom. However, later we can have both freedom and health by sharing some degree of privacy (of course, with citizens’ surveillance over the state instead of one-way of state’s surveillance over citizens). And later, when the crisis is over, the freedom and privacy value can be ranked up back parallel to the health value. The current social choice for public health does not mean that we degrade the precious value of freedom and privacy. Perhaps, the more important process we need is, public reasoning based on sufficient information and continuously make a social choice along with the changes we are facing.