The COVID hysteria has mostly come and gone, but the flawed thinking that enabled it is alive and well in the minds and motives of those that implemented and supported the rights-infringing coercive policies that dominated the era. People concerned with preserving freedom and opposing government overreach must identify the flaws in such thinking and challenge them so that we may defeat those that would bring such policies back at the next sign of even the slightest trouble.
Case in point, this article was written by a popular modern Stoic named Ryan Holiday. It is a tragedy of logic, devoid of virtue, and the author is guilty himself of that which he is lamenting. Stoicism is a philosophy that considers virtue as the highest good and is concerned with helping individuals cultivate virtue in themselves as well as guiding our actions in relation to others and society at large. So pervasive is the tendency today to attack or acquiesce independent thought and free will at the demand of groupthink and authority that even like-minded philosophical brethren are split on basic issues central to fundamental rights and the continued existence of the free liberal world order (what Stoics ought to recognize as true cosmopolitanism) . We must ensure valid and useful philosophies are not hijacked by biased partisan individuals looking to justify their preferred ends.
Shortly after above-referenced article was first published, it was posted in the largest Stoicism group on Facebook. Reaction was split. Stoicism has influenced countless philosophical and political doctrines throughout the centuries. What this split tells us is that the debate over how to react properly to the existence of evil/immorality/apathy is just as central to the basic split in human nature as defining “good & evil” or “moral & immoral” itself.
If we breakdown this article point by point we can see how the author’s ignorance on certain subjects and bias towards certain accepted ends contradicts the Stoic mindset, curtails productive dialogue, and ends up supporting coercion in a manner that is fundamentally harmful. Please read the article before proceeding.
The author starts the article with fallacy. He asserts that people in the South of America are naturally helpful and concerned with the well-being of others. He then posits that since they are not getting the COVID vaccine, they are therefore not living up to their own virtuous standards. This of course rests on the massive assumption that getting the vaccine is the best way, or only way, to help or care about others in this situation. He therefore bypasses the entire ethical argument and assumes his preconceived conclusion to be truth and the only truth. He even goes so far as to state people that don’t get the vaccine are “indifferent” to their health and health of others and will cause harm. Pure nonsense, as history has now shown.
He then pivots to his position and thesis that the reason other people have not accepted his pre-conceived conclusion must be that they are being misled, especially on social media. Again he is improperly assuming his conclusion to be true in his premise. He again bypasses all argument on the science and social aspects of decision-making just as he did with the ethical argument.
Of course we can find examples on social media of bad arguments from the “anti-vax” side of the debate just like we can from the “pro-vax” side. But in this situation it is essential for independent observers to cut through that and look at the real debate. In this situation with COVID, and I would argue the vaccine debate as a whole, we are in the precarious situation of combatting the powerful gatekeepers of information as well as the misinformed masses. Like James Madison warned in the Federalist Papers, self-interested factions gaining power can be detrimental to democratic principles and true debate. One has to really search and understand the system to find the independent science that raises real questions, to understand how the gatekeepers quash critical studies and ignore needed research, how they have infiltrated policy-making to protect themselves and reduce checks and balances. Reality is way too complex to whittle things like this down to one good way and one bad way of acting. It is irresponsible to do so and the tendency to demonize “the other” over such disagreements is definitely unvirtuous and therefore “un-Stoic.”
The author’s proposed solution to all this – using algorithms on social media to reduce visibility or eliminate content not officially approved – is a mind-numbingly bad and immoral idea. It is contrary to all our principles in a free and open society. It is contrary to the basis of Stoicism. He also seems oblivious to the fact they have already been doing this big time on social media (including on sites like Facebook), a site on which he has a presence. Is it working? Obviously not good enough for him. It really just makes the censors look bad and undermines their authority. People will find the truth and associate freely regardless, doing so is an inherent good and necessary.
He closes with yet another dishonorable tactic- highlighting the death of an individual that died “of COVID” to hammer home the emotional plea he is trying to force- that people choosing to exercise their fundamental right to bodily integrity/autonomy are selfishly harming others. Nevermind the massive manipulation and propaganda that goes into these “COVID death” statistics, pretend an “anti-vaxxer” used that similar argument to highlight the danger of the COVID shot upon killing an individual. Do you think he would accept it as valid? I don’t think so. So the entire article is an example of that which he is lamenting- fallacious propaganda spread to promote a preferred position and demonize opposing views and alternative actions.
The COVID era is behind us. We are undeniably in a stronger position than the fear-mongering so-called experts predicted. They can of course claim things would have been better if only everyone had followed their top-down advice (as unrealistic as this may be). The opposite could also be true however – as many of us indicated at the very start of COVID – that such coercive policy may cause more harm than good, that if we followed other courses of action we may have had less death and harm and suffered fewer negative long-term unintended consequences. The “experts” will never admit this may be the case or that they overreacted because they do not want to undermine their usurped authority to do the same things again. We must undermine their authority to do so by calling them out whenever they deploy the flawed reasoning that leads to totalitarian, rights-denying tendencies in policy.
Acting in accord with fundamental rights is best. Choosing the least restrictive path is best. This is in accordance with virtue and is what a true cosmopolitan Stoic does when considering the merits of various public policy options. In his article, Mr. Holiday quoted the famous Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius, “An infected mind is far more dangerous pestilence than any plague — because one threatens your life, the other destroys your character.” Perhaps he ought to recite this while he looks in the mirror.