Why a 19th-century Russian anarchist is relevant to the mask and vaccine debate


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(THE CONVERSATION) Americans who refused to wear masks or get vaccinated during the pandemic do not have the easy task of building a valid philosophical defense of their behavior.

The leading philosophical authorities generally cited for defending individual freedom in the United States – John Locke and John Stuart Mill – do not provide compelling reasons to ignore public health messages.


Locke’s doctrine of natural law states that people are endowed with natural rights to “life, liberty, and inheritance,” based on duties to God of self-preservation, and any behavior which is likely to survive constitutes a violation of this natural law. As such, there is no justification for refusing a safe and effective vaccine during a deadly pandemic.


Likewise, Mill’s “evil principle” – which basically states that people are allowed to do whatever they want as long as they do not directly harm others – does not help those who oppose them. vaccines and masks. Their actions could prolong the pandemic, allowing the virus to mutate and potentially render vaccines ineffective – behavior that puts everyone at risk.

There is, however, another ethical framework to which people refusing to be vaccinated or to wear masks might turn to, albeit from an unlikely source: 19th-century Russian anarcho-communist Mikhail Bakunin.

Perhaps most famous for his long and bitter dispute with the German philosopher Karl Marx, Bakunin’s philosophy of anarcho-communism consisted of the abolition of government, of private property, and indeed of all means of coercion.

As a professor of political theory, I think Bakunin has been overlooked in the current debate over masks and vaccines. Some of his views are at least consistent with libertarian critiques of mask and vaccine requirements. Indeed, despite significant differences, many libertarians in the United States share with Bakunin the belief that freedom is the most important value and that governments are inherently coercive. They may be wary of Bakunin’s insistence on linking freedom and rationality and would certainly reject his embrace of communism, but libertarians would probably admire his skepticism towards authority nonetheless.

Science, a threat to freedom

Bakunin might not be an obvious source of support for many in the anti-mask and anti-vaccine camp. His classic 1871 text, “God and the State,” certainly begins to offend certain elements of the religious right, who constitute a significant number of those who refuse to follow public health advice on vaccines.

Bakunin attacks Christianity as the enemy of rationality and freedom. If humans wish to be free, he argues, they should learn the physical laws of the universe and the social laws of society to inform their decision-making. If guided by genuine knowledge, says Bakunin, people can make intelligent decisions and become rational agents charged with making choices for themselves.

But science, too, can be a big threat to freedom, suggests Bakunin – and it’s here that many who oppose the mask and vaccine mandates can warm up to his argument.

Beyond the fact that there are limits to scientific knowledge, Bakunin believed that there was always the possibility that scientists themselves were vested with coercive authority.

If rationality and knowledge are necessary for freedom, Bakunin argued, then those with knowledge are able to force people to do or not do certain things.

As such, Bakunin feared that scientists, emboldened by their importance in society, “would arrogantly claim the right to rule life.”

“We must respect scientists for their merits and achievements, but in order to prevent them from corrupting their own high moral and intellectual standards, they should not be granted any special privileges or rights other than those which each one has – for example, the freedom to express their beliefs, thoughts and knowledge. Neither they nor any other panel should have power over others. Whoever is given power will inevitably become an oppressor and exploiter of society, ”he wrote in 1873.

Skeptical knowledge consumers

Bakunin’s solution to the risk of coercion by scientists was to diminish their authority without diminishing the value of scientific knowledge. To do this, it makes each individual responsible for learning and acting on the knowledge at his disposal. The idea is that people go to scientists for knowledge, with the understanding that no scientist has all the answers and the knowledge accumulated by all scientists is also limited and cannot give perfect answers.

To apply Bakunin’s theory of freedom to the American pandemic, no one should have to be vaccinated. Rather, the public should be encouraged to study the efficacy and safety of vaccines.

For its part, the scientific community must examine itself vigilantly and present its knowledge in an honest manner, willingly offering the public what it knows and does not know.

Bakunin is said to be very critical of both naive optimists and pessimistic pessimists in the scientific community. People need the unvarnished truth presented in plain and simple terms. If the answer is “we scientists don’t know” then so be it.

Ask questions … but be reasonable

Bakunin’s theory of freedom demands a lot from the people. It requires individuals to know something about the nature of scientific knowledge, ask sensible questions, and then make a rational analysis of the available evidence. It forces scientists to check their egos and desire for fame fast, and soberly present their knowledge in accessible and honest terms.

And admittedly, Bakunin has ignored disinformation campaigns of the type found on the Internet that undermine access to reliable scientific data. However, he trusted people to sort out information and make rational decisions. This ability, according to Bakunin, is a prerequisite for freedom.

Skeptics of vaccines may therefore find comfort in Bakunin. If they ask good questions and cannot find satisfactory answers, then his philosophy suggests that they should absolutely refuse a vaccine. The same goes for masking: if the scientific community cannot effectively communicate why masks are still needed, then people shouldn’t be required to wear them, Bakunin might argue.

At the same time, those who oppose masks and vaccines should sincerely follow the science and be convinced by the data, suggests Bakunin’s philosophy. Refusing to wear a mask on the basis of uneducated intuition or because of the belief that the “government wants to control me” is folly, not freedom. In short, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, to claim their freedom, must be reasonable.

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/why-a-19th-century-russian-anarchist-is-relevant-to-the-mask-and-vaccine-debate-163618.


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