Lockdown and the Decay of Human Agency

The social interactions we have with others are key to our ability to make and realise choices

Lockdown has many effects on our agency. The more obvious ones are concerned mainly with our ability to manifest our intrinsic agency: our ability to have dinner with whom we want, to travel where we want, and so on. Those have understandably been the focus of the mainstream debates about the political and legal propriety of lockdown measures. But they are the least important. Soon, in many countries, the most oppressive restrictions will be lifted. To be sure, our responses to the emergency measures will need to be examined carefully. I expect that that examination will show that we were woefully supine; that we are far less devoted to basic freedoms than we like to think; that human rights law has been found wanting; that governments of every political colour are keener on control than their manifestos declare. But time will tell.

Then there is the effect of the disruption of education. Education, the mantra rightly says, enables choice; equips us with the knowledge of where we should be going and the skills to get and stay there, as well as (crucially) enabling us to discover and cultivate the creature we happen to be. Lockdown has slammed shut the doors to self-realization and to many tangible and intangible benefits for students in most countries of the world. 

‘Ask me who ‘I’ am and a proper answer will involve a description of the nexus of relationships in which I exist’

But I want to focus here on two other effects of lockdown on agency – effects that have not attracted so much attention.

The first is the epidemic of mental illness – and particularly depression – that seems to be related directly to lockdown. I mention it only briefly, because the evidence about causation and prognosis is just beginning to emerge, and at the moment we must rely mainly on anecdotal evidence from the clinics. But that anecdotal evidence appears strong, is getting stronger all the time, and is precisely what we would expect.

Depression is a disease that erodes the sense of self and causes pain which makes it impossible to make or enjoy choices. It reduces valency. And so do mental states falling short of clinical depression, but which may be on the same spectrum. Those other states are my main concern here.

Key to our agency – to our ability to make and realise choices – are the social interactions we have with others. Others are a central part of most plans and in our self-definition. Ask me who ‘I’ am and a proper answer will involve a description of the nexus of relationships in which I exist and of which, to a large degree, I consist. Ask me how a plan I have conceived is going to be executed and I will almost certainly have to list a number of helpers.

Relationships, like everything else in life, require work and time. They need to be actively maintained. If they are not, they wither. All this is trite: it is embarrassing to write it.

Relationships cannot be maintained purely electronically. To suggest that they can is to endorse a pastiche of the complex human person and to ignore what we know about what real relationships entail. For embodied animals, physical proximity and touch matter. Communication is about very much more than the conveying of information – or at least about very much more than conveying the sort of information that can be transferred in language. Much of our most eloquent communication is non-verbal: many of our most important cues are subliminal – lost over the phone, over social media, or on a screen. We need to be hug and be hugged; we need to exude and sniff pheromones. It takes years to become an expert in the use of these subtle, inchoate modalities. It takes, it seems, only months to be dangerously de-skilled.

Some of the media that have taken over from methods of real communication make a virtue – and so help to forge a habit – of non-engagement. In a typical professional Zoom conference, for instance, one can turn off the camera and the microphone and painlessly bow out of engagement. Many of us do – surrendering the opportunity to affect the conference. We might have resented being forced to be agents in a typical, live, pre-Covid meeting, but at least our agency was protected by the tiresome obligation to comment, or at least not to fall asleep. And being forced to participate kept our agency muscles in trim. Now they’ve atrophied from disuse. I wonder if they’ll ever recover.

‘Lockdown affects agency and autonomy because it affects dignity: affects the ability of humans to thrive objectively: affects their humanization.’

There’s another (perhaps surprising) marker of agency-atrophy: book-reading. Volume sales of print books in the UK rose by 5.2% in 2020 compared to 2019 – the biggest annual rise since 2007. Why? We don’t know for sure. No doubt some of the increased sales were to people who were committed readers anyway, but who simply had more time to read because they weren’t going to work, or out to dinner, or anywhere. But it seems likely that some of the effect is due to an increased vicariousness. We don’t have lives or relationships of our own, and so become parasitic on the lives and relationships served up to us between the covers of the books we read. We not only stay inside our own houses; we stay inside our own heads and the heads of our chosen authors. Since – to repeat – real relationship, and hence real agency – cannot be fostered only by the use of words, relationship and agency wither when they are forced to subsist only on words.

Much of my own academic work is in two (related) domains. I am concerned with questions of identity and authenticity: what it means and should mean to say ‘I’ and ‘You’. And I am concerned with the creeping hegemony – at least in the bioethics world – of the notion of autonomy. Autonomy is of course a crucial principle. It must have an honoured place in all moral discourse. But my conviction is that autonomy – however it is articulated – is far too thin a principle to deserve the sovereign status that it has in modern moral philosophy. It is a second-order principle, deriving whatever moral force and legal utility it has from a deeper, parent principle which captures far more fully than autonomy the kaleidoscopic complexity of the human animal and the criteria by which we should judge whether a human is truly thriving. It is convenient to call this parent principle ‘dignity’, but I do not insist on the name, knowing how uncomfortably theological the resonance of ‘dignity’ is for many.

So I prefer to say that lockdown affects agency and autonomy because it affects dignity: affects the ability of humans to thrive objectively: affects their humanization. Part of this is caused by an erosion or constriction of the self – the ability meaningfully and reflectively to say ‘I’, for the self requires a constant transfusion from others to be healthy.

But this is no time for bickering between academic factions. It doesn’t matter if you find my account of right human behaviour and optimal human living fatally tainted by association with various religious traditions, or suspiciously communitarian. However unqualified autonomy may be to hold its current post, it is vital. Though horrible things may happen if autonomy is made a god, horrible things certainly do happen if it is allowed to decay in a society or in any individual. That decay, all the evidence suggests, is one of the symptoms of lockdown.

Charles Foster is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, and a member of the Oxford Law