The Pandemic as Moral Laboratory
Six months into this pandemic my sense is that fatigue has well and truly settled in for many people. We’re tired of all the restrictions, inconveniences and uncertainty, obviously. We’re tired of the way the same handful of headlines seem to dominate the news every day, tired of the dull drip of dopamine produced by our listless doom-scrolling, tired of the endless politicizing of this virus, tired of the fear-mongering and conspiracy theorizing, tired of being tired. Many of us have spent far more time thinking, speaking, and writing about this thing than we would have ever wanted. I certainly have.
But yesterday, as I was listening to an episode of the Ezra Klein podcast about “risk management” during a pandemic, it struck me in a new way that this virus has done/is doing one remarkably interesting thing. It is serving as an excellent laboratory for our ethical decision making. The unique nature of this particular virus and the possibility that younger, relatively healthy people can be asymptomatic carriers has forced many of us (i.e., those not in most vulnerable categories) to think not primarily about how to protect ourselves from contracting the disease but how to protect others from ourselves.
It is forcing us to make decisions and weigh risks according to a very particular calculus, from the rarefied air of public health policy right down to our individual plans for how to spend a Friday night. And that calculus is, “Will we forfeit individual autonomy for the welfare of others. More specifically, it is asking us, “Will we forfeit individual autonomy for the welfare of the most vulnerable and, let’s speak frankly, those who often contribute the least and take the most from our economies.” From the standpoint of moral philosophy, you could hardly dream up a better experiment.
At one point in the podcast, Klein and his guest were talking about weighing risks in how we decide which behaviours we will or will not engage in. They were talking particularly about college students carelessly going to parties and not-so-subtly urging younger people to avoid this type of behaviour for the sake of more vulnerable people in their orbit. “Even though you probably won’t be affected too terribly if you get it,” they were saying, “your behaviour might lead to others being infected.”
I remember thinking, “Wow, that is some ethic to foist upon the young, particularly in a post-Christian culture such as ours.” We’re asking young, relatively healthy people to radically curtail their social activity in light of a virus that will likely have little effect upon them personally (yes, I know there are examples of young people dying of COVID-19, but I think most would agree that they are comparably rare). We’re asking young, relatively healthy people to take seriously the fact that they might be carriers of a lethal disease that they may barely even be aware of and to adjust their behaviour according to the risk they pose to people older and weaker than themselves.
And we’re asking all this of young, relatively healthy people who have been incubated in a cultural, ethical, and certainly digital context that has implicitly trained them to locate themselves at the centre of much of their decision-making. In countless ways, those who have grown up in the age of the Internet have been socialized to think that individual authenticity is the highest goal to which they ought to aspire. Be true to yourself and your values alone, create your own reality, “You do you,” etc. And millennials and younger are often deeply (and sometimes quite rightly) suspicious of institutions and any kind of external authority that might impinge upon their rights and freedoms.
There are blessed exceptions, obviously. Many younger people are at the forefront of social justice movements of all kinds and often have a deep commitment to the welfare of the marginalized. But as Tara Isabella Burton makes clear in her excellent book on the ideological and religious life of the “remixed,” even these ethical commitments are easily subsumed into a “do-it-yourself” personal religion that enhances one’s personal brand. For a wide variety of reasons, this simply is the world that many people south of 35-40 have been formed in. Whatever else might be said about the young, this is not the most obviously receptive demographic for an appeal to individual duty for the sake of the collective.
We are essentially asking all people—young people, middle-aged people, rich people, poor people, social justice warriors and alt-right libertarians, Christians, barely Christians, post-Christians, anti-Christians and everyone else—to make quite significant sacrifices for the sake of the most vulnerable among us. To put it another way, we are saying to everyone, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Look not to your own interests but the interests of others.” This, again, is quite an ethic to demand in a cultural context such as ours.
Now, to head off a number of inevitable critiques, I want to be very clear. I am not suggesting that only Christians are capable of putting the needs of others ahead of their own. This is manifestly, embarrassingly not true. Christians are sadly often leading the charge of those endlessly bleating about their own rights being curtailed during this pandemic. To our great shame, it is often people who have no interest in or even active hostility toward Christianity that demonstrate a more deeply Christian ethic than we do! I am also not suggesting that other religious traditions do not advocate selflessness or have deep moral wisdom to offer. They clearly do and we must avail ourselves of all the moral and philosophical resources we have at our disposal during times like these.
But I will, with some fear and trembling, suggest that Christianity is unique in that at its epicentre is the image of a God who gives his life away for love of friend, neighbour, even enemy, and asks human beings to adopt the same mindset. This is the pounding heartbeat at the very core of the faith, no matter how poorly it has been and is presently embodied by Jesus’ followers.
And I will also suggest that the ethic we are presently asking of people during this pandemic is profoundly Christian in nature. It would not be difficult to construct a utilitarian argument for letting this disease run its course, particularly in light of the devastating economic and mental health effects this is having upon those who do not occupy the most physically vulnerable categories. We could do a set of crude mathematical calculations—who contributes the most to the economy, who will live the longest, how many people will die, what’s their average age, how much will response x cost the health care system vs response y, etc.—and decide just how much we’re going to ask of people based on whatever the numbers say.
That we do not go down these roads is morally admirable and ought to be celebrated. We might also ponder the deeper questions of why, exactly, we don’t do this—why we find such arguments morally abhorrent, why we believe that all human life is too sacred to reduce to the crude metrics described above.