The Pandemic Has Exposed Our Moral Debilities — What Can We Learn From It?
As 2021 draws to a close, it’s tempting to give in to the familiar conceit: “I can’t wait to put this year behind me!” But wishing away the year that was is attempting to leave the pandemic in the past (if, indeed, it lets us do so), and doing so would mean to carry forward the range of social, political, and moral debilities it highlighted, leaving them unaddressed and us still in their thrall. In this article for ABC Religion & Ethics, Dr Matt Beard, ethicist and Program Director of the Vincent Fairfax Fellowship, considers the moral debilities the pandemic has exposed and what we can learn from this.
The fear economy
Although hardly an invention of the pandemic age, the last two years have demonstrated the power of fear to drive human behaviour. From panic buying in supermarkets to unnecessary fears over AstraZeneca vaccinations, we have seen businesses and political leaders aim to capitalise on fear, only to later attempt (unsuccessfully) to quell it.
Fear is a lazy person’s out. It’s easily stoked because, as Martha Nussbaum argues, it is relatively stupid. Our fear rises in us without our needing to think about what’s worth fearing. This makes it a powerful motivator: if you can make your audience afraid, you can often get them to do what you want them to.
Wrestling with alterity
For many people, one of the most confronting experiences at the end of lockdown has been the discovery that our views on vaccination aren’t shared by neighbours or family members. The idea that someone we might know or love secretly harbours doubts over vaccination, or that they waited for a Pfizer vaccine despite facing no elevated risks from AstraZeneca, or that they breached lockdown protocols, is discomforting. It reminds us of the harsh reality that our moral ideals are often not shared, and, more profoundly, that other people will always be a mystery to us.
This need not be a source of fear, however. The experience of the other person as an Other can be powerful — even transformative. Indeed, the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas thought that the experience of alterity – otherness – is precisely what grounds our moral connection to the other. It is because people are different from me that I must treat them with moral concern, and respect their needs and wishes. If they were like me, I could simply treat them the way I want to be treated.
Reclaiming the common good
All of the above pushes us toward reclaiming the notion of the “common good”, over and against the language of rights and individualism, on one hand, and the utilitarian “greater good”, on the other. There was a key moment during this pandemic when discussions of the common good — shared care, solidarity, demands for more equitable and consistent law enforcement among racial communities and groups, and so on — gave way to the “greater good”. This subtle linguistic and conceptual shift eroded the needs and values of individuals and vulnerable communities in favour of the interests of the majority.
It was the language of the greater good that justified easing restrictions despite many people with disabilities and their carers not yet having been given access to the vaccine. It was the language of greater good that left small business leaders chagrined and disaffected when the disruption to their lives was dismissed as “necessary”, with nobody to give voice or effect meaningful support as these people lost their livelihoods overnight. Yes, it’s unpleasant, but it’s what we have to do, they were told — often by people with stable incomes whose greatest headaches were about juggling children and finding a comfortable home office, not about trying to keep a business afloat.
Via ABC Religion & Ethics, 17 December 2021. Read the full article here.
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