by N. Gabriel Martin
The pandemic has increased our awareness of the moral significance of our day to day habits. While there have always been moral perfectionists who agonise over every choice and action, most of us tended to draw a line under our day to day habits, taking them for granted and reserving moral scrutiny for the extraordinary.
It’s not that eating out, buying chocolate, or going to a party were ever devoid of all moral significance—it was always possible to scrutinise, for example, the labour practices under which chocolate was grown, or the environmental impact of packaging—it just didn’t seem obligatory. Even though we might have known that the choice to buy a chocolate bar had moral significance, we were, for the most part, used to ignoring it. To do otherwise was a lifestyle choice, and not a necessity. That has changed with the coronavirus. Suddenly, we have had to examine—in our own consciences, with our families, and on social media—the choices we used to take for granted.
The pandemic brought moral considerations home to us, into our lives. We can no longer draw a sharp line between obviously immoral actions—spousal betrayal or shoplifting, for example—and the everyday, morally ambiguous ones that we were not used to subjecting to scrutiny. For any one person, visiting a friend, going to a café, or taking a train are not activities that are more likely than not to cause harm to anyone (even now), but if we all carry on with these activities then people will suffer and die and our public health systems will become overwhelmed. As a result, we are now confronted with the moral seriousness of the choices we used to take for granted.
What changed was not that everyday life became morally fraught. The new danger of the pandemic has introduced new moral concerns, but there were already moral concerns in our day to day. Many of the activities we tend to take for granted (driving, or eating meat, for example) still pose greater dangers than the pandemic. Instead, due to the sudden appearance of this new danger, we have stopped treating morality as voluntary.
Intense social pressure has had a lot to do with this shift. In the early days of the pandemic, people wrote ‘stay home’ on banners hung from their windows, or scrawled it in chalk on the sidewalk. The hashtag ‘covidiot,’ shaming people for flaunting social distancing, spread on twitter. CNN’s Jake Tapper railed against the selfishness of rollerbladers in San Francisco. Going out for any ‘non-essential’ purpose was condemned as selfish, and behaving irresponsibly in public could get you shouted at (although what qualifies as essential or irresponsible remained nebulous).
In every region, a plurality of people, if not a majority, got used to staying home, or staying home more, or only going out when they need to, as well as urging their friends and neighbours to do the same. The agility we have displayed in order to avoid the worst possible outcomes is astounding. Who would have predicted a few months ago that our enormous and complex society was capable of turning on a dime when faced with a crisis, especially after decades of failures to act in the face of greater threats, such as climate change?
But what does that response show? It does not show that when faced with moral hazards or necessity we will do what’s right. If that was the case, people wouldn’t have waited until the pandemic to stop going on cruises. There were always good reasons not to go on cruises. It just shows that something as extraordinary as a global pandemic can get us to stop ignoring the moral consequences of the ordinary.
By forcing us to re-examine the goodness of our most unremarkable habits, the pandemic has made us pay attention to morality more seriously than we were used to. We had made ourselves okay with frivolous air travel before, not by convincing ourselves that air travel was ok or good, but by relegating it to the overlooked category of the normal; the category of habits too familiar to bear scrutiny. By definition, most of our behaviours belong to this category. Also, by definition, most of what doesn’t fall into this category belongs to the actions of others. Perhaps that can go a long way towards explaining why hypocrisy comes easily—it is easier to spot problems with the behaviour of others because of its relative unfamiliarity.
The effect of the strangeness of the present moment is that it has made us regard our familiar behaviours as if they were unfamiliar, and therefore to ask if they are okay. Many of the changes that the pandemic has brought on will be permanent, but there’s not much reason to think that this will be one of them. It is difficult to maintain this level of conscientiousness. In countries where the first wave of the virus has been relatively well-contained, it remains to be seen whether the same public resolve can be rallied to meet a second or third wave. It seems likely that we will return to our earlier ambivalence towards being good. It seems more likely that we will backslide then that we will extend our new probity to the less virus-related aspects of our moral lives.
That might even be for the best. Holding ourselves and, what follows, each other, to such high standards represents an unwelcome illiberal turn in culture. That is because maintaining high standards requires us to be harsh in our moral judgment. It requires us to judge ourselves harshly, and by extension to judge others harshly. Making harsh moral judgments might be worthwhile if we could be sure that we were good at it. Can we?
The moral renaissance that this crisis brought on was made possible by the great moral clarity that we have assumed in the face of the pandemic. However, this moral certainty is not deserved. The simple aptness of the injunction ‘stay home’ crumbles as soon as we start trying to live by it. It pretends to be without exceptions, but exceptions must be made. What are the right ones? Is food the only basic necessity? What about exercise? Fresh air? Minimal social contact? The value of these things is apparent to many of us now, but it is also hard to gauge and to weigh up against the risks. It is hard to make these decisions even for oneself, let alone for others. But that hasn’t stopped us from making pronouncements about them
Even if we were to get a more precise picture of the risks involved in our activities, and that is a pretty big ‘if’—there is, after all, still a lot we do not know about the transmission of diseases that have been around for a lot longer, this would not settle the question of what risks are acceptable. There is not only more scientific work to do, we also need to reassess our personal tolerances for risk. And as a society, determine what degree of restrictions we are willing to accept and how much protections we must expect. These are decisions that public health experts (as well as other experts) can help with, but that individuals must ultimately make for themselves.
Due to the dearth of evidence one way or another, there still is no right or wrong about whether to wear a mask, and under what circumstances a family should go to play in a park away from other families in the middle of the pandemic, but that is not to say that their choice doesn’t matter.
It was the moral clarity of ‘stay home’ that allowed us to rethink our most familiar habits when it became necessary, but in the long term a more subtle understanding of what it is to do right in a pandemic is necessary. There are mortal risks involved, and so it is tempting to lend the situation the moral clarity that comes from an existential threat—from having to sacrifice whatever is necessary in order to survive. However, this is only an illusory moral clarity, because as long as it remains clear, it can justify any abuse at all; from the bans, or attempted bans, on abortion procedures in Ohio, Texas, Alabama, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, to Hungary’s criminalization of misinformation related to the virus (which can include criticism of government policies), to President Trump’s recent flirtation with postponing the election. The damage done by these measures is very high, and their potential to ameliorate the pandemic is very low, but as long as avoiding loss of life is supposed to be the absolute moral principle, they cannot be challenged. As Hungary’s spokesperson said, as though it rendered all other concerns null and void: “lives are at stake.” Any value, if elevated to a principle and made an absolute priority, can facilitate abuse.
It is a sad irony that this crisis has brought us moral resolve at the point where it is not obvious what we should do with it. This irony is sharpened if we consider that in so many other areas of our lives we lack moral resolve but know with far greater certainty what needs to be done. Everyday habits of the kind that we are now prepared to overhaul (even though we don’t know to what extent that overhaul is necessary), are also the habits that we have long known need to be changed for entirely different reasons—because of social injustice, or climate change, for example—, but have lacked the will to do so.
The pandemic has challenged us to reconsider what we take for granted. However, rising to that challenge does not mean being as austere or severe as we can. The moral renaissance we are experiencing brings with it its own kind of moral risk—the risk that we are taking society in a less tolerant direction. We must find ways to care about what we do while acknowledging that we may not really know what is best, whether for ourselves or for our neighbours.