Thoughts on the loss of ethical goods, perplexity and the pandemic

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Luncheon on the Boating Party (1880-1881).Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

This piece first appeared in the APA Newsletter on Feminist Perspectives on the Pandemic, accessible here. Please cite the published version, if you cite it!

Public discussions on the ethics of our response to the pandemic often focus on lives. For instance, we discuss the way the virus has ripped through care homes, jails, and immigrant communities, causing a devastating loss of lives. Or, conversely, some argue that deaths aren’t such a big deal, or in any case, not big enough to warrant lockdowns (for example, the Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said COVID -19 social-distancing restrictions should be eased because “there are more important things than living.”).

What often gets forgotten in these discussions is the broader question of ethical goods and how they are affected by the pandemic. With ethical goods, I mean things that contribute to a flourishing life, such as friendship, connection, a good relationship with family, and romantic attachments. Such goods are, as Jennifer Morton (2019) pointed out, both particular and not easily replaceable. 

Undeniably, my life is impoverished as a result of the pandemic. Soon I will need to decide about my kids’ return to school. Even if it is safe enough for them to go back, social distancing measures will still impoverish their lives significantly. As an immigrant living in the US who just managed to make some tentative connections with local people, I am unable to mingle with them anymore. With many flights across the Atlantic cancelled and travel from the US to the EU restricted, it is a big question mark when I will get to see my parents and sister in person again.

More broadly speaking, we are losing so many ethical goods: friendship, connection, physical touch. Grandparents are unable to hug their grandkids. There are cancelled theatre performances, music, and sports events. Family gatherings are unsafe, and religious services have become COVID-19 hotspots. A hair salon near where I live specializes in braiding and the job takes many hours of close contact between the stylist and her client. As I often walk past the now usually empty window, I think the salon might not survive the pandemic, along with many other small businesses. This loss is not just economic, though economic considerations are important. The loss we are experiencing collectively is the loss of things that make our lives meaningful and happy. 

When I open my Google calendar and see the upcoming cancelled talk or colloquium on my calendar—the calendar full up until March, then suddenly blank and quiet except for some holidays I do not celebrate—I get a sense of collective missing out. This feeling of missing out has an ethical dimension. The loss of ethical goods, i.e., of things that make our life worthwhile, requires more serious consideration in discussions on the ethics of the pandemic and social distancing. One might be tempted to dismiss beachgoers and family gatherers as people who give in to their selfish, hedonistic desires. But we are not only losing out on the fulfillment of hedonistic desires. Just watch any pre-pandemic show or read any pre-pandemic book, and it’s easy to see how an ordinary human flourishing life involves doing things that are now greatly hampered or unsafe due to the pandemic.

To focus the conversation on the broader topic of ethical goods, and how to balance them, I draw on American pragmatism, a philosophical tradition eminently suited to adjusting our ethical lives in challenging and shifting circumstances. Pragmatists (e.g., Dewey 1922, Addams 1902) have long recognized that morality is inherently social; hence adjusting habits in the face of the pandemic presents a formidable task.

In everyday life, we unthinkingly go through a series of ingrained routines. However, there are situations where our everyday routines break down, where, as John Dewey (1939, 33) put it “there is something the matter”; this is a situation where “there is something lacking, wanting, in the existing situation as it stands, an absence which produces conflict in the elements that do exist.” When things run smoothly, we are not motivated to rethink our routines. When our habits are interrupted, we get a felt sense, an emotion that forces us to stop in our tracks, to pay heed to the situation and to seek out ways to resolve it.

Jane Addams, a social reformer and pragmatist philosopher, argued in her Democracy and Social Ethics (1902) that a lot of what we term “morality” has become automatic and reflexive. Morality is part of the habits that govern our daily lives: “Certain forms of personal righteousness have become to a majority of the community almost automatic. It is as easy for most of us to keep from stealing our dinners as it is to digest them, and there is quite as much voluntary morality involved in one process as in the other” (Addams, 1902, 1).

While within our own private sphere, we feel like we are morally decent people, doing well by our friends and family, and not doing obviously wrong things such as stealing, but given the broader injustices in the societies in which we live, it’s clear that such ethical habits are not sufficient. Moreover, being unreflective about our ethical practices means we can get stuck with ethical ideas and routines that may no longer be fit for purpose. As Addams (1902, 2) argued, “Each generation, and the problems it faces, poses a new test to judge its own moral achievements”.

This is true today. We are faced with a variety of situations that our old, ingrained ethical responses do not live up to, and seem to have little to say about. Examples include climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement and other movements to set right racial injustices, and now the pandemic. Practices that seemed unproblematic before and that were ingrained in our ethical habits, such as flying, family gatherings and going to the gym, are now suddenly imbued with a moral weight they did not have before. For example, is it acceptable to shield oneself and one’s family at home, while outsourcing the risk of infection to Instacart shoppers? Is it morally acceptable, or problematic, to form homeschooling “pods” with one’s own children and a few select others if the public-school system cannot deal with pandemic risk mitigation, particularly as this exacerbates already-existing social, economic, and educational inequalities? How do we deal with the vexing intersections of class, ethnicity, and gender in many of these debates, recognizing that many front-line workers are not able to shield themselves, and consequently, their children and families, the way middle-class professionals can?

In the US, the absence of a coordinated and coherent response at the local, state and federal level has left people to their own devices. Ethical decisions are reduced to risk management. Articles galore advise us on the relative risk level of engaging in different everyday activities. This advice is of course valuable, allowing one to conclude, for instance, that playing tennis outdoors would be taking an acceptable risk, whereas sparring indoors would not. The problem is, you cannot DIY an individual response to a public health situation. For example, an individual cannot change her work environment in response to reports of aerosol transmission in poorly ventilated areas if her employer insists she should come back to the office or teach face-to-face. We need more collective risk assessments and collective responsibility to get us through this.

The pandemic thus presents us not only with an ethical crisis, but a crisis of ethics: it prompts us to rethink what ethical life requires of us, individually and collectively, rather than relying on old habits. Some of this crisis is grounded in the fact that we have to confront the moral weight of activities we previously thought of as morally neutral or good. Additionally, COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief that some of our ethical habits are unjust and suboptimal.

In some situations, adequately responding to the public health crisis of COVID-19 conflicts with our ingrained ethical habits that seemed just fine pre-pandemic. Take the example of gatherings of friends and family. When a close-knit Texan family hosted a birthday party where all 18 people attending the party became infected with COVID-19, there was widespread outrage at their lack of prudence. A recognition of the ethical goods lost with social distancing at a societal level might be helpful in these discussions: in this case, families such as these are faced with the dilemma of adhering to social distancing versus fulfilling social goods that constitute human lives, such as celebration and personal relationships. It may help us to understand why some people (especially those who perceive themselves to be at low risk of severe illness or death) throw caution to the wind. Such understanding is needed if we are to implement sustainable interventions.

For example, opening bars before one opens schools seems ill-advised given the relative loss of ethical goods in each. Schools provide education, opportunity, safety from problematic home situations, nutrition, and some form of equity, as well as a locus for social and emotional development for children. Given the severe loss of ethical goods with the closure of schools and the risks of spread with bars, it makes sense to open schools safely before we can countenance opening bars. Not being able to go to a café might be regrettable, but it does not present us with the same loss of irreplaceable ethical goods as school closures does. In other situations, the pandemic exacerbated habits and institutions that were already ethically problematic. The lack of paid sick leave and universal healthcare in the US was suboptimal in pre-pandemic times, now, it is shaping up to be part of a collective disaster and it is time to address these structural problems.

In our present situation, we are in what Addams (1902, 4) termed a collective state of perplexity, “a mental attitude of maladjustment, and in a sense of divergence between [our] consciences and [our] conduct.”  Perplexity does not provide us with easy solutions or answers. It is an uncomfortable state to be in. Yet this state of maladjustment, of being removed from ordinary routines and unreflective ethical attitudes, is philosophically valuable. When we are in a state of perplexity, unsure about the contours of our everyday ethical sensibility, we are faced with two choices: try to go on as we were before, or allow the perplexity to help us radically question our ingrained ethical habits. For instance, it may help us understand what the value is of in-person gathering, or how to weigh certain goods against each other. In addition, this perplexity reveals many ethical failures in our societies, in economic inequality between different workers, incarceration rates, eldercare, childcare, and clearly shows us that we need really deep change—and such change is always, at heart, philosophical change.

There is a danger that in all the confusion and immense challenge that this virus poses, we might focus only on containing the coronavirus without addressing all the issues it has laid bare. As Addams (1902, 172) put it, when we are in a transformative situation, “the community may be unable to see anything but the unlovely struggle itself”.  However, if we allow perplexity to be transformative, we can examine which ethical habits and institutions hold up in the light of the pandemic, and which require change. Recognizing the loss of ethical goods in, for example, friend gatherings or schools, would help to steer us to ways to protect those goods, to implement policies that make them possible, and allow them to flourish even better post-pandemic. It allows us to shift away from the dichotomy of lives versus the economy, but rather, about what we value as good features in our society, and how we can form habits that are conducive to them.

The future of philosophical thinking in light of the virus is not fixed or predestined; together we can shape it, and—given how societal ideas are always philosophical—also help to shape post-COVID-19 future ethical habits and institutions.

Many thanks to Eric Schliesser, Eric Steinhart, Carl B. Sachs, Emma Sougli, Johnathan Flowers, Floyd Kermode, Johan De Smedt, and Sean Valles for comments to an earlier version of this short paper.

References

Addams, J. (1902). Democracy and social ethics. London: MacMillan.

Dewey (1922). Human nature and conduct: An introduction to social psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Dewey, J. (1939). Theory of valuation. In O. Neurath (Ed.), International encyclopedia of unified science. Foundations of the unity of science (Vols. 1/2, pp. 1-66). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Morton, J. (2019). Moving up without losing your way. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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