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Why Covid-19 appeals to moral responsibility

Tuesday, 14 July 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

More than ever, Covid-19 confronts us with the question in what type of society we want to live: a society ruled by a strong state or sovereign, or a society where people act as morally responsible individuals?

We are selfish beings. So argued the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who emphasized the importance of the state or a strong sovereign to keep us glued to each other (no pun intended). The point being to avoid our slipping into the comfort of self-complacency, to the detriment of others.

Left to our own devices, our life can only be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Sadly, to a certain extent, Hobbes’ words ring a bell. A nasty, brutish virus has pushed us into a state of solitude. An impoverished reality for many of us, with moments of joy, happiness and affection cut short.

Hobbes was right. To stay out of harm’s way, we better acknowledge the presence of the other. Violence, bickering, fear are common to a state of nature, where, according to Hobbes, “a man is a wolf to man.” This is not to say that we are fully deprived of empathy, but the moment we yearn for a stable society, the negative imagery should give way to cooperation, security, and a clear, or at least visible, distinction between right and wrong, justice and injustice.

Although Hobbes furthered the idea of an absolute ruler (“Leviathan”) in the 17th century, his social contract theory has maintained its validity. There is value in authority, because it offers us protection. But in order to receive protection, we need to accept a certain degree of subservience. As Hobbes said, there is a “mutual relationship between protection and obedience.” We can achieve social stability by deliberately, that is, rationally, curtailing our selfish impulses. Immanuel Kant was on the same track when arguing that even a “nation of devils” can avoid descending into anarchy if they follow both the authority of reason and the necessity of laws.

Taking the initiative

Both Hobbes and Kant contend that the state is of utmost importance, and in a way they are right, but this ‘Leviathan’ should not be a coercive government whom we obey willy-nilly. In any case, a well-ordered society needs more than the robustness of its rules, laws, penalties and social institutions. It needs its citizens to be aware that it is their individual choices and behaviour that shape and strengthen the fabric of society.

The authority of moral responsibility is what we as citizens should ultimately surrender to. Without fellow humans engaging in acts of sympathy and empathy, simply, jumping out of a state of indifference towards others, society as a whole would be redundant. Not in vain, etymologically, the word ‘society’ means ‘fellowship, alliance’ (Latin societatem).

What does it mean for us to take up moral responsibility? When we act morally, we pause and reflect on our desires. For some this comes naturally, for others less so, because dissecting and questioning one’s own self is burdensome. That is why indifference is usually the easiest way out of any civic engagement. Or it may be that the other poses no importance whatsoever in their eyes, which brings us back to the self and the unwillingness to transgress it.

A limitation of freedom being one of the main motives. It is at this juncture that moral responsibility intervenes. It encourages us to think on how to reconcile the contrasting claims of autonomy and civic participation. Following the golden rule, the sociologist Amitai Etzioni states that we should respect and uphold social order the way we would like society respect and uphold our autonomy.

The truth is that the restrictions meant to put an end to the pandemic are not pleasant endeavours. Wearing a mask even less so, especially if the state compels us to do so. After all, the more rules a state needs to create order, the more distrust we feel towards each other, as the amount of rules illustrates the extent to which people must be kept in line.

In order to temper this distrust, we should take the initiative and assume our moral responsibility. At best, avoiding to become a Kantian devil, for whom there is always a rational way around a rule or behaviour that benefits society. The collective entity would eventually break down if each of us would descend into navel-gazing and skip cooperation.

Don’t lose sight of our desires

According to the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt, what makes us human is “the capacity for reflective self-evaluation”. In this regard, our desires play an important role. We have not only first-order desires but also second-order desires. The former are desires that move us into action (e.g. I want to enjoy the company of my friends, and hence ignore covid-19 rules). The latter relate to these primary desires, and are meant to become first-order desires (e.g. I want to be a good citizen and follow social distancing rules), but often fail to, and this causes a conflict of desires, an inner struggle.

First-order desires are generally representative of who we really are, whereas second-order desires depict the person we want to be. Take the example of a person who chooses not to wear a mask in public in times of pandemic. His first-order desire is to ignore the whole situation, thinking that covid-19 is not serious enough (at least not for him). Or maybe it is, but the mask is not comfortable, and his not wearing one does not make a big difference anyway.

His second-order desire, on the contrary, contradicts the primary desire. Protecting the most vulnerable people from getting sick is worth the effort, and he protects himself as well. But then, probably not, because covid-19 is not so serious after all and the mask is annoying. So he chooses to act according to his first-order desire and ignore the mask.

Moral responsibility encourages us to acknowledge our second-order desires as well, and hence act as responsible citizens. We do not submit to others when we act morally. If anything, we surrender to ourselves, because we wholly endorse what defines us, namely our desires. The more we heed our social desires and act accordingly, the more empathic our society becomes.

What has covid-19 taught us then? That in times of crisis we all have to choose. Do we want a society that is ruled by a coercive Leviathan because we need an external authority to guide us, or do we want to take the initiative, become morally responsible and shape society ourselves? The choice is ours.