May 5th 2020

Values in the age of coronavirus: how a disease changed what it means to live a virtuous life

by Kevin Morrell

 

Kevin Morrell is Professor of Strategy at the Durham University.

 

The coronavirus pandemic has no parallel in living memory. The novelty of the virus itself is a massive medical challenge. But the pandemic is also a unique social problem for us all. In the face of such uncertainty, it is natural to look for clear reference points to help anchor us.

Current debate about appropriate policy reflects this need for certainty because it is dominated by two perspectives on values. These emphasise duties and consequences. We stay at home because it is our duty to protect health: “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”. But measures are also being taken specifically to guard against specific consequences – such as damage to the economy.

A third way of talking about values is to use the language of virtues. This offers a different way of framing situations that is both simpler and more complicated. It is simpler because its basic question, “what does it mean to live a virtuous life”, is easy to grasp. It is more complicated because instead of searching for laws, “virtue” depends on the context.

To study virtue involves studying the history, traditions, customs and habits of a society. This encourages us not to think in terms of particular decisions and whether they are right or wrong, but about behaviour over time. A key concern is character and this idea can be applied to consider any moral agent: a citizen, a political leader or even a government.

A conversation about virtues puts moral agents in their fullest social and political setting. For example, the citizen and their society are interrelated - with individual virtues tied to civic virtues. Famously, the virtuous Spartan was very different from the virtuous Athenian. Spartans were, “a byword for courage, strength, grim determination”. Athens was, “a model of cosmopolitan sophistication, artistic, cultural and philosophical excellence, and political innovation”.

These differences – a focus on context, traditions, customs, and behaviour over time – may be valuable in taking us away from a somewhat shrill public debate about trade-offs between duties and consequences. A virtue perspective also has an inbuilt flexibility that can help understand how our values change during crisis. It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago. To show this, we can simply ask what virtues our citizens, politicians and governments exhibit – or lack.

Citizens

At a basic animal level, we are being trained in different habits. Some features of politeness are subtle and differ across cultures, but the basis of consideration in every society is now very obvious. We do not need to see masks to recognise the new bedrock of every moral code: it simply involves keeping a distance. We instantly recognise and appreciate this when others move away, perhaps by walking into a now empty road to give us space. These are fundamental, unspoken changes in how we use public space yet they have happened almost overnight.

Just being in public involves risk and this is changing our attitudes about the dignity and worth of many occupations, such as bus drivers, cleaners and warehouse workers. Society has been forced to understand more clearly what work is “key”. People will remember who enabled them to buy food for their families.

Like muscles, virtues can be thought of as emotions that have been trained. Lockdown may help to cultivate a sense of civic responsibility if people can connect personal sacrifices or discomfort to the broader public good. It is a kind of discipline that tests our patience but could also strengthen it (if it doesn’t spill over into mass frustration). It could also provide a sense of perspective and restore appreciation for simple pleasures.

Politicians

For politicians, the stereotypical virtues of the strong leader are under threat. As different nations find their own ways to manage what is essentially the same crisis, we are being made aware of different styles of governing. It is the grandest possible social experiment unfolding in real time and it has put less eye-catching virtues firmly on display.

New Zealand and Germany are two examples that have been cited. Instead of rewarding charisma, voters may start to prioritise competence and a capacity for sophisticated dialogue.

On the other hand, we need to be aware of the dangers that miseries like mass hunger and unemployment can bring. These can be the breeding ground for populism, a different social pathology that, “inflames and damages the cells, tissues and organs of democratic institutions”.

Governments

Governments’ failure to provide protective personal equipment is shocking. It forces raw, blistering insights into the everyday courage of care workers. Seen alongside the deaths of our most vulnerable elder citizens, it makes us question whether we have built a good society.

The coronavirus poses other huge challenges and perhaps even temptations for government. A crisis, and a common enemy, can benefit those in power. Recent British governments succeeded in part by making the most of two crises: the global financial crisis and Brexit. Austerity was fashioned into a rhetorical device to justify spending cuts. The promise of a referendum and Brexit helped win elections. Both were reliable sources of distraction, helping to displace blame and control the news cycle. The coronavirus is a bleaker, relentless crisis though. The same brutal questions will dominate the news. There will be continual comparison with other societies. Distraction may be impossible.

Messaging may be harder if citizens demand accuracy and experts. Boasts will not just win headlines and disappear. They will echo and haunt. Coronavirus is not the end of Athenian sophistication or political innovation. But citizens may want their governments to live the Spartan virtues they see in key workers: selflessness, courage, grim determination.

 

Kevin Morrell, Professor of Strategy, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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More Essays

Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”