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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Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: " The devastation of war is a recurring theme in Turner’s work, and unlike his contemporaries Turner is willing to forego the occasion to bolster national pride or the patriotism of its fallen heroes. In “The Field of Waterloo” (1818), Turner’s great tragic vision of war, “The…  dead of both sides lay intertwined, nearly indistinguishable surrounded by the gloom of night.” Near the bottom center there are three women. The one farthest from us is bearing a child and in her right hand a torch which illumines the sea of mangled bodies. Beside her is another woman struggling to keep a third (also with child) from collapsing outright. Turner reflects not only on the dead and dying, but on the widows and orphans that war produces."
May 19th 2022
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May 17th 2022
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May 11th 2022
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Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Every year, around 12,000 men in the UK die from prostate cancer, but many more die with prostate cancer than from it. So knowing whether the disease is going to advance rapidly or not is important for knowing who to treat." ...... "For some years, we have known that pathogens (bacteria and viruses) can cause cancer. We know, for example, that Helicobacter pylori is associated with stomach cancer and that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer." ....... "....we have identified five types (genera) of bacteria linked to aggressive prostate cancer." ...... "We examined prostate tissue and urine samples from over 600 men with and without prostate cancer," ..... "....men who had one or more of the bacteria were nearly three times more likely to see their early stage cancer progress to advanced disease, compared with men who had none of the bacteria in their urine or prostate."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTARCTS: "Steve Jobs dreaded turning 30, because he knew it would be fatal to his creativity: "It's rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to contribute something amazing." ....... "When Ford introduced the Model T, he was 45 years old" ...... "Ford’s Model T arrived only after a series of earlier cars – Models A, B, C, K, N, R, and S." .... "Sam Walton opened Wal-Mart No. 1 in Rogers, Arkansas, at 44, and discovered “that there was much, much more business out there in small-town American than anybody, including me, had ever dreamed of.” At 53, Warren Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that “your chairman, always a quick study, required only 20 years to recognize how important it was to buy good businesses.” "
Mar 29th 2022
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Mar 29th 2022
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Mar 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: " We are supposed to be living in a post-ideological era, where everyone one is a cynic, not so gullible as to believe in anything anymore, least of all in the quaint notion of objective truth. This rejection of truth as such is among the great disasters to have befallen our relations with each other and between nations.  We appear to be beyond truth’s demise – we are now witnessing its unpleasant putrefaction and decay." ------ " If we want to grasp how ideology functions in America today, there is no better place to look than at the phenomenon of Trumpism. While he may be only a symptom, Trump himself is the quintessential embodiment of America’s moral and epistemic decline. " ------ "By its disavowal of truth and perpetuation of lies for the sake of self-aggrandizement, Trumpism represents an existential threat to this country and to the future of the Republic. It is a cancer that threatens whatever is good and decent in American life. " ----- "All they know is negative freedom – freedom from – but ignore the need for positive freedom, the freedom to… as in the freedom to flourish, to realize oneself in the world; to make and re-make oneself and the world through action."
Feb 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the decades since its inception, there has been heavy criticism directed towards the War on Drugs. These complaints include the increased incarceration rates, the increase in the number of prisoners in jail due to nonviolent offenses, uneven sentencing guidelines often based on the drug type and race, and suggestions of a racist component in terms of who was targeted by law enforcement. Various studies show that instead of reducing crime, the strict sentencing guidelines created more criminals and undermined many of the communities most strictly targeted by law enforcement. Long sentences for non-violent offenses made it difficult for those released to find work and weakened their bonds with family and their broader community."
Feb 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "......... there are countries that have had a relatively high number of infections but which have still managed to keep their death numbers low – countries like Japan. It’s had 17,612 infections per million people yet only 146 deaths per million. This is despite almost one in three people in Japan being over the age of 65 and so at greater risk of severe COVID (the average age of people dying from COVID is over 80). What has kept the death rate there down? A recent Japenese study has proposed an answer. It reports that the risk of people dying of COVID in Japan is related to the microbes present in their guts. "
Jan 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "Then there was a revolution. In 1964, Bob Dylan created a new kind of popular music. The simple, clear love songs ...... were replaced by complex and opaque lyrics, filled with literary allusions and symbolism. Dylan rejected the role of craftsman: "I'm an artist. I try to create art." Nor were his songs intended to be universal: "My songs were written with me in mind." "
Dec 13th 2021
EXTRACT: " We all know that Father Christmas would struggle to deliver presents to everyone around the world without the help of his magical reindeer. But why were they chosen to pull the sleigh rather than any other animal? It turns out that the biology of reindeer makes them ideal for the job. Here are five reasons why."
Dec 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Planting more forests is a potent tool for mitigating the climate crisis, but forests are like complex machines with millions of parts. Tree planting can cause ecological damage when carried out poorly, particularly if there is no commitment to diversity of planting. Following Darwin’s thinking, there is growing awareness that the best, healthiest forests are ones with the greatest variety of trees - and trees of various ages."
Nov 19th 2021
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Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
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Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
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