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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Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
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Nov 4th 2020
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Oct 15th 2020
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Oct 15th 2020
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Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
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Sep 12th 2020
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Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
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Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
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Jul 4th 2020
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Jun 29th 2020
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