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Morality in an amoral world

A crisis is a mirror. It shows us, if we have the courage to see, who we are as individuals and as a society.

COVID-19Human Rights

An Italian family on lockdown in Turin looks on the bright side. Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum.

A crisis is a mirror.

It shows us—if we have the courage to see—who we are as individuals and as a society. The self-congratulatory poses of governments, politicians, and state institutions are confronted with the harsh test of reality. Each of us, as individuals, friends, families, neighbours, and communities, face new and sometimes difficult challenges.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is such a crisis. Governments? Some are well-prepared, with solid public health systems and free health care for all. Meanwhile, in the United States, in mid-February, two weeks after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, the Trump administration pushed ahead with major funding cuts to US public health programs, including a $25 million cut to Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, and $85 million in cuts to the Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases program. In Ontario, when COVID-19 struck, public health authorities were facing the looming 27 percent cut to public health spending announced by the Ford government in its budget (belatedly, Ontario has just declared a state of emergency and put those cuts on hold, for now).

In the confusing rush of events that mark a crisis, it is easy to be so focused on what is happening that we forget to ask why. Yet it is when we ask why that we confront the ethical and moral questions that illuminate who we are and what kind of society we live in.

Why, for example, are pharmaceutical companies competing to produce a vaccine for COVID-19? Why, instead of keeping their work secret, aren’t scientists around the world collaborating, sharing their research, and making the results freely available? Why isn’t this question even being asked in public discourse? It seems that we are supposed to take it for granted that, above everything else, the goal of scientific work should be to make a profit. US government officials have already stated that an eventual COVID-19 vaccine may not be available to everyone in the US, let alone in poorer countries, because it may be “too expensive”.

We’ve moved backwards.

The worst epidemics in Canada and the US in the last 100 years were the recurrent polio epidemics. In Canada, an estimated 11,000 people were left paralyzed by polio just between 1949 and 1954. In 1954 alone, there were 9,000 cases including nearly 500 deaths. In the US, in 1952, there were 58,000 cases of polio, resulting in 3,135 deaths and 21,269 cases of paralysis. The polio nightmare started coming to an end when Jonas Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine in 1955. The patent? None. Salk refused to patent his discovery: he wanted it to be freely available to everyone.

Salk himself was following in the footsteps of Fredrick Banting, Charles Best, and James Colip, the discovers of insulin. They did patent their discovery, and then sold the patent to the University of Toronto, for $1. They said they didn’t want to profit from a discovery for the common good.

Salk and Banting’s attitude would be unthinkable now. What capitalism has succeeded in doing, it seems, is to make it acceptable for corporations to engage in behaviour, on a large scale, which most of us, as individuals, would refrain from as a matter of common decency.

And indeed, as individuals, as friends, as a community, people continue to support and help each other in times of trouble. Informal networks of mutual support spring up, as they nearly always do in a crisis. Beyond the headlines about COVID-19 emergency measures, closures, and social distancing, there are countless stories about people reaching out and helping those who need help.

Yet capitalism tells us, endlessly, that selfishness is good and inevitable. In the place of morality, it proclaims an amoral vision in which nothing matters except making as much money as possible. Greed is good. Exploiting others, destroying the planet, condemning people to a life of poverty and suffering, it’s all good, as long as money can be made. Capitalism allows no moral qualms.

While there are some—too many, it’s true—who have internalized this attitude, most of us do not act this way in our own lives. Society could not exist if we did, because we need each other. As social beings, we survive and thrive to the extent that we can form and count on relationships that are built on mutual support, co-operation, and trust.

The moral principle that has come to be known as the Golden Rule embodies this truth. Versions of what we call the Golden Rule emerged in many different religions. That fact that it is part of so many different traditions tells us that it pre-dates those traditions: it is embedded in human nature itself.

If we, or at least most of us, did not recognize the fact that each of us is worthy of respect and deserving of having our needs met, we could not survive as a social species. At the same time, if treating others as we ourselves would wish to be treated were always perfectly natural and automatic, then we wouldn’t need a Golden Rule. We don’t have a rule that tells us to breathe. We just do it.

One of the things that the existence of the Golden Rule tells us, then, is that we humans are imperfect and full of contradictions. Even when we know what we should do, we sometimes fall short, and need to be reminded or held to account. That, no doubt, is why discussions of the Golden Rule so frequently stress compassion, forgiveness, and second chances. It recognizes that there are times when we need to forgive, and times when we need to be forgiven.

At the same time, no rule, no matter how profound, is a substitute for thinking critically about real-life situations. For example, few of us would advise someone in an abusive relationship to return to her violent partner and give them a second, third, or fourth chance. There are times when anger is a healthier response than turning the other cheek.

There are occasions, in fact, when, confronted with the life’s complexities, we might also want to keep in mind George Bernard Shaw’s contrarian dictum: “The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.”

Nor does the Golden Rule, by itself, guide us in dealing with those who have power over us, especially when that power is wielded to oppress. To deal with them, we need to draw on another part of our human nature: our impulse to come together and support each other to fight for justice. As Cornell West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

The coronavirus outbreak is a crisis that challenges us to look beyond our own immediate concerns and ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. We don’t have much time: climate change will make this virus seem like a picnic.

But we do have some time right now, because many of us have had our lives put on hold. Let’s try to use that time as constructively as we can.

There are things we can do to help, like donating money, even while we are self-isolating. There are people who are facing this virus—and other concurrent public health disasters, like malaria, which kills 3,000 children every day—under infinitely worse conditions than we are. Think of Yemen, Gaza, Congo. Venezuela and Iran are trying to cope with their outbreaks even while the US is tightening sanctions on medical and humanitarian supplies.

They need our active solidarity.

One step you can take today is to donate to Tarek Loubani’s GLIA Project, which is printing 3D masks and stethoscopes for Palestine and other under-served communities whose capacities for dealing with a health crisis are much worse than ours. You can donate to them here.

Ulli Diemer is a Canadian socialist publisher, writer, and archivist.

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