Pandemic Ethics: Part 2

This is the second installment of a discussion of Ben Bramble’s recently published, open access book Pandemic Ethics. The third installment will drop on Friday.

How Should Onlookers Live and Feel in the Pandemic?

Ben Bramble

COVID-19 has caused widespread hardship. Many people have become severely ill or died. Many more have lost their jobs. Many more again have had to endure the deprivations of lockdown. But for some fortunate people COVID-19 has involved none of these costs. They have been able to work from home in nice environments (or are so wealthy they do not have to work at all during this time), and have never really been in danger of catching the virus. For many of these people, there have even been some upsides to COVID-19. Some have been spared an unpleasant commute. Some have gotten to spend more time with their families. Some have had enough extra time to take up a hobby, catch up on reading, etc. Call these fortunate people onlookers. How should onlookers live and feel in the pandemic?

  1. Celebrity Partygoers

I want to start by considering a particular kind of onlooker: the celebrity partygoer. During the pandemic, a number of celebrities have been caught partying in luxurious settings or otherwise living it up. Some of these celebrities have breached lockdown or even quarantine, and so put others’ lives at risk or set a bad example for fans or the general public. But others have not. In any case, the problem with their behaviour, intuitively, goes deeper than the risks they pose to others. Even if they hadn’t gotten caught or risked infecting others, there would still have been something ‘off’ about their activities. Intuitively, they shouldn’t have been having such good times in the first place right now.

Is this mere sour grapes? I do not think so. These people should not have been engaging in these activities for the same sort of reason that somebody attending a funeral should not be watching cat videos on their phone in the back row, even if they can be sure that nobody can see them. What is this reason? I will now offer an explanation.

  1. An Explanation

What worries us about such people’s behaviour, I suspect, is that it suggests they do not sufficiently understand or care about the suffering that is going on around them at this time. Somebody who truly understood what was happening in the world right now and how bad it is, and who was appropriately moved or concerned by it, would not want to party like this, in a self-indulgent or ostentatious fashion.

Suppose this is right. Why is such a lack of understanding here so worrying? It is, I believe, because it suggests a lack of interest in the condition of others or the state of the world, which itself suggests a lack of concern. And a lack of concern here is worrying because it suggests a deficiency in the sort of emotional capacities needed to truly flourish. While these people can ‘live it up’ in some sense, it is tempting to think they cannot enjoy the deepest human relationships or the fullest appreciation of art, music, literature, and the wonders of human culture. Part of our concern here is a concern for these people themselves. But it goes beyond this. It is a concern also for the state (or fate) of the world if many others are shallow like them.

  1. Implications

This explanation suggests a way of answering our question about how onlookers more generallyshould live and feel in these times. To answer it, we should turn our minds to how those who properly appreciate what is going on in these times would live and feel. What would they be able to enjoy, and what they would want to do?

Here is one possible answer: These people wouldn’t be able to enjoy much of anything right now. Knowing of others’ suffering at this time, they could take little or no pleasure in food, family, books, music, films, exercise, the beauties of nature, and so on.

But this seems wrong. I think these people would be able to continue to take joy in many parts of their lives. It’s just that these enjoyments would have a different quality during this time. They wouldn’t necessarily be less pleasant, but they would be coloured in some way by their subjects’ awareness of others’ suffering, and their concern for these people.

An onlooker who properly appreciates what is happening in the world right now, and who happens to, say, live by a lovely beach in a remote location, might well take a stroll along that beach each day and take pleasure in that. But it wouldn’t be the same sort of fully relaxed or carefree pleasure they might feel in normal times. It would be a mixed pleasure, one in some sense backgrounded by an awareness of the dire state of things elsewhere, pain at these far off events, and a sense of humility, perhaps, at themselves having been spared the worst of it.

These onlookers might get married, give birth, celebrate New Years Eve, and so on, during the pandemic, and feel joy, but even then they wouldn’t entirely forget what was happening in the rest of the world. This is not to say they would necessarily be consciously thinking of it then. But some kind of awareness of it would be with them during all these significant life events and pleasures. They would remain, at such times, prone to becoming emotional if the topic of the pandemic were to come up, or some terrible new news broke. After reading the news of America passing 100,000 deaths, or a story about children developing a Kawasaki-like syndrome from COVID-19, they would feel emotional in a way that would interfere with other pleasures. They would not, at such times, feel like, say, bursting into song.

That said, these onlookers would not go in for certain kinds of pleasures. They would not, like some wealthy people have been doing in the pandemic, be buying luxury add-ons for their houses, fancy jewellery to commemorate their time in lockdown, lavish dinners at expensive restaurants, or diamond-encrusted masks.

Importantly, they wouldn’t be abstaining from these activities because they would see that they were in bad taste. Rather, they just wouldn’t want to engage in them. It is this fact about their desires that makes them in bad taste.


7 Replies to “Pandemic Ethics: Part 2

  1. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for this.

    So, unless I am too slow posting, looks like I’m first. What caught my attention initially was the second paragraph of sec. 2. I am not sure if this is a feature of your writing, but it seemed to be that you kept on trying to search for some fundamental explanation of what was wrong. But it struck me that a lack of concern for others is itself enough and one could easily stop there. Such a lack of concern is itself a bad thing and it explains what is bad about the pandemic onlookers, and the person watching the cat video at the funeral. Do we need any more fundamental explanation that that? I am just imagining that there could be some onlookers, but perhaps not all, who can offer quite detailed and sincere appreciations of what is going on in art, etc. and properly enjoy certain works of art. They may even have quite developed feelings for some people (perhaps fellow onlookers), but they just don’t care about much of humanity and its suffering. And that is bad, no matter how sensitive they are to art. (If my reading is wrong, are you just peeling off layers to give further insight into or further describe what a lack of concern amounts to, whilst saying that such a lack of concern *is* the fundamental wrong feature? Even if so, again I think that there are plenty of people in this world who are concerned for some people and works of arts, etc., but not most other people. A lack of concern for some others is bad enough.)

    So then I got to thinking about a different point. You mention the person watching the cat video at the funeral. Clearly there is something wrong about that, and I took it that your explanation about what is wrong with the pandemic onlooker is at least continuous with what is wrong with the cat-video watcher and may in fact be *the very same thing*. Fine. So, a general question. I go about my daily life whilst all about me people suffer. People I know personally have cancer and other life-threatening conditions. Some people I know have other severe conditions, albeit conditions that are not life-threatening. Billions of people in this world have worse lives then I have, a fact I am conscious of. Do you think that all of what you say translates into this situation also? That is, I can enjoy activities, but in order to be morally worthy (say) my enjoyment needs to be coloured in the way you indicate? It seems that you think there is some difference, as indicated by the fourth para of sec 3 and the reference to normal times. But what that difference is I couldn’t see. So, I suppose I am asking why you seem to think your argument doesn’t carry over to the non-Covid case, that is why what you say also doesn’t apply straightforwardly to ‘normal times’. Is it because of the heightened awareness that we are in a pandemic?
    Then I got to thinking about what our normal lives are like. One might say that pain and suffering are always with us and, well, life goes on. At some point, even though I know people who have life-threatening illnesses, I book holidays, celebrate events and spend money on extravagant luxuries, and in the moment I often do so without thinking of the suffering of my friends and others. Is that so bad? It seems that for some people – perfectly moral decent and good people – that they couldn’t live a life otherwise. A *constant* low-level awareness of the pain and suffering of others, with many high-points of overwhelming concern, might be paralysing. There may regular moments when good people reflect and significant and appropriate concern may be forthcoming from them in certain situations. Is that enough? Well, perhaps it is. But if your argument does carry over, perhaps it isn’t, and that may be justified by the fact that the world is in a dire state. Perhaps, despite what you say, this pandemic is just one more feature of ‘normal times’ and the state of the world should occasion more concern from us on a constant basis. There are plenty of bad things happening to billions all the time. So the occasional thought about our fellow humans just doesn’t cut it.
    So, in the end I suppose I am asking:
    What is really bad about onlookers?
    Is there something special about the pandemic such that being an onlooker in it is especially morally bad? Or….
    …are we all onlookers all the time in ‘normal times’, and so the case you make for pandemic onlookers being morally bad is not so special?

    Thanks again for the material and thoughts,

  2. My comment will be brief. I question this notion of “normal” times as opposed to “abnormal” times. What these “abnormal” times disclose by the widespread and advertised suffering is that there is suffering. But there is always suffering, even in so-called “normal” times. It’s just that in “normal” times it is much easier to ignore. And as long as a single person is suffering, the arguments presented appear to follow. Are we to suppose, otherwise, that it’s OK to play games during a funeral just because it is only this one person who has died? What is at issue here is how we judge our “good fortune.” In these “abnormal” times, we judge it relative to the “bad fortune” of so many. As such, we recognize it as “good fortune,” meaning that we recognize that we have been blessed. Contrary to this are those party goers disparaged here who don’t recognize that they are blessed. Instead, they receive their blessings as some kind of dumb, speechless thing that just happened to be there. It is devalued, or valued only in some passing and transient way, like a mist. It is tasted briefly and gone. It doesn’t have a more lasting effect. By contrast, those that recognize their blessings as blessings, recognize them too as a gift, perhaps even an undeserved gift. They experience at least something of the giftedness of their lives, resulting in a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, perhaps even in a sense of generosity that is prompted by the humility consistent with that giftedness. What follows, then, from a recognition of their being blessed is something more enduring than the blessing so easily used and forgotten, even in the cultivation of virtues. It is, I suggest, then a richer life than that which misses the blessing hidden in “good fortune.”

  3. Thanks, Simon. Super interesting comments.

    You say: “I go about my daily life whilst all about me people suffer. People I know personally have cancer and other life-threatening conditions. Some people I know have other severe conditions, albeit conditions that are not life-threatening. Billions of people in this world have worse lives then I have, a fact I am conscious of. Do you think that all of what you say translates into this situation also? That is, I can enjoy activities, but in order to be morally worthy (say) my enjoyment needs to be coloured in the way you indicate?”

    I think that it does carry over, yes. I make this point explicitly in my contribution on Pea Soup for Friday. In normal times, it *is* indecent to buy luxury goods, in much the same way it is indecent to do so now (though perhaps now it is especially so). I think we learn something about how we should be living and feeling in normal times by reflecting on how we should be living and feeling now in the pandemic. (I chose today’s piece partly to set up Friday’s.) The fact that in normal times there are hundreds of millions of people in poverty or suffering greatly—and indeed, more than that in the history of the world, not to mention all the animals suffering in slaughterhouses and in the wild—*should* affect our experience of living in normal times, not just at particular moments, but continuously, as a background to everything. This doesn’t mean we should be consciously thinking of it all the time—or even that much—let alone allowing it to interfere with or ruin all our pleasures. We can still, consistently with this, have many kinds of pleasures, and even some nice things. But our awareness of the suffering of others—especially when it is suffering that is preventable by us (or by a group we are part of)—should change how we feel in various ways, and also instil a humility and gratitude for our relative fortunateness.

    A similar case, I think, is when someone close to one dies (especially when it is a painful or premature death). Ideally, one doesn’t simply forget. One is changed forever by it. One’s memory of them and the tragedy of their death stays with one, affecting all one’s experiences and pleasures in the future, if only subtly. My mother, whom I loved dearly, died unexpectedly two years ago. Can I ever be happy again? Of course (though maybe it didn’t seem like that at the time). But all my pleasures and happiness now are importantly different than what they would have been had she not died then. If they were not different, then this would signal that there was something wrong with me (if not morally, then in a way that would mean that I was less able to flourish).

    It is similar with our awareness of the suffering of distant others.

    To be clear, I do not think our feelings and pleasures going forward should be different *as a penance* or anything like that. My concern is that if they are not different in certain ways, then we are clearly not the sort of people who can maximally flourish (hence my inclusion of the second paragraph of sec. 2). My overriding concern is that we all collectively become the sort of people who can maximally flourish—and I think that if we are not the sort who are saddened or significantly affected by an awareness of the suffering of others, then it is clear that we are not the sort who can maximally flourish.

    Back to the point about luxury. How much luxury can one acceptably have in normal times? On my view, to answer this we need to consider how much luxury somebody who truly appreciated the suffering of others would *want* to have. And honestly I am not too sure what the answer is. It is something more than baked beans every night, and less than a fancy five course meal every night. Something more than having to walk everywhere, and less than a lamborghini. Something more than bare feet, and something less than $1000 Yeezy sneakers. Something more than no holidays at all, and something less than this:

    Does that help?

  4. I have a few questions. First, we require some sort of operational understanding of what constitutes “luxury.” It seems to me that at least one such definition is in answer to Jesus’ question: “Who is your neighbor?” I want to suggest that “distance” matters. Someone with whom you can bodily encounter is different in important ways from those you cannot. Likewise, somone anonymous is different from someone who is not. I have a friend who since the beginning of the pandemic has been arguing that American’s call for lockdowns is selfish, and this because many people in the world suffer more from the economic shutdown than from the virus. We might say, then, that America’s ability to stay at home is a luxory. Is it, then, “indecent” to practice economic lockdowns? We might say the same about our healthcare. Americans like to complaint about our healthcare: its cost; that we can’t afford those drugs that keep us alive for another few years. And yet this healthcare is many times more “luxorious” than it was during the 50s and certainly for large parts of the globe. Ought we not demand such luxory? Ought we not demand that we squeeze a few more years out of our lives, and not just because others don’t have that option? Is there something about this critique of “luxory” that is absolute and not relative to our neighbors?

    I have long found it suspicious that we (and that of course includes me) can send financial support to those anonymous others perhaps thousands of miles away, and know next to nothing about our nearest neighbors, those with whom we could have bodily interactions. I suspect that it is a deliberate attempt to control the situation. We like the idea of thinking of ourselves as charitable, but avoid the binding and “mess” that close encounters entail. What is at stake is how much “luxory” we are willing to give up.

    Finally, it seems to me that ability to influence matters, the quality of which is significantly influenced by distance. I have acquaintances living in Ethiopia and India. My ability to influence their lives is very limited. Many of us donate funds to anonymous groups who assist anonymous people. The quality of that interaction is severely limited, especially with regard to anonymous peoples. The mechanism for such influence and interaction is often lacking. As such, how ought we to regard our impotent concern for such distant and anonymous people? Should we let it go or dwell on it? All of this enters into our calculation of what is “luxorious.”

    All of this is relevant when we consider our spiritual well-being. (I don’t like the notion of flourishing, but it must be something similar). I would argue that at least one measure of that well-being is the extent which we love, and loving entails a willingness to suffer, which entails that it is close, bodily encounters that ought to dominate our lives. What this all comes to is how we regard our finitude? Ought we not embrace it, which is to love it, and this is to love a life of living and dying?

  5. Thanks Ben. That clarification is very helpful. What you say chimes with what I say at moments, what I thought you would say, and the other comment from Bill. (And I suspected, but didn’t say, that your second part might be a lead in for a further piece about what the pandemic teaches us and how we should act ‘normally’.) So we are all on the same page in terms of understanding.

    I got thinking today further about, for want of a better phrase, people’s psychology. [What follows is really inchoate and I’m not sure it goes anywhere interesting in the end……] The person you describe as (say) a morally decent, everyday person, and the person I point to also, seems quite even-tempered and can deal with the highs and lows of life in a reasonable fashion. They may themselves suffer grief and pain, and they look at others too. They have all that in mind when they are in reflective mood and when they plan their everyday lives. (So, for example, at some point – perhaps a particular situation, perhaps a build-up of information – they decide to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.) Fine. But what of other people who don’t react and live their lives in such ways. Think of people who seem fine but, with a build up of information and reflection on the state of the world, or perhaps some single live event that hits them like a bolt from the blue, they just get completely overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by sorrow, anger and other negative feelings. Perhaps they feel so small that they can’t do anything. People then react in all sorts of ways in this situation. Some use these moments in a really positive way. But others just, well, ‘freak out’ for want of a better phrase. They go on food or shopping mega-binges, have mid-life crises. Perhaps they party like there is no tomorrow. In a number of cases we may wish to criticize these people. But in some cases I might be sympathetic: this is something to do with people’s personalities and they are responding in a natural way to a sense of being overwhelmed.

    So you can see where one *might* go with this. If there is anything in this we might go back to your onlookers and try to discover more about them. Why are they partying? What’s their story? Are they to be completely dismissed? I’m not so sure. We might condemn the action but try to understand the person.

    One thing one might wish to say – and you may be thinking along these lines, Ben – is to acknowledge these feelings of being overwhelmed (of being alienated, of feeling so insignificant that one cannot act, etc.) and to reshape society so that such feelings happen less and are weaker. We need to acknowledge that some problems are big, and also that they are so big that no one person can solve them. But if we all work together then our small individual efforts *will* make a difference. (Or similar.) And that should guide us in how we conceive of society and how we talk about ourselves.

    See you on Friday? S

  6. Thanks again, Bill and Simon, for these interesting thoughts.

    I agree with you, Simon, that some people might party in the pandemic, not because they are indifferent to the suffering of others (or the state of the world), but precisely because they are so emotionally affected by it, and this is their way of coping. But I’m not sure this is the best way of coping, even for such people (in the same way that, say, (re)lapsing into alcoholism is unlikely to be one’s best way of coping with a personal crisis).

    For some onlookers (people, remember, who are safe and sound, both medically and economically), there seems something mildly melodramatic about breaking down emotionally in response to the pandemic. One feels they should be stronger than this, given that they are not personally affected (medically or economically). Their breaking down might even show a kind of disrespect for those suffering.

    For other onlookers, their breaking down emotionally might not be melodramatic, and might be completely understandable, if, say, they have recently been suffering a personal crisis of some other kind (and the pandemic has tipped them over the emotional edge, so to speak). But it would remain true that the happiest people (among onlookers) wouldn’t break down emotionally in response to the pandemic, at least not in a prolonged way that interferes with their ongoing ability to enjoy many of the pleasures of life. They would be deeply affected, but not crumple completely, turn to the bottle, or go off and party orgiastically.

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