Reflections on the coronavirus

The measures taken by the Czech government to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus also affect the activities here at the Centre for Ethics. For example, we are now not able to meet each other physically, and web-based alternatives replace our seminars. If someone would want a proof that thinking is not a mental activity, or that thinking is not done by the brain, this is it: the physical presence of others is important in philosophical thinking, and nothing else can fully substitute it.

But the events of the day are also food for thought, and here is one thing I have been thinking about the past few days.

In a situation of crisis, people react in ways that seem contradictory. On the one hand, we have hoarders fighting each other, the readiness to submit to the will of a strong leader, the fear and avoidance of others. On the other hand, we have people helping each other, the readiness to sacrifice one’s own comfort for the benefit of the common good, attentiveness to the physical and mental well-being of others. How is this possible? Or is the contradiction only apparent?

As far as I can see, these two reactions are both contradictory and connected. For helping each other can be done in two very different spirits. On the one hand, you can help others in order to create a sense of community. That there will be people not part of that community is then a grave risk, and these might be met with fear, avoidance and hostility. And, with a slightly different emphasis, you can help people because you want to live up to what is expected of you, explicit social expectations or expectations of a more abstract and general kind, expectations which you in any case submit to. Seen in this way, there is a connection between the two reactions, reactions that at first seemed contradictory. On the other hand, you can help others because you care for them. Seen in this way, there is a contradiction, for the first reaction is obviously not an expression of such care.

When philosophers discuss morality, however, they all too often discuss it as only carried by the first spirit. But if that is all we see, we will not be able to understand in a clear-sighted way what is going on in a time of crisis.

Hugo Strandberg