In these days of pandemonium, I find myself occasionally taking stock of how much philosophy helps me reflect on our collective circumstances — or doesn’t. When the going gets rough, we may find other modes of thought and feeling more natural and helpful. Philosophy certainly isn’t the best approach to everything. But in this situation, for me it’s yes — yes, there are philosophers and philosophical ideas that keep coming to mind.
One book that keeps coming to mind is The Afterlife, by Samuel Scheffler. The book indirectly makes sense of a part of “coronavirus consciousness” that I find surprisingly distressing: the awareness that wherever there used to be activity and excitement around the world, people have slowed down, separated, gone indoors. Even though I normally would have had no conscious awareness of most of the kinetic and colourful doings out there, evidently it’s a part of “my good” that they go on (usually). Or so it seems, in light of an analogous point Scheffler makes about the afterlife — in the special sense of what will go on in the world after my own death.
Scheffler argues that we need to know that once we’re gone, life will continue for others, that our personal horizon isn’t the only horizon. To make the parallel more vivid, you might call the normal contemporaneous hubbub around the world “the otherlife” as opposed to “the afterlife.” Relative to me sitting at home eating lunch, the otherlife is normally comprised of people in London going to the British Museum, and people in the Himalayas climbing mountains, and people on Wall Street doing business, and people in Times Square milling around, and people at my local airport getting on planes, and (even) people in West Texas pumping oil. Now, because of the pandemic, the otherlife is much diminished. Scheffler’s book helps me make sense of just how bad that seems. An empty or diminished afterlife makes my experienced life worse, but so does (I keep thinking) an empty or diminished otherlife.
As far as my own decisions are concerned, I’m not a healthcare worker on the front lines, so don’t have to grapple with triage or the distribution of scarce testing equipment or some other extremely difficult issue. My most ethically fraught decisions have to do with something that’s normally pretty tame – how to shop for food. Here, the book that keeps coming to mind is What Money Can’t Buy, by Michael Sandel. If I pay someone else to do my shopping in a busy store and merely pick it up curb side or at my front door, I can reduce my risks and transfer them to someone else — for a small amount of money. But is it right to pay our way out of risks like this? Sandel is quite convincing that some burdens ought to be distributed equally and not bought and sold. Memorably, he troubles his reader with the way richer people could buy cabins closer to deck on the Titanic, making it more likely they would make it into lifeboats before the ship sank. As paid shoppers and other workers fulfil the demands and lower the risks of the more affluent, are the affluent extricating themselves from what ought to be a shared burden?
How much more enjoyable it is to think about ethical issues when they’re about someone else’s problems! There’s the kind of painful perplexity you feel while reading Peter Singer’s famous article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” — painful because we empathise with the victims of extreme poverty and painful because it’s not clear what exactly we owe to them. But that’s very different from wrestling with a threat that faces me as well as others. If I decide I should get out there and do my own shopping, it will mean actually taking risks. (On the other hand, it will also mean getting to leave the house and see some of the world … over time, an increasingly significant plus.)
So yes, philosophy has been useful in the course of the pandemic. But there are limits. My first instinct was to reread The Plague, by Albert Camus — a favourite novel when I first read it in college — but it was so much like real life I couldn’t go on. I would read a little, then read the newspaper, and then need to distract myself. And distract myself. And distract myself some more. Best form of distraction — honestly, not reading philosophy, and not even reading fiction or watching movies. Best of the best has been cooking.
When we can’t have the adventure of going to another country, or even just another state, or an airport, or a movie theatre, or a restaurant, it’s not trivial to be able to embark on the adventure of concocting something delicious. Cooking adventures have the beginning, the middle, and the end of great trips and great fiction. First, the plan. I’m going to make chocolate eclairs — how exciting, will it work? Next, a great tumult in the kitchen, as the three elements of an éclair get under way. Ingredients get transformed in surprising ways. Things go mostly right, but there are no guarantees, so there’s suspense. Finally, with a fresh chocolate éclair on your plate, you can momentarily think things are not so bad.