“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” That’s one of the most famous things Aristotle never said. Apparently, it’s Will Durant’s paraphrase of Aristotle’s ethics in The Story of Philosophy, but don’t let that get in the way of a good point. A lot of a life is routine, repetition, going on in one way because that’s what we’ve always done. So what do we do with the thought that the pandemic has thrown our everyday routines into disarray? What is the pandemic doing to who we are?
Maybe here is a bit of welcome news in the middle of all the doom and gloom: the virus gives us the chance to remake ourselves for the better. It has broken our habits for us. Do we have a unique chance, right now, to shape ourselves into better people, even excellent people?
Those on the hunt for evidence of the changes underway have not been idle, and according to a raft of surveys from all over the world, our habits really have been disrupted across the board, and some of us have changed for the better.
A study involving participants from 139 countries found that people who normally exercise one or two times per week increased exercising by 88%. At the start of the pandemic in the UK, food researchers found a 34% reduction in the waste of certain staples. NASA spotted a drop in pollution in locked-down cities. Annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 might be down anywhere between 4% and 7%.
But what about moral excellence? There has been an effort in some quarters to be more decent, admittedly marred by headbutts over masks or toilet paper. There are now 5,690 mutual aid groups listed by the Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK website, supporting people self-isolating and others needing help. At the start of the pandemic, the NHS Volunteer Responders initiative recruited 750,000 people in just a few days. One in five Americans has donated to causes meant to help those affected by the pandemic.
Is it a coincidence that Black Lives Matter protests took root in our collective consciousness just when lockdowns disrupted the status quo, quietened the everyday noise of busy lives, and we had the chance, finally, to pay attention to something that ought to matter?
Who can say who we’ll be as the disruption wears on, but we can say that philosophers have started to think their way through it. We’ve given over this issue to their reflections on how the world is now, how it might change, and what it all means. The essays are fascinating, hopeful, insightful and honest.