In the midst of a global pandemic, who would not want to do the right thing? Very few people are devoid of a sense of right and wrong; and even people who have problems with impulse control will often go to great lengths to avoid being found out because they know what they are doing is wrong. Our sense of right and wrong is likely to be felt quite sharply in the face of the crisis wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. There’s an imperative to do the right thing. The question is, though, what is the right thing to do, and can we always trust others to do it?
Never before have we been so informed – if we want to be – about what is taking place in the world and immediately around us. News is there, constantly available in many forms, and from many outlets. We choose how much we can take, and we choose our sources assiduously. There is no excuse for not knowing what is going on. Of course, the digital divide still creates inequalities and not everyone is glued to their smartphone or screen. But the word is going around, and we knew what was required of us: a strange instruction that is both a collective action and something we do in isolation. Stay at home, save our health services, and save lives. By staying away from others, being on our own and doing nothing, we were participating in a massive, collective and communal action. It was the right thing to do, and to expect others to do; save for the extremely brave care workers, hospital cleaners and porters, nurses and doctors, shopkeepers, supermarket staff, rubbish collectors, supply chain and transport workers, who put their own health at risk to keep the isolated and shielding safe and fed.
It is our shared expectation to protect one another, to look out for one another, and to offer help to those who need it most, that is giving many people the sense that humans are, when push comes to shove, beings with deep rooted and shared moral convictions. There is nothing like an external threat to draw us more closely together. But we knew that already, and not in a good way. Division can be sewn by those who would conjure an external enemy, foreigners, immigrants, to bind us more closely to a common cause in support of a strong leader who can save us from that threat. Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and Putin, all rely on the same playbook: you summon an imaginary threat that stirs people’s fears then describe yourself as the only one able to deal with it. However, this time the fears are real, we face the threat collectively, and the strong men are powerless to deal with it. What should we do? The return of experts and the trust in science has been a hopeful sign, but it has not been universally accepted. Doing the right thing, for some folks is defending their freedom of movement, and trusting in their god to save them. They are still motivated by doing the right thing. But as usual what counts as the right, or the wrong thing to do, is all about the details and rests on matters or fact as well as norms and obligations.
We may criticise people for doing what they believe is the right thing to do, when we think it isn’t the right thing at all, but we cannot accuse them of lacking a Kantian (or for that matter, a Humean) sense of right and wrong. The uncertainty about what people take to be the right course should not tempt us into some lazy relativism that looks as though it solves the problem it sets out to deal with but just loses sight of the problem and any solution to it. It won’t do to say that what is right is just what each of us believes is right, and that we have no justification in criticising someone else’s stand, when what they do, or what we do, can have very real consequences for others. In the face of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, believing that it is right to defend your freedom by congregating in large numbers, ignoring social distancing guidelines, or refusing to wear a mask, is not a life-style choice. It can kill people.
What we notice, however, is that the moral judgements we make and are prepared to stand by, matter a lot to us right now. They are not taken lightly. Many people noticed that so many petty and divisive issues that have led to so much calling out and posturing subsided – though they have been gradually creeping back. We are still feeling our way to this new level of moral hazard awareness. I was rebuked early on – quite rightly – for talking of my evening prison walks. Did I know what real incarceration felt like? Very quickly, I corrected myself.
Detailed and particular moral judgement is often about seeing further than inclination, taking a wider perspective than one’s own. Of course, in the early days of lockdown there was a lot of blame and finger pointing. “How dare you enjoy nice things: some people are facing huge hardships”. “Don’t tell me about the rare moments of quiet you now enjoy while I am home schooling children”. But as all that calmed down people become more aware, and more responsive, to one another’s circumstances. A lot of care was taken and shown to one another, the sort of care and compassion that many hope can continue as the new way of living our lives, after the pandemic, resumes. There is hope because we have had more time to dwell on, and more awareness to give to, one another’s lives and of the different, vital roles so many workers play in keeping us all safe and well.
As our sense of right and wrong has been honed in the face of our new circumstances, so specific values have come to the fore to play an increasingly important role in our thinking. Equality, not just of goods and rewards, but of esteem. Our newly discovered sense of respect and gratitude for what so many of our lowest paid workers are prepared, and, quite frankly, required to do on all our behalves. To them we owe more than the weekly handclapping, and we know it. The true showing of moral right and wrong will be in how far we are prepared to go, when more of our old ways of living come back on stream, in insisting those workers get the recognition and rewards they deserve, and what we will be prepared to do or to sacrifice to ensure that it happens.
Another value that has come to the fore and seems worthy of renewed defence is truthfulness. Whatever intellectual moves are made by those who wish to throw sceptical shade at the notion of truth, there is nothing like a real-world emergency to bring us back to basics. More than ever, we want to be told the truth about what we know and don’t know, about what decisions have been taken on our behalf and on what basis they have been made. That’s why it is important that governments level with us, spare us nothing, and are prepared to admit where they went wrong and how they are attempting to put things right in the future. In short, it is a question of trust.
Trust and truthfulness are linked, as Bernard Williams ably pointed out in his last work, Truth and Truthfulness. Those who claim that objective truth is an unreachable ideal, or worse, an attempt by those in powerful positions to assert what they believe and do to be the right thing by convincing others to go along with it, are also implicitly committed to a notion of truth. They, too, believe, and want us to believe, what they are saying; and their inclinations are right, even if their conclusions are wanting, because they don’t want to be taken in and hoodwinked by those wielding authority without responsibility or care for those who disagree with them.
Thus, what people want is for others to be straight with them, to know what is really going on, however unpalatable the truth may be. It matters mightily right now that our governments and their scientific advisers level with us. We don’t want false reassurances or over-promising, and we are quick to scrutinise claims that they are “just following the science”. The science, which is not always conclusive, informs; the leading is done by governments and we’d rather be told this and have the chance to question where they are leading us and why. That’s why we had calls in the UK to have the minutes of the meetings of SAGE (the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) published and why an Independent SAGE group emerged to scrutinise the evidence and advice. We can live with the truth, however patchy and uncertain it is, and on that basis we can judge for ourselves, or hear other expert opinions, and not just be told to accept that the government is continuing to do the right thing at the right time. The more transparent, i.e. truthful, governments are prepared to be, the more trust there is likely to be in them, and as a consequence, the more likely it is that the population will follow the advice governments give.
At first, when the pandemic struck and when, rather late, the UK government announced that we were going into lockdown, there was a willingness to stand behind our leaders, and a willingness for political parties to put their differences aside and work together for us. There was a sense that whatever political programme they had stood for previously, and whatever our reaction to it had been, this was a serious and sobering crisis that meant we could put aside our differences and trust them to do the right thing. Though as the weeks passed people became uneasy when their placing of trust was not always respected and the need for honesty was not always observed. In our fierce sense of doing what is right and expecting others to do what is right, we have been quick to spot what we can only describe, quite frankly, as bullshit, and to call it out when we hear it. We are better barometers of truthfulness and guarded bestowers of trust than at any time in our recent political history. This is because the stakes are so high.
In the new moral universe of social distancing, of sharing the moment but being alone, we do our bit to keep others safe and expect the same from them, believing that they, too, will do the right thing. If we see people flouting these norms, it may not be because they don’t care for others, or lack a similar sense of doing the right thing. It may be because it’s hard to know what the right thing is to do, hard to get at the facts about how the virus spreads, especially when governments are not clear in their messaging, or worse still, not thought to be truthful and trustworthy. Keeping our values in place and keeping a keen eye on the circumstances where these values come into play is as crucial now as observing the lockdown. It is what will keep us together though apart, and what will keep us safe and well.