The Future Of Morality.
Future-reflections from the start 2020 Covid-19 pandemic
One question has been on my mind since this started; how is lockdown going to change us? What are the psycho-social effects of a pandemic?
I am not arguing about the ethics of the lockdown, I think we have all been working with the horrendous hand we have been dealt, but what are the consequences?
It turns out, that human beings and pathogens are old rivals, and these viruses have a profound impact on our society. From the straight-laced Victorian morality brought about by the threat of Syphilis or the medieval confessional Christianity which emerged from the bubonic plague, one of the greatest threats to the continuation of society has been these microscopic, invisible foes. This pathogen problem is part of the reason so much of morality deals with what we eat, who we have sex with, and how we clean ourselves. In this sense, the behaviour of the individual can endanger the whole tribe, and in a global village, a guy in Wuhan eats bat soup, and we can’t leave the house for six weeks, what is the ethic emerging from our captivity?
I heard someone say the other day, in the past, you’d cough to cover your farts, and now you’re farting to cover your coughs. This joke contains a germ of truth. Oh no, he said germ! Quick, the keyboard is covered in germs, scrub your keyboard! Is it just a word? Or a call to alarm?
In the medical profession, this phenomenon is called ‘Germ panic.’ We are hardwired to avoid pathogens; our guardian angel is the sentinel of disgust as professor Jonathan Haidt calls it. If you think of something disgusting, a big pile of steaming fresh smelly vomit, or a fresh dog poop, you almost wretch in response. Maybe in real life, you would. This response is your body trying to purge you of any contaminants you might have possibly ingested. Sometimes a useful involuntary action, but the problem is there is a moral element to disgust. Whatever you find disgusting becomes bad, and the opposite, purity, is good.
Hitler was not a big fan of germs. He bathed four times a day. During his dinner speeches, he referred to the Aryan race as a pure, clean body and anyone of different ethnicity as infections, disease, and viruses. You see, my point about the extension of the metaphor, while there are dangers, what we do about safeguarding against pathogens should not be worse than the pathogens themselves.
Further evidence comes from Damian R Murray in his research paper, ‘Politics and pathogens,’ which provides evidence for the emergence of authoritarian governments in pathogen prone regions. The test correlation was about .42, which means roughly that 25% of authoritarian governments in the world are related to the presence of pathogens, which is more than famine and war combined. Does this mean we will all be living in the Third Reich by summer? No, thankfully not, but the panic from an invisible enemy can lead to rushed decisions that lose precious freedoms that are difficult to get back in the long run.
We have all had to learn new patterns of behaviour, social distancing, and social isolation, which I know I, and most of everyone else, have found very difficult. But after just a couple of weeks, you do find yourself standing further away from people naturally, eyeing their hands wearily and the conversation becoming decidedly quiet when someone starts coughing.
These are the unavoidable side effects of being constantly bombarded with sound bites equating contact with others to disease and disease to death, not of yourself, but of the weakest and most vulnerable in society. Effective advertising but is it right to attribute this level of responsibility to the individual for normal behaviour? I know we have to, but something says it’s not entirely correct. I feel fatigued by this constant level of anxiety, thinking over even the smallest gestures and behaviours.
A person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the person feels contaminated by doing the wrong thing and has to repeat certain rituals to cleanse, often literal washing of the hands. When it comes to the mind and pathogens, it becomes hard to separate fact and fiction; I can’t see these germs? We are at a constant disadvantage. During the black plague, when one-third of Europe died (the average lifespan was 29 for women and 28 for men), death was all around, and there was no real clue how to deal with the constant awareness of mortality except for dying with confession and the forgiveness of God.
We have science and facts, but we are once again mortal and not in control of the world. In 1969 William Stewart, the American surgeon general, said, “it is time to close the book on infectious diseases, and declare the war against pestilence won.” He was wrong, and our sense of certainty is damaged. Now I’m worried about bumping elbows with someone in Tesco and killing their granny because, in the end, what do I know?
In the modern world, we aren’t super touchy-feely, which is a good thing because a stranger coming to spoon me at a bus stop doesn’t sound ideal, but still, I don’t want to conflate my affection with killing people, like I am a dangerous weapon or bomb. I have heard some people like the America Fauci, who is a weasel-necked little pencil pusher, say we’ll never shake hands again! Really? Human touch maintains a vital role in regulating our emotions; touch is an analgesic and releases endorphins that act as a natural painkiller. A baby who is fed and cleaned will still die unless held; human touch is not optional. It is part of who we are. I hope that this isn’t the nail in the coffin for our shared humanity and an opportunity for the freaks in government to start performing their weirdness on us under the guise of saving our lives.
One final consideration, one which I will delve into further in other articles, is that the lack of socialisation is having a disastrous effect on the development of young people. The current generation is suffering a deficit of face to face interactions as is and not learning the social skills you need to navigate the world is a massive disadvantage. There is a growing body of research on how the gift of smartphones and technology is making us incompetent. I am averaging about ten hours a day of screen time at the moment. (I’d say writing this article on paper was the longest time I spent off the internet, and by the end, I was thirsty for Instagram.) So on top of being inside, I am now even further addicted to a new kind of drug. American psychologist, Jessica Twenge, and writer of the book iGen says that more than two hours of screen time a day can increase depressive symptoms, so we are out over the edge. This lockdown, without getting into the benefits of rough and tumble play and unsupervised time for children, which is one for another day, is the worst thing that could happen to a generation who were already behind on life as is; I haven’t even touched on the collapse of the economy! That one gets me all wobbly; part of me is insane and wants to see what happens when you shut down the world and create an even more significant crash than the Great Depression.
We are in an experiment, an experiment within an even more massive experiment. But, as Andy Dufresne said, ‘Remember Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. People are out running for the first time in years, nurses and healthcare professionals are finally getting some credit, and we’ve all made the best out of a bad situation. There is always hope, like seeds of grass in the cracks of the pavement, waiting for the light to shine so they can grow and spring up, bushy-haired and mental-looking, just in time for the summer.