Coronavirus and the Ethics of Civilization

It’s hard not to be anxious just now. A new virus sweeps the globe,  killing some, and making many more ill. Never in most of our lifetimes has there been a threat like this. Sure, it’s like 9/11, in some respects, but when terrorists struck we mobilized and united behind fear of another.

            Now fear is untethered to time and place. Each day’s news seems to grow darker. Businesses are closed, public institutions shuttered, the news, always given to alarmism, is on overtime, offering both doom and silly tips about how to cope with anxiety. What are we to do?

            I say we embrace the fear with gratitude. This is a reminder of things fundamental, things we’ve grown accustomed to forgetting.

            Consider small things with significant import.

            We’ve learned of social distancing, keeping at least six feet away from one another so as to avoid gratuitous risk of contagion. What about hugs, kisses and the customary greetings we formerly shared without thought? Can we survive without them?

            That such a question can be asked and taken seriously, as it was by New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo in an effort to reassure us, sheds light on where we are; it offers an invitation on where we can go next.

            Civilization, the accretion over millennium of customs, habits and skills passed from generation to generation, is akin to an adaptive miracle. How many people died experimenting with eating wild mushrooms; how long did it take for a reliable knowledge base to be gathered, suitable for transmission to others, first orally, and now through such things as field guides?

            Much though we praise the rights and privileges of individuals, the very concept of an individual is a latecomer on the historical record. We imagine ourselves untethered to others, but the language we speak, the food we eat, the clothing we wear – all this is the product of cooperation and settled expectations. We take these connections for granted most of the time.

            Until we can’t. Arnold Toynbee’s magisterial A Study of History, noted the passing, the collapse, of 23 civilizations. I look at empty streets today and wonder, are we the 24th set to expire?

            Times of civil war and unrest remind us of the frailty of things. So, too, does a pandemic. A civilization, a way of life, requires disciplined habits of mind.

            We are summoned today not to regret the foregone hug, but to embrace fundamentals. We are invited to reconsider priorities. The pandemic is an opportunity we should welcome.

            I returned to the office after a week of business-related travel earlier this week. I’d been out West, and had traipsed through airports in Chicago, Charlotte and Texas before turning up in the office. I arrived early, hoping to be the first one in, and planned to leave before the others arrived. I tried to touch nothing outside of my office. Based on everything I had been reading, I was willing to bet I was carrying a pathogen.

            As I worked in my office, colleagues began to arrive. I was happy to see them. The instinct to shake a hand, pat a back, even give a hug was strong. My colleagues are family to me. I was worried over the weekend that flights would be grounded. It was a relief to be home.

            But what, exactly, would a hug or handshake have accomplished? I would have felt better for an instant, but at the cost of, perhaps, spreading disease.

            “We ought to keep six feet from one another,” I said to one. It felt awkward, like I was succumbing to some irrational phobia.

            But we stuck to it. We did so out regard for one another, and out of a common commitment to the things we share in common.

            The Roman orator Cicero once described a commonwealth, or a republic, as follows: A group of people bound together by common interests and common conceptions of right.

We need one another to survive. It is foreseeable that some in our community, perhaps some reading this column, will not survive the pandemic. This is a horrible truth we are now forced to face. But most of us will almost certainly survive, and the business of living, of producing and distributing life’s raw necessities, will remain. A principled and rational response to the challenges we now face is the beginning of the process of maintaining the civilized life we take for granted.

In recent years, we’ve taken much, perhaps too much, for granted. We argue endlessly about everything and seem less a society of persons committed to common goals than warring tribes dedicated to self-expression at all costs. The zero-sum game of identity politics is only possible because we have taken for granted life’s basics.

The pandemic invites reconsideration.

You, my neighbor, are a resource, a friend, an ally against nature red in tooth and claw. The disruption wrought by a new organism, a virus blind to our purposes and heedless of our well-being, invites us to pause and reconsider the nature of our communities.

I can’t say I’m grateful for this terror, but I seize it in a spirit of faith, hope and charity. Perhaps my reaction is naïve, but it seems better this than fatal pessimism.

Something, after all, had to give. Our politics and the petty hatreds that fuel it were unstainable. We are invited, all at once, to consider a new path, a new way forward. Seize the day, I say, and if you cannot embrace your neighbor physically, do so with an open mind and an open spirit.

Someday, I hope it is not too far distant, we will most likely turn the page on this scary chapter in our lives. I want to be here to see it, as do you. Let’s resolve to find a way to rekindle a sense of community. The coronavirus reminds us that survival depends upon it.




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