The dust has not settled yet, and it may not settle for some time, but already people are wondering what kind of society we will have once the COVID-19 crisis comes to an end. Some are excited by the “imaginative possibilities” it opens up; some are concerned that it challenges our existing moral frameworks; others are worried about the slippery slope to authoritarianism and social control.
I am interested in this too. I am particularly interested in whether the disruptions and adjustments necessitated by COVID-19 will spark a moral revolution. In other words, will it change our moral beliefs and practices in a significant way? There is no doubt that our civilisation has been shaken to its core and new potentialities are tantalisingly being revealed in the space of moral possibility. But which way will we shift and rebalance ourselves?
There are many ‘thinkpieces’ out there already that offer some opinions on these questions. In this article, I want to take a step back and think about the issue in a more systematic way. I do so in three stages. First, I discuss the general phenomenon of a ‘moral revolution’. What does it mean to say that morality has been revolutionised? How can we tell that we have undergone a moral revolution? Second, I discuss the various ways in which COVID-19 and our response to it may change our moral beliefs and practices. I don’t offer definitive opinions but, rather, try to survey the various possibilities in a reasonably comprehensive fashion (with the caveat that nothing is ever truly comprehensive). Third, and finally, I offer some reasons to be sceptical about the prospects of a genuine moral revolution resulting from COVID-19.
1. What is a moral revolution anyway?
It’s important to be somewhat precise about the concept of a moral revolution at the outset. If we aren’t, then we won’t know whether to classify some social change made in response to COVID-19 as a genuine moral revolution.
It helps if we start with the concept of ‘morality’ itself. Moral philosophers often adopt a normative view of morality. For them, morality is the set of rules and theories that describes what is good/bad and right/wrong. Although there are plenty of philosophers who are sceptics and nihilists about the possibility of moral truth, there are also plenty who are moral realists and believe that there are correct moral theories and rules that do not change over time or depend on what people do or believe. For these people the idea of moral revolution might sound nonsensical. Morality is not something that changes or alters over time: it is something that is already waiting out there to be discovered by our reason.
Social theorists and psychologists often adopt a more descriptive view of morality. For them, morality is the set of socially accepted rules and theories that people use to determine what is good/bad and right/wrong. There is no guarantee that these socially accepted theories are correct. They can, and in fact often do, change over time. For example, once upon time many people thought it was morally acceptable to own slaves. Most people now reject this belief. What happened? There was a revolution in social morality. What people once deemed permissible was rejected as impermissible; what people once thought was good was categorised as bad. The evaluative standards that lay at the heart of our social moral consciousness shifted.
Thinking about moral revolutions makes most sense if you adopt this descriptive perspective. Moral revolutions are changes in social moral consciousness. They are not simply changes in behaviour. After all changes in behaviour can be enforced through authoritarian control without any underlying change in social morality. One day a dictator could declare that homosexuality is morally abhorrent. He could enforce this decree by banning homosexual relations and instituting harsh punishments. This might change people’s behaviours but it wouldn’t necessarily change their moral consciousness: they might continue to believe that homosexuality is morally acceptable. It’s only if there are changes in associated beliefs that there is a genuine moral revolution.
How do changes in moral beliefs take place? How do revolutions get started? There are divergent answers to those questions. Kwame Anthony Appiah, for example, has proposed that moral revolutions are catalysed by changing beliefs about the nature of honour. This is because perceptions of honour play a key role in our moral psychology: we are motivated to do the things that we perceive to be honourable. He may be on to something with this. I would, suggest, however a less precise and more abstract set of mechanisms. Moral revolutions start when there is some 'shock' to social order. This could be internal (endogenous) or external (exogenous), or a bit of both. The COVID-19 pandemic would seem to be a largely exogenous shock (though it was certainly encouraged by practices that are inherent to modern industrial-agricultural society). This shock prompts or forces new behaviours and new styles of thinking. We have to make sense of our new reality. To do this we go to the existing pool of moral ideas, theories and concepts (which is vast). Ideas emerge from this pool that help to justify, reinforce or control the new reality. This leads to a refinement of our moral consciousness and, if the process continues in the right way, a moral revolution.
Should we be careful about using the term ‘revolution’ in this context? One of the most thoughtful and well worked-out theories of moral revolution can be found in Robert Baker’s book The Structure of Moral Revolutions (which I discussed here). Using Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions as his model, Baker argues that we should distinguish between three types of changes in social morality: (i) revolutions which involve some intentional change in a general moral paradigm (e.g. a change in an abstract normative theory or principle like a shift to utilitarianism in lieu of traditional Christian morality); (ii) reforms which involve some intentional change in moral beliefs that are less far-reaching than revolutions (e.g. changes in what we believe about the morality of homosexuality without a change in an underlying paradigm) and (iii) drifts which are non-intentional changes in social morality.
|My attempt to explain Baker's three different types of moral change|
Baker’s theory is an interesting one but I think these distinctions are unnecessary and unnecessarily complicated. While it might be intellectually interesting to classify different kinds of moral change depending on their directedness or gravity I suspect that in most cases what we really care about is whether there has been some change in morality at all and not whether it was intentionally directed or whether it involved a change to a moral paradigm as opposed to a less central moral belief. In any event, I won’t be too precious about how I use the term ‘revolution’ in the remainder of this article. I will use it to refer to any noteworthy change in social moral beliefs.
It’s worth saying one thing about the importance of individual humans in instituting moral revolutions. Michelle Moody Adams — who has written extensively about the idea of moral progress and change — has argued that certain individuals (moral visionaries) often play a key role in moral revolutions. These are people who see new moral possibilities in the world, who reframe and reevaluate events and behaviours in a way that casts them in a new moral light, and refine and expand existing norms and theories. These people often lead moral revolutions through their use of language and their ability to use language to redescribe and recategorise our moral predicament. A good example might be Martin Luther King Jr who, although not the only one to speak out about the injustices visited upon the black population of the United States, managed to do so in a particularly effective way, using some arresting metaphors and articulating a vision (a “dream”) for our moral future. Similarly, some feminist activists, such as Catharine MacKinnon, have played a key role in redescribing unwanted flirtation or interest in the workplace as sexual harassment. In doing this, they managed to ‘see’ something that other people missed (the sexual harassment example is one that Moody Adams relies upon in her work).
One thing we might be curious about, as we now turn to consider the possible moral revolutions that might be kicked off by the COVID 19 pandemic, is whether there are any such moral visionaries at work at present. Are we being guided to a new moral paradigm by their insights and leadership? I’ll return to this question later.
2. How Might COVID 19 Revolutionise Morality?
COVID-19 is altering many of our daily habits and practices. Many people have lost their jobs and become reliant on the state for survival. Many people have been forced to work from home and interact with people online instead of in the real world. Many working parents have suddenly realised how exhausting it is to look after children full time. And so on. The changes are everywhere. Will any of them spark a moral revolution? In what follows I will briefly sketch eight nascent moral revolutions that might be precipitated by the current pandemic. At the moment, most of these nascent revolutions are either taking place at the level of behavioural change or, in some cases, are just mere possibilities that seem to be encouraged by the dynamics of the pandemic. None of them really seems to involve a change in social moral consciousness. At least not yet.
The first nascent moral revolution involves a shift to a hyper-utilitarian social ethic. I recently saw an interesting comment on Twitter (I think it was from Diana Fleischmann but I cannot remember). It went something to the effect of “just as there are no atheists in foxholes so too there are no non-consequentialists in triage”. This was a comment on some of the stark decisions being forced upon doctors and healthcare workers in the midst of the pandemic surge. These decisions have occurred most visibly in Italy and New York. With a limited supply of medical resources to go around, healthcare workers have been forced to make essentially utilitarian calculations about which patient is worth saving. Many times this has come down to saving younger people at the expense of older people. It’s a little more complicated than that, of course, — if you are interested in the topic I did a whole podcast episode about it with Lars Sandman — but it is still noteworthy that maximising the number of life years saved is one of the more dominant criteria being used to ration healthcare.
Furthermore, it is not just in the healthcare context that the utilitarian approach is in the ascendancy. We also see it, more broadly, in the economic sphere. We are now classifying workers based on whether they are essential or not. Healthcare workers? Grocery store workers? Sanitation workers? All essential. University professors? Beauticians? Baristas? Sadly non-essential. When we lift lockdown orders and try to return our societies to something like the pre-pandemic reality, we will also be forced to make such calculations. Some people will be deemed more essential — more socially important — than others and allowed back sooner. Some might never be allowed back (cruise ship captains?).
You might argue that this hyper-utilitarian mode of thinking is just being forced on us by the crisis. We will abandon it when we get a chance. You might also argue that behind the general lockdown orders lurks the dignitarian principle that every life is sacred and worth saving. But could this just be a fiction that is no longer sustainable in the face of necessary utilitarianism? Societies are clearly making choices that some lives are more important than others. We have always done this to some extent. Indeed, it may be unavoidable. But the pandemic might be forcing the utilitarian choices into the open in an unprecedented way. It might be like pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. We cannot unsee what we have now seen.
The end result might be that society re-emerges from the crisis embracing a hyper-utilitarian view in which it is acceptable to rank and prioritise lives according to some metric of relative worth. I am not sure what this will mean in practice but one possibility would be that we adopt an extreme version of the Chinese social credit system, wherein everyone is given a rating based on their worth to society or their contribution to the common good and are then selectively exposed to social benefits and burdens.
(b) The End of Work
Closely related to the above, is the possibility that the pandemic might be revealing how many things we thought were socially necessary are, in fact, optional and arbitrary. Close to my own heart — given that I wrote a whole book critiquing the role of work in our lives — is the fact that the crisis might be highlighting how unnecessary certain forms of work really are. We tend to moralise work and think that it plays an important role in our well-being. The fact that many are now forced to accept that their work is non-essential and have to take an involuntary break from it, might encourage a rethink. Maybe we shouldn’t moralise our work so much?
This is certainly true for me. I am now working from home, as is my partner. We are fortunate that this is possible. We have a young daughter and she needs to be looked after. So we don’t work full time. We work, at most, half time instead. I know of many parents who have to do this (single parents, of course, face tougher choices). For me, working half time has made me realise how little of what I do is important and how it is possible to do most of what I need to do in far less time than it it used to take. In a sense, I could work half time all the time and no one would know the difference (though, ssshh, don’t tell my employer this!). Furthermore, I now appreciate how lucky I am to spend so much time with my daughter as she navigates the first few months of her life. In a country with limited paternity leave, I am being given a taste of something I would not ordinarily have (though, I am not going to lie it is pretty draining sometimes).
This is one reason why some of the groups that have long been advocating for a reduction in the working week, such as Autonomy UK, see the crisis as an opportunity for their movement. The changes to working habits and practices may force a change in moral consciousness around work. Perhaps it shouldn’t occupy such a central role in our lives? This transition to a post-work world could also be hastened by the fact that the crisis makes machine labour more attractive, and possibly more necessary, than it ever was before. Running a large kitchen or warehouse with lots of human workers is far riskier now than it would be if it were just one or two humans interacting with large teams of robots.
That said, I would be cautious about the possibility of a genuine moral revolution around work. The present circumstances are a less-than-ideal natural experiment for the possibility of a post-work economy. Living in lockdown, not being allowed to visit friends and family, travel to the beach or countryside, or participate in rewarding leisure activities, means that people might not see the current predicament as better than work. Indeed, I already hear rumblings to this effect in my peer group. People are now saying that they can’t wait to get back to the office. I suspect this is largely because we all need a break from our families from time to time. If we weren’t required to comply with public health orders, this would be possible. But since it is not going to be possible until this ends, people might learn the wrong lesson from this ordeal. They may redouble their commitment to the work ethic not slacken it.
(c) Renegotiated Social Contract
Another thing the present crisis has revealed are the inadequacies and inequalities inherent in many societies. The disease itself strikes some people (notably the elderly) more harshly than others. The associated economic shock has hit some people and some countries harder than others.
The ’social contract’ is the term moral and political philosophers use to describe the agreement we have in society about how rights get protected and goods get distributed. It’s a bit of a fiction, of course, but it seems plausible to suggest that there is some kind of ongoing negotiation about this in every society. No matter where you live, the COVID-19 pandemic is testing the social contract. Governments have to scramble to decide how to prioritise lives and well-being and how to compensate for economic losses. Some governments have responded in a remarkably dynamic way: significantly increasing healthcare capacity, welfare payments to those who have lost their jobs and support for businesses that are struggling. One of the most notable developments is that many countries have switched to something pretty close to a universal basic income for all citizens, at least over the short term. This may not be sustainable over the long-term but the fact that it was possible at all is noteworthy.
Is there an opportunity for revolution here? This is one of the features of the present crisis that has been most remarked upon. Amartya Sen has penned an op-ed suggesting that there is an opportunity to build a more communitarian and equal society as we come out of the pandemic. We have now seen what it is possible for governments to do when their backs are against the wall. Perhaps some of these changes can become more permanent? Sen is cautiously optimistic on this front, though admits that past crises didn’t always leave lasting changes.
Some people are less optimistic and revolutionary in their outlook. John Authers wrote an interesting piece for Bloomberg in which he argued that the current pandemic was testing our moral frameworks but that we were, ultimately, favouring a basically Rawlsian maximin approach to the social contract: raise the floor for the most vulnerable. This wouldn’t be a revolution since, according to Authers, the Rawlsian view has been dominant for some time. I’m not sure about this but I accept that there is plenty of opposition to the more radical egalitarian and communitarian possibilities inherent in the present crisis. For example, one of the reasons why some politicians, noticeably in the US, have opposed more dramatic reforms to social welfare is that they fear that these changes will become permanent. It’s as if they are anticipating the revolution and trying to preempt it.
(d) The New New Death of Privacy
In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a lot of talk about the death of privacy. The belief was that as surveillance technology became more widespread people would, to a large extent, trade their privacy for other conveniences, e.g. cheaper and more efficient services. Some optimists argued that people would insure themselves against the loss of personal privacy by turning surveillance technologies back on those who might abuse their power (the so-called ‘sousveillance’ approach).
To some extent, this revolution in our attitude to privacy has come to pass. Surveillance technologies definitely are more widespread and people do often trade personal privacy for other conveniences. Nevertheless, there has been a significant retrenchment from the optimistic, ‘death of privacy’, view in recent years. Furthermore, privacy activists have won some notable legal battles, particularly in Europe, ensuring the protection of privacy in the digital age.
This retrenchment may now come to an end. It has become clear that one of primary tools that governments have used — and plan to use — to resolve the COVID-19 pandemic is increased surveillance and control. Identifying those who are infectious, and those they might have come into contact with, and isolating them from everyone else is the only viable long-term solution to the pandemic in the absence of an effective cure or vaccine. This requires testing individuals and recording their healthcare data. It also requires tracking and controlling people. This is likely true even if people voluntarily commit to isolation and quarantine. This could be done manually (i.e. by individual case workers) or it may, in some cases, be done through some kind of digital tracking and tracing. In fact, many governments are encouraging digital solutions to the problem, partly because they are seen to be more efficient and scalable, and partly because we live in an age where this kind of technological solutionism is favoured. This is to say nothing, incidentally, about the kinds of surveillance and control that will be favoured by private corporations in their effort to ensure safe and productive working environments.
What this could mean, in practice, is that we will witness the new death of privacy. Faced with a choice between the inconveniences of lockdown and the intrusiveness of surveillance and tracking, many people will choose the latter. That’s if they even get a choice. Some governments will choose (and some already have chosen) to impose surveillance technologies on their populations in an effort to get their economies back to some level of functionality; some companies will require employees to do so before they can return to work. It’s hard to see how privacy can be sustained in light of all this unless we get an effective treatment and vaccine and even then we can expect some recording and tracking of healthcare data (e.g. through immunity passports).
The issue is complicated. There are those that argue that the choice between privacy and public health is a false one. There are those that argue that digital contact tracing simply will not work. I discussed these issues in my podcast with Carissa Véliz. Maybe these voices will be heard and privacy will not go into the dying light just yet. But it certainly looks like it might be on life support once more. How many more battles can it win?
(e) The Uncertain Fate of Universalism and Cosmopolitanism
A common theme in books written about moral change is the sense that creeping universalism is the hallmark of moral progress. Humanity started out in small bands and tribes. We owed moral duties to members of our tribes but not to outsiders. They were not ‘one of us’. This made a certain amount of ruthless sense in a world of precarious living conditions and scarce resources. As society grew more technologically complex, and as the social surplus made possible by technology grew, the pressure eased and the moral circle started to expand. More and more people were seen to be ‘one of us’. It hasn’t all been plane sailing, of course, but the recent high watermark in this trend came, perhaps, in the post-WWII era with the rise of global institutions and the recognition of universal human rights.
What’s going to happen in the post COVID-19 world? It seems like we are poised on the precipice and could go in either direction. On the one hand, we will need greater global coordination and cooperation to both resolve this pandemic and prevent the next one. So we could be on the cusp of even greater global cooperation and solidarity. On the other hand, infectious diseases, almost by necessity, tend to breed suspicion of others. Others are a threat since they could be carrying the disease. Borders are being shut down to prevent the spread. We are asked to distance ourselves from one another. The sense that the disease originated in a specific country (China) also fosters suspicion and antipathy toward foreigners.
I am not sure which way we are going to go. I have certainly felt my own world shrinking quite a bit over the past few weeks. It’s hard to maintain a globalist and cosmopolitan outlook when you limit your movements and contacts so much. When I go for a walk I find myself wary of others: are they getting too close? Why aren’t they abiding by social distancing rules? But when I go online and read opinions from around the world I do also sense some greater solidarity emerging, particularly in academic and research communities. The only problem is that they have always tended to be more cosmopolitan and globalist in their outlook.
(f) Return of a Disgust Based Morality
According to Jonathan Haidt’s influential theory of moral foundations one of the five (or six) basic moral parameters used to shape our social moral consciousness is that of disgust. This gives rise to the perception that some people, foods, places, and actions are ‘unclean’ and ‘impure’. It also gives rise to an associated set of purity and cleanliness norms. These can be odd, but relatively innocuous, when applied to rituals around food and personal hygiene. They can be pernicious and exclusionary when applied to people and, classically, sexual practices. One of Haidt’s claims is that disgust-based morality is more prevalent in traditional and conservative moral communities. Modern, liberal moral communities seem to have abandoned it in favour of a social ethic based primarily on harm and fairness.
It seems plausible to me to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic will provide an opportunity for a disgust-based morality to get a foothold in modern liberal societies once more. To some extent this could be positive. Better policing of norms around personal hygiene (hand-washing) and social hygiene (mask-wearing) could genuinely reduce the spread of infectious disease, thereby limiting loss of life. At the same time, there could be pernicious effects as some people and practices that are, in fact, innocuous are perceived to be ‘unclean’ or ‘disgusting’ and so must be ‘purged’ from our communities. This could help to support the retrenchment from universalism and cosmopolitanism that I outlined above.
(g) Animal Ethics and the One Health Approach
One thing the COVID-19 pandemic clearly places under the spotlight is our relationship with animals. It’s very clear, if you read the research on viruses and pandemics, that zoonoses like Sars-CoV2 are hastened by how we choose to control and live with animal populations. Many viruses that are deadly to humans jump from animals (where they are relatively innocuous) to humans (yes, I know we are ‘animals’ too). Living in close proximity to animals, killing them and eating them allows this to happen with relative frequency.
The Wuhan wet market has been pinpointed (though this is disputed) as the origin point for this particular outbreak. Wet markets of this sort are notable for the fact that they contain wild and exotic animals that are slaughtered onsite and sold to humans. But it is not just wet markets that are to blame for the risk of viral pandemics. The entire system of animal agriculture has played its part. We breed animals in closed environments where infectious diseases can spread with ease ; we pump them full of anti-microbial drugs that encourages the growth of anti-microbial resistant strains; we destroy the natural homelands of wild animals, forcing them to migrate into closer proximity with us. (This is something discussed in more detail in my podcast with Jeff Sebo).
Epidemiologists have long noted that this is a recipe for disaster. A ticking time bomb that was set to explode at any time. The best solution is to adopt a ‘one health’ approach to the world whereby we see our fates as inextricably intertwined with the fate of our animal populations. As the COVID-19 pandemic makes the wisdom of the one health approach more obvious it also provides an opportunity for an enhanced animal ethics. Maybe we will now realise that we have moral duties to animals and take these duties seriously.
(h) An Ethic of Existential Risk
One final possible moral revolution concerns our attitude to existential risk. I am not going to debate the precise definition of this concept (Toby Ord’s recent book The Precipice offers a highly restrictive definition of the concept). I am just going to submit that an existential risk is a one that threatens a lot of harm to human civilisation. A highly lethal global pandemic has long been touted as a potential existential risk.
Right now we are living with a pandemic that is, fortunately, not as lethal as it could have been. Nevertheless, the fact that we had a close call this time around could change our attitude to all those other existential risks that people have been harping on about for some time: bioweapons, nuclear war, global warming, supervolcanoes, artificial superintelligence and so on. Maybe now we will take them much more seriously? In other words, maybe we will emerge from this pandemic with a social moral consciousness that is more attuned to existential risk and more willing to take decisive preventive action.
These are the eight nascent moral revolutions that occurred to me. I am sure that I could identify more if I thought about it for longer. As you will see, there is plenty of uncertainty in my preceding remarks about the exact course these moral revolutions might take, if they come to pass. It should also be clear that I am not claiming that these revolutions will be positive. Some of them might be quite negative. We are working with a descriptive understanding of social morality; not a normative one. Where we shift to in the space of possible social morality could be good or bad, depending on your normative commitments.
3. Conclusion: Preventing the Moral Revolution
I mentioned at the outset that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken society out of its equilibrium. If you look around you can now glimpse tantalising new possibilities in the landscape of possible moral futures. I want to conclude by briefly mentioning three ways in which these revolutions might never get off the ground; in which we settle back into our old patterns.
First, the pandemic might just be a ‘short sharp shock’. There will be no second or third wave. We won’t be living with it for the next 18-24 months. It will just be that weird spring — you remember the one — where we all stayed at home for 6-12 weeks, drove our families a bit made, but got through it all okay. Assuming we didn’t work on the frontline, or lose a loved one to the disease, or get infected ourselves, we will just look back on it as a nice holiday from our ordinary lives. Not something worth changing our moral beliefs over.
Second, the pandemic might be a source of collective shame — something we would all much rather forget. This is something I discussed in my podcast with Michael Cholbi. It has been noted by other historians and commentators looking at past pandemics. The 1918 flu pandemic, for example, was largely ignored until recent times, perhaps because it didn’t show humanity in its best light. The same could happen this time around. In the fight for survival we might become more insular, selfish and scared. We might like to move away from the people we were in the midst of the pandemic and return to what it was like before.
(There is a bit of a paradox here. Others have pointed it out: If we are very successful in flattening the curve and suppressing the virus we might think we overreacted and that there was nothing truly revolutionary about the pandemic. This might encourage the belief that there is no need to change who we are or what we do. If we are unsuccessful and the virus spreads and kills millions, we might like to forget about it. It’s only if we land somewhere in between these extremes that the revolutionary potential is most potent.)
Third, and finally, we might lack the requisite moral visionaries. As noted above, we need people — individually and collectively — to identify the new moral possibilities and articulate them in a compelling and engaging way. If the moral visionaries do not emerge, we might not realise what needs to change.