With the spread of COVID-19, it seems the underlying morality of society has been revealed: social distancing violations, the ever-apparent discrimination based on skin colour, politicians circumventing their own laws and so on. The question of morality has been of increasing focus over these past months. So, as we collectively push for answers, it is important not to neglect what we already know. What lessons can we gain from philosophers of the past, and how do their conclusions apply to our current society? Maybe the optimal societal framework has already been laid out, and therefore must simply be enacted by us. Or, more cynically, maybe at the root of all these philosophical conclusions lie value judgements that prevent us from applying these conclusions to society in the exact way that they were theoretically intended. With the issues plaguing our society clearer than ever, the question remains of how to proceed.
John Rawls stands as one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century (Zuckert, 2012). Perhaps most famously, Rawls is known for his 1971 work ‘Justice as Fairness’; a seminal work which attempts to address the concept of justice with regards to distributive problems. Surely, we can call upon Rawls then to help us with the pervasive problems within our society? The Difference Principle is Rawls’ proposed distributive principle; that inequalities of wealth or power for example may be permitted such that they work to the advantage of those worst off in society (Rawls, 2001). Rawls’ main claim is that individuals with no knowledge of the circumstances of their birth (what he terms as ‘the original position’(Rawls, 1971)) will rationally opt for the difference principle as a means of achieving distributive justice. Accepting Rawls here still leaves the path forward unclear as the COVID-19 pandemic has proven with regards to ongoing political and social tensions. With the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests going on around the world in response to the killing of George Floyd, how would Rawls suggest remedying such a situation? Does an individual risk spreading COVID-19 in order to protest a social cause they believe in, or do they stay home and feel as though they have not supported a cause they truly want to help? Surely then, Rawls’ difference principle is still dependent on an individual value judgement, as deciding who constitutes the ‘worst-off’ is going to be a matter of opinion. With the decision to disband the Minneapolis police department (Solender, 2020), it is clear the protests have been effective, and therefore if they had not happened such reforms would not have been likely if all people involved had stayed home. Therefore, even accepting the difference principle, enacting it will require a value judgement from an individual. So how are we supposed to use it to order a society when it is so individually orientated when practiced?
Who else may help us? Kant stands as one of the foremost philosophers of modern western philosophy. The formulation of the categorical imperative was revolutionary; Kant had developed a system for judging actions without the need to consider the context: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Kant, 1785, 4:421). Therefore, in theory a system for evaluating the morality without basing the judgements off situational factors would hopefully solve the previous problem. And yet it doesn’t seem to. If we take social distancing as an example, if we were to wish it to be a universal law, then cases of COVID-19 would likely decline, but individuals that require serious medical care would be left neglected. If facemasks become universal, is that not neglecting to care for those with serious respiratory problems? Whilst I am not suggesting that these actions are immoral, once again the answer lies seemingly somewhere in the middle. Socially distance, where possible, wear a mask in public, where possible. A judgement must be made here in order to achieve the optimum societal outcome, and with a deadly global pandemic, as a society we cannot afford to leave individuals out in the cold.
This speaks to the message of my writing, that rules and maxims that we use to help create a generally virtuous society either are too broad to work across the board or ultimately require a value judgement. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an extreme scenario through which to test all these rules and maxims. How can we attempt to mandate rules and regulations across the board when safe advice for one person may well end in death for another? What I believe this period has shown us is the importance of specificity and consideration of context. Going to the shops because you want to get out of the house is different from going to the shops to get food for someone who is shielding; the context here matters. Much like John Stuart Mill, I maintain an optimism that people will be able to make these judgments for themselves and “respond internally to wise and noble things” (Mill, 1859, 62).
Ultimately, what relevance do these philosophical concepts have if there appear to be roadblocks preventing them from being implemented? The answer to that, I believe, is education. As modern media has made apparent, certain individuals and groups have no desire in taking part with social distancing or other policies implemented to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. But by using these staple pieces of modern philosophy, maybe they can be used to teach and help our society cope with such moral quandaries on a holistic scale. If people were forced to judge their own day-to-day actions on a moral scale or are forced to consider who they want to help with their actions, we may tend towards a more thoughtful society that wishes to accommodate others living within it, with no rigid moral foundation, but a greater amount of moral consideration.
Catherine H. Zuckert, Political Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Authors and Argument, 2012, (Ed.)”. Cambridge University Press.
Rawls, John, 2001, Justice as Fairness: a restatement Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Solender, Andrew, 2020, Minneapolis Votes To Disband Police Department, accessed 26 June 2020
Mill, John Stuart, 1859, On Liberty London, John W. Parker and Son, West Strand.
LSE Europp blog, Glyniadaki, Katerina, Moral dilemmas in times of crisis: Could Covid-19 lead to a more compassionate form of politics? Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2020/04/29/moral-dilemmas-in-times-of-crisis-could-covid-19-lead-to-a-more-compassionate-form-of-politics/ accessed 28/06/2020
Xafis, V., Schaefer, G., Labude, M. et al. The Perfect Moral Storm: Diverse Ethical Considerations in the COVID-19 Pandemic. ABR 12, 65–83 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41649-020-00125-3
Williamson, V. et al. (2020) COVID-19 and experiences of moral injury in front-line key workers. Occupational Medicine. http://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/kqaa052