We have a new moral imperative today: “stay home!”
As though overnight, we have adapted our sense of good and bad to this imperative, even though it is almost a complete reversal of our previous notions of good and bad. A few weeks ago getting out into the world and making things happen; getting together with friends and family; and seeing the world nearly summed up what we considered a good life, while staying home was a sign of laziness, and anti-social. As OutKast put it: “You need to git up, git out, and git something.” Suddenly, our values have been overturned, and we need time to figure out what this means.
‘Stay home’ succinctly communicates what has changed. It has been the slogan of this revolution, and probably responsible to a large extent for making it possible. But it oversimplifies both what is required and what we can achieve. It is not possible for all of us to stay home all the time, and it would not be good if we did. If ‘stay home’ is a general rule, then there must be exceptions. In this case, the exceptions make the rule possible. At the very least, it only makes sense for me to stay home if I have already gone out to get food, or if someone else is out to bring me food. When it comes to leaving the home, an ‘abstinence only’ rule is obviously impractical.
Should the exceptions stop there, at the point of sustaining life? Probably not, but beyond this point, deciding what our new values mean gets difficult. We need to decide what are legitimate reasons to violate the general imperative to stay home, and what are not. We need to decide whether the restrictions we impose on ourselves, impose on others, and allow others to impose on us, are all the same. Finally, we need to decide what happens afterwards, whether we will be able to revert to what used to be normal or whether we will be living with something else (and we will have to decide how it is better and how it is worse). If, as many health organisations have estimated, we will have to periodically ease and re-impose restrictions for over a year, we should not assume that we will just be able to pick up where we left off. Society will be transformed, whether mildly or extremely, whether for good or ill. We cannot expect that things will just return to normal by default, or that they will just tend to change for the better. It is how we manage this transformation that will determine whether the transformation will be for good or ill, nothing else.
The dangerous work of constructing a new morality has been thrust upon us by this crisis. None of the old moral boundaries can help us here, because everything that we are now re-evaluating—things like exercise and fresh air, buying fresh groceries, and meeting loved ones—was previously blameless.
I don’t mean to suggest that it is impossible for us to develop a new ethics, an ethics for the pandemic age. Only to say that it is something that we should aim to do thoughtfully and carefully, instead of letting our prejudices and knee-jerk reactions guide us. We can assess the risks, and try to minimize them. We can think twice about the things we want to do and whether they are really important now. But although simplistic slogans can get us to pay attention, to stop what we are doing, they cannot help us figure out how to live with the demands they make on us. We still have to do that work.
As a society, we grope towards an understanding of our new morality in an anarchic way, through each person’s choices about what to do and what to renounce; which actions to criticize and which to defend. The work lends itself to strong exemptions, to band-waggon jumping, and to backlashes. It’s a fraught, anxious, and quarrelsome way of finding the line between good and evil, suffering from many of the anti-social characteristics that afflict public debate in the age of twitter flame-wars. Worse, these problems are aggravated by the urgent need to do something about the pandemic quickly.
A handful of people who I follow on social media dragged me kicking and screaming into taking the pandemic seriously in its first weeks, and I’m grateful for that. Although at first I thought their haranguing was alarmist, I don’t know if I would have woken up without it. These are the kind of unpleasant but necessary correctives that helped us overhaul our entire social structure within weeks. But now that most of our cities have been rendered unrecognisable by titanic shifts in our behaviour, policing each other’s actions and pointing the finger should give way to more serious and self-reflexive efforts to figure out what we really need to be able to live under these new conditions.
The oversimplification of ‘stay home,’ together with hyperbolic claims about the damage done by failing to abide by the new imperative, now stands in the way of the gargantuan task of figuring out what is required of us. For one thing, we need a more nuanced calculation of the harms and risks incurred in going out. One of the things that makes these decisions so difficult is that we still don’t know enough yet about what works. It is still unclear whether the kind of limits on any gatherings of individuals from different households that many countries have imposed is necessary, or whether it would be enough just to ban large gatherings. In fact, it is not even known if the kind of shut-downs that have been imposed outside of Asia will be enough to curb the pandemic. These measures were effective in China and South Korea, but there they were accompanied by more expansive testing and contact-tracing. On the other hand, there are indications that there is little danger of outdoors transmission. Should we repeal the limitations on outdoor recreation, then?
Of course, waiting for more information would also have a cost, perhaps an unthinkable cost. We have decided (for the most part) to take precautions, and to undergo this change while there is still a great amount of uncertainty about what is really necessary. That means that the decisions we made and are continuing to make have more to do with deciding what our highest values are than adding up sums in a moral calculus.
Another reason that it is important to tone down the discussion is to make more room for debate. If the problem is framed as an existential threat, then any proposed measures can be justified. When going to the park can be criticised as putting people’s life at risk, it is hard to say anything in defence of such activity. This is no doubt why the first outbursts of dissent has come in the form of Covid denialism—because when the dangers our actions pose to our own lives and others is pointed out it seems less callous to deny that the danger is real than to demand that we think about what level of danger we are willing to accept as individuals and as a society.
Of course, our project of freely determining what the ethics of staying home means for each of us individually and for all of us collectively is severely limited by the legal restrictions imposed by governments around the world. These authoritarian interventions not only limit our actions, they limit, without necessarily eliminating, our ability to figure out what is right in times of crisis. That does not mean that they are not necessary, but that we should not pretend that the limitations on our actions do not also impinge on our freedom to figure out for ourselves how to live in the pandemic age, and therefore that we should take very seriously any restriction that is imposed. It is not enough just to blithely insist on the danger.
The problem of determining what the right exceptions are is not an insoluble problem, but it has to be done. The simplistic slogan has helped us undertake this revolution of our values with previously unimaginable speed and thoroughness, but it cannot finish the work we have to accomplish of figuring out what ‘staying home’ actually means.