This is the second installment of a discussion of Ben Bramble’s recently published, open access book Pandemic Ethics. The third installment will drop on Friday.
How Should Onlookers Live and Feel in the Pandemic?
COVID-19 has caused widespread hardship. Many people have become severely ill or died. Many more have lost their jobs. Many more again have had to endure the deprivations of lockdown. But for some fortunate people COVID-19 has involved none of these costs. They have been able to work from home in nice environments (or are so wealthy they do not have to work at all during this time), and have never really been in danger of catching the virus. For many of these people, there have even been some upsides to COVID-19. Some have been spared an unpleasant commute. Some have gotten to spend more time with their families. Some have had enough extra time to take up a hobby, catch up on reading, etc. Call these fortunate people onlookers. How should onlookers live and feel in the pandemic?
- Celebrity Partygoers
I want to start by considering a particular kind of onlooker: the celebrity partygoer. During the pandemic, a number of celebrities have been caught partying in luxurious settings or otherwise living it up. Some of these celebrities have breached lockdown or even quarantine, and so put others’ lives at risk or set a bad example for fans or the general public. But others have not. In any case, the problem with their behaviour, intuitively, goes deeper than the risks they pose to others. Even if they hadn’t gotten caught or risked infecting others, there would still have been something ‘off’ about their activities. Intuitively, they shouldn’t have been having such good times in the first place right now.
Is this mere sour grapes? I do not think so. These people should not have been engaging in these activities for the same sort of reason that somebody attending a funeral should not be watching cat videos on their phone in the back row, even if they can be sure that nobody can see them. What is this reason? I will now offer an explanation.
- An Explanation
What worries us about such people’s behaviour, I suspect, is that it suggests they do not sufficiently understand or care about the suffering that is going on around them at this time. Somebody who truly understood what was happening in the world right now and how bad it is, and who was appropriately moved or concerned by it, would not want to party like this, in a self-indulgent or ostentatious fashion.
Suppose this is right. Why is such a lack of understanding here so worrying? It is, I believe, because it suggests a lack of interest in the condition of others or the state of the world, which itself suggests a lack of concern. And a lack of concern here is worrying because it suggests a deficiency in the sort of emotional capacities needed to truly flourish. While these people can ‘live it up’ in some sense, it is tempting to think they cannot enjoy the deepest human relationships or the fullest appreciation of art, music, literature, and the wonders of human culture. Part of our concern here is a concern for these people themselves. But it goes beyond this. It is a concern also for the state (or fate) of the world if many others are shallow like them.
This explanation suggests a way of answering our question about how onlookers more generallyshould live and feel in these times. To answer it, we should turn our minds to how those who properly appreciate what is going on in these times would live and feel. What would they be able to enjoy, and what they would want to do?
Here is one possible answer: These people wouldn’t be able to enjoy much of anything right now. Knowing of others’ suffering at this time, they could take little or no pleasure in food, family, books, music, films, exercise, the beauties of nature, and so on.
But this seems wrong. I think these people would be able to continue to take joy in many parts of their lives. It’s just that these enjoyments would have a different quality during this time. They wouldn’t necessarily be less pleasant, but they would be coloured in some way by their subjects’ awareness of others’ suffering, and their concern for these people.
An onlooker who properly appreciates what is happening in the world right now, and who happens to, say, live by a lovely beach in a remote location, might well take a stroll along that beach each day and take pleasure in that. But it wouldn’t be the same sort of fully relaxed or carefree pleasure they might feel in normal times. It would be a mixed pleasure, one in some sense backgrounded by an awareness of the dire state of things elsewhere, pain at these far off events, and a sense of humility, perhaps, at themselves having been spared the worst of it.
These onlookers might get married, give birth, celebrate New Years Eve, and so on, during the pandemic, and feel joy, but even then they wouldn’t entirely forget what was happening in the rest of the world. This is not to say they would necessarily be consciously thinking of it then. But some kind of awareness of it would be with them during all these significant life events and pleasures. They would remain, at such times, prone to becoming emotional if the topic of the pandemic were to come up, or some terrible new news broke. After reading the news of America passing 100,000 deaths, or a story about children developing a Kawasaki-like syndrome from COVID-19, they would feel emotional in a way that would interfere with other pleasures. They would not, at such times, feel like, say, bursting into song.
That said, these onlookers would not go in for certain kinds of pleasures. They would not, like some wealthy people have been doing in the pandemic, be buying luxury add-ons for their houses, fancy jewellery to commemorate their time in lockdown, lavish dinners at expensive restaurants, or diamond-encrusted masks.
Importantly, they wouldn’t be abstaining from these activities because they would see that they were in bad taste. Rather, they just wouldn’t want to engage in them. It is this fact about their desires that makes them in bad taste.