WORK IN PROGRESS: What Covid-19 teaches us about our humanity

A thought-provoking piece on the lessons we are learning about ourselves and humanity.

Ingrid Rewitzky

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

Laurent Neveu-Marques explores what the Covid-19 pandemic can teach us about humanities development, and where we need to focus our efforts in future.

In many cities we’ve seen confined people stepping out onto their balconies and applauding medical staff; such lovely gesture! But some find it shocking: where were those people who now applaud when the medical staff needed their help to support the public health system? This applause looks superficially like all fashions launched on social media: mere sheep-like behaviour. Where will these apparent supporters be when the pandemic is contained? This applause seems to reflect only people’s present interest; the gesture, while possibly a genuine cry from the heart, nonetheless appears questionable. Even without denigrating this gesture, we see so many selfish attitudes displayed concurrently: health care workers are persecuted by their neighbours because they might carry the virus; people die alone because nobody wants to risk helping them. More mundanely, people stock up on “essentials” to the detriment of all and refuse to observe containment measures. There are examples of self-interest displayed on every scale, across the globe; we’ve even seen governments hijacking masks intended for supposedly friendly neighbours. Perhaps the most surprising thing about all of this is the contrast between the actual acts and the resulting speeches professing moral values. We see ambiguities in behaviour everywhere, both because behaviour oscillates between satisfaction of personal interest and caring for others and because self-interest is camouflaged as moral preoccupation. Don’t we see people applauding from their balconies? Don’t we hear speeches from politicians praising nations’ moral greatness?

This ambiguity is characteristic of humanity, or, more precisely, of a developmental stage of humanity. Kant explains that humans have a double tendency he calls “unsocial sociability”: humans need each other so they make societies, but at the same time they actually can’t stand each other. As a result, all societies are conflictual; individualism, insult, violence, crime, and war, for example, illustrate this situation. However, this unsocial sociability is the engine of progress of humanity which forces us to develop. For the philosopher of the Enlightenment, true progress is moral: it consists of changing the way we exist in society. We have to move from imposed sociability to true caring, and transform society into a moral whole. In the century of Enlightenment, Kant wrote that “we are civilised, burdened by politeness and decorum, but we have still a long way to see us as already moral”. In 2020, the pandemic of Covid-19 shows us that we have not progressed very far on the road to societal morality, but paradoxically that we should press forward because morality is in our interest.

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Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Let’s look at this idea a little more deeply. It’s easy to see the distinction between apparent sociability and the logic of self-interest. Except when it is deliberate – or even malicious – we see manifestations of thoughtless individualism everywhere. Personal interest takes spontaneous precedence over general interest, and in our societies, this is expressed as a right because a “right”, to us, is just another name for “personal interest” or “personal satisfaction”. We understand our rights easily enough, but not our duties, and, as Rousseau has pointed out, many of us want the benefit of the former without fulfilling the latter, to the detriment of others. This pandemic shows the contradiction in our ordinary behaviour very clearly because the consequences are so immediately visible. It shows what is – that many humans are selfish and individualist – and it shows too what should be – humans need to be moral. In some countries, the epidemic was brought under control by strict containment; the interests of society prevailed over the interests of individuals whose liberties were drastically restricted. Elsewhere this would have be seen as an attack on freedom. In this instance, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes were extremely successful. Obviously, we don’t mean to say that such regimes must be followed in all things, but it does show us that self-forgetfulness for the benefit of others can pay off. Totalitarian regimes achieve by force what morality should do voluntarily; laws must be imposed because they aren’t engraved in the hearts of men, who are only men and not perfect citizens, meaning moral beings. Because true sociability is not in the heart of men, it needs to be established from outside. All our societies, totalitarian or not, have something in common: men are united only by external links which do not change who they are inside. Our societies are not wholes but collections of individuals who live in the same ensemble but not together. Societies must become more moral and this is only possible if the social link comes from within men themselves. This real sociability, a moral one, is the higher state of humanity and is why philosophers of the Enlightenment gave us a Declaration of human and civic rights.

The pandemic shows us the weakness of the artificiality of our societies. They are artificial and superficial because we know what the real values are, since we show and claim them, but we are not all capable of manifesting them, either individually or collectively. Faced with the pandemic, we need authority imposed by force, showmanship and dramatization of the situation (“We are at war!”), demagogic flattery of persons who are only doing their job or duty, and the spectacle (on a balcony!) of our fervour. People say the world must change and that nothing will be the same after this pandemic: after all, it’s the first time in history that governments are prioritising the health of the people over the health of the economy, and this is a moral choice. If this virus shows us that “we have still a long way to see us as already moral”, we can hope that it also shows us a way forward for the development of our humanity: work still in progress!

Laurent Neveu-Marques

Agrege in Philosophy,

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