The value of values: What ethics can learn from the corona crisis

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The corona crisis has led to a recalibration of the major social values in most countries. These values were traded off and subsequently action has been taken. In principle, ethics would be suited to play a supporting role here − especially after the crisis has been overcome and we reconsider the weight of different values once more. However, it seems that in recent decades academic ethics has focused too much on theoretical issues, it has lost itself in either abstraction or nihilism. It doesn’t seem to help much. Ethics could be much more constructive by interpreting the meanings of values in concrete situations and by looking at how the collective choice of certain values can be organized within the framework of deliberative democracy.

Almost everything seems to be upside down in the spring of 2020. Because of the Covid-19 virus, there is very little business as usual. Everyone is hiding at home, waiting for better times. You also see a rearrangement of the set of moral values. We are forced to think about what is really important, not only for yourself as an individual, but also for us as a society. What is the value of a human life compared to the value of the economy, how you as a society deal with the weak, how you can let the sick die in a dignified way? How do you deal with the misfortune of people who cannot take care of themselves? How do you deal with the growing gap between those who can take care of themselves and those who cannot?

There are also many more modest questions. How do you give meaning to personal contacts when you can’t see each other? How do I get through the day in a sensible way, when do I go shopping and what should I buy? Why would I shave off my beard? Anyway, for as long as it takes, there is more caring, solidarity and self-sacrifice than we could have imagined a few weeks ago.

Ethics could make an important contribution to answering these questions. After all, ethics deals with the following question: what should I do? A question that hasn’t been that relevant in years. However, ethics and philosophy seem to have little to offer when it comes to the kind of urgent ethical questions we are currently dealing with. In recent decades, the discipline of ethics seems to have retreated into theoretical trenches and it has largely ignored everyday moral issues. In fact, the question of what ethics can learn from this crisis seems more relevant than the reverse.

You can roughly recognize two approaches to moral issues in academic debates. The first approach can be found mainly in the field of ethics itself, where ethicists are mainly concerned with the question of the validity of specific moral claims. Using thought experiments, they analyze situations in which a moral claim is valid or not in the hope of gaining a better idea of ​​the universal validity of that claim. These thought experiments usually concern individuals who are confronted with a certain situation that leads to the falsification of a moral claim − as if it were a scientific experiment. In order to be able to falsify more and more finely, the invented situations are becoming more and more worldly to the point of complete irrelevance.

This academic ethics seeks ‘moral truths’, but without concern for the moral status of claims. Apparently this is not the work of ethicists. Instead, people are only concerned with the logical consistency of moral hypotheses. In addition, it is also very unsatisfactory that ethics hardly gives concrete indications how a society can be organized in such a way that it does justice to the ethical values ​​that are important. After all, it is difficult to scale up the focus on the individual to the level of the level. Also, there is no attention for politics, power, culture, because they are seen as contingent – non-essential phenomena that frustrate the search for universal truths.

Politics, power and culture, are very much key for the other approach to moral issues. This mainly involves philosophers and social scientists who find it nonsensical to test moral claims on their universal validity. Such moral claims have no objective status, but are derived from concrete social structures. That means that no moral claim will be value at all times and all places, instead such claims are tied to a specific time, place and culture. From this approach you can scrutinize existing social systems, but at the same time it is, at least methodologically speaking, nihilistic: it says that moral questions are an expression of social and political relationships, without telling how to relate relationships in such a way can organize that they do discuss moral questions.

The origins of this approach can be found in Nietzsche’s work. His statement that ‘God is dead’ is tantamount to believing in whatever universal truth is astray. Truth claims are always statements made within a cultural context. Whether that context is formed by the belief in a god or by the Enlightenment belief in rational science; ultimately what is true is determined within defined cultural boundaries. Beyond those limits, another truth applies.

Nietzsche’s thinking is particularly recognizable in the work of Michel Foucault, but also in other postmodern or poststructuralist approaches. The shared starting point is that every truth is a man-made truth, with power structures, belief systems and ingrained routines determining what is true and what is right. When you research moral truths, you should not look at the content of moral claims, but at the cultural context within which these claims are made. You have to deconstruct the moral truths and show which social conditions ensure that a certain morality can be maintained as true.

The socio-cultural deconstruction of truths convincingly shows that it makes no sense to separate moral claims from their social embedding. Even if a claim is universally true, you will see that it is shaped or understood in different ways in different cultural contexts. Contingency is inevitable.

That morality depends on the cultural context implies a relativistic attitude. After all, you can never just say that a certain moral system is better than another because the standards you use to say that something is ‘better’ are also culturally embedded.

But the fact that different value systems coexist and that you cannot just say which of those systems is better does not in any way imply that value systems in themselves have no value; that everything should be possible because there is no truth anyway. That simply ignores the core of human coexistence: we cannot help being moral beings, however hard we try. Every statement we make about how we relate to others is an inherently moral statement.  All our choices and assessments have intrinsic moral connotations.

To me, this is the problem with many of the deconstructivist authors. They pretend to be nihilists, but they are not at all – they cannot. These authors have taken on the task of deconstructing the moral shortcomings of existing social structures and ethical systems: they know in detail what is wrong, but they do not say how this can be changed for the better. Deconstruction remains little constructive, it does not provide insight into how you can organize society to overcome moral shortcomings.

It is not difficult to find out the moral assumptions of deconstructivist writers. In fact, it is usually very obvious. Here too, Nietzsche is copied, especially when it comes to his aversion to the Enlightened faith in reason. He found that with this belief, the passions, emotions and madness that make us human were ignored. He was looking for a morality that precedes thinking, before language. A quest without success − unless you see the madness that struck Nietzsche at the end of his life as such.

Following Nietzsche, everything that tends towards rationality is conveniently distrusted: bureaucracy, technology, expertise, economics, science. These domains reduce social reality to an objectified system that can be described in unambiguous terms. The personal, the individual, the abnormal disappears. Individuals are quickly perceived as enslaved by social structures informed by objectifying knowledge systems.

A second form of criticism has its origin in the work of Karl Marx. He showed how all social structures could be described as an opposition between a predominant and an exploited class. Marx’s opposition revolved around the possession of means of production, but in general it is about the division between those who benefit from a social system and those who are disadvantaged. Moral truths that are used within such a social system mainly aim to legitimize this division or, even better, to make it invisible. If it is taken for granted that women are not equal to men, that there are workers and capitalists, that race, ethnicity, nationality or orientation are good reasons for not having equal opportunities, there is little point in opposing it. That’s just the way it is.

It is the strength of the deconstructivist approach that it convincingly demonstrates in great detail that these truths are not just what they appear to be, but that they are means of reproducing certain distributions. These analyses of truths show the arbitrariness and injustice of social inequalities.

Such an analysis can serve an emancipatory purpose. After all, if you can show which groups are victims of a system, you can come up with recommendations on what should change to achieve more equality. But that does not happen or it happens only in an implicit way. Most deconstructivist scientists stick to their methodological nihilism.

What seems to play a role in this is that social change is hardly enforceable. Resistance is − in line with Nietzsche’s thinking − an individual act, whereby the outsider targets the established order. Such resistance shows that there are deviations from the norm, that society cannot be totally objectified, but how this leads to social change is unclear.

According to Marx, on the other hand, change is inevitable because the tension between the ruling and the submissive class ends in revolution, as the laws of history prescribe. Neo-Marxist authors omit this determinism, but social change, they say, will be brought about by resistance from below. Such resistance will  be suppressed as much as possible by the ruling class. There is also an aversion to representative democracy because it is seen as an instrument for preserving the socio-political status quo.

The corona crisis shows that both academic ethicists and deconstructivist researchers maintain positions that are hardly defensible. We do not live in a nihilistic universe, instead we are, for instance, deeply worried about elderly people who die in an inhumane way − even if we do not know these people personally. Most of us sacrifice our daily routines and their direct interests for the common good, without any hesitation. Nor are we interested in the consistency and universality of the underlying moral concerns, instead we recognize at a glance that others share the same values. Those who fall outside every risk group also know how to empathize with the victims, their families and the care providers. We almost all seem to realize that the arbitrariness of vulnerability can affect anyone.

In almost all countries, the economy has come to a halt so to make the pandemic as manageable as possible. The speed and scale of the interventions is unprecedented, and all certainties and expectations have vanished almost instantaneously. Sure, these interventions are only intended to be temporary, but either way the grip of existing structures and vested interests seems to be much smaller than anyone could suspect. Social change can take place and it can be achieved quickly and drastically. This speed refutes the assumption that social structures are virtually unchangeable; likewise, it is striking enough that the politicians that used to defend the status quo are the same persons that enforced these changes.

But does this whole situation not precisely show the power of science? The knowledge that has come about in an objectified way determines the way in which we live our lives. Our body is not our own, but it is defined by epidemiologists who say what your body is (a source of contamination) and what that body may do (not getting too close to another body). And it is not only science that defines us from the outside and deprives us of the possibilities of determining who we are: you can also see the emergence of a huge regime of surveillance that tries to profoundly influence our actions. Is it not the crux of the deconstructivist criticism that it is the interplay of politics and science that prevents us from being who we could be?

To a certain extent, it is. Many of the measures introduced are also objectionable. In fact, in their responses, countries seem to become caricatures of themselves. Countries are becoming more dictatorial, more populist, more centralistic, more cynical, lax or chaotic than they already were. There is enough reason to remain vigilant.

But the point I want to make here is that a conscious choice has been made as to which form of expertise takes precedence. Virologists and epidemiologists who have warned for years about a pandemic that would irrevocably come, have never been taken seriously. Instead, the authorities preferred to listen to economists who promised prosperity. That has completely changed now. Knowledge about the disease and its spread is more important than knowledge about economic prosperity.

Moreover, this expertise science seems to be needed urgently. Without the knowledge of the virus and the epidemiological spread, no one would know what to do and the consequences would be many times more deadly than they already are. That expertise can only be achieved through the objectification of reality, by looking for laws and universal claims. The question we need to ask ourselves is what science we want to have is it the science that leads to efficiency and the ‘lean supply chains’ that has caused the shortage of face masks or is it the science that helps us in taking care of sick people?

What, then, are the lessons that can be learned when looking at the moral aspects of the corona crisis? How can we as moral beings deal with this situation? First of all, it is clear that this question is answered in terms of values. To be sure, these values ​​are not abstract quantities unsung from the earthly world that can be validated on their universal consistency. Values ​​are concepts with which we give a multitude of situations moral significance, with which we can determine whether we find something good or bad and with which we can compare the certain situations in normative terms. Such values can ​​only arise if they are linked to concrete situations.

In itself you can see the term ‘value’  an empty box, a word without a load. This box only becomes meaningful when it is filled with situations, events, choices. The morality itself is fuzzy, it is not consistent. Of course, it makes sense to scrutinize the definitions of certain values, but it must be remembered that such a value is a conceptual aggregation that includes many empirical phenomena. The goal of ethics should be to study how that interaction between empirics and conceptual aggregation works, not to get stuck in the latter.

Moreover, there seems to be a very high degree of agreement about which values ​​are important: human dignity, equality and justice. The fact that some adolescents, populist presidents and utilitarian scientists are less concerned with these values ​​does not affect the general consensus. Apparently, when developing a collective moral choice, there is sufficient ‘herd immunity’ to tolerate deviations.

At the same time, it should not be forgotten that these deviations need be cherished in themselves: if we put human dignity first, every individual has the intrinsic right to come to his own judgments and to develop his own identity − as long as this does not come at the expense of the dignity of others.

This agreement on the most important values ​​gives cause to relativize a relativistic position, while at the same time it gives cause to give up the search for universal moral truths. We are moral beings, while there are no objective moral truths. We cannot know what is important, we can only choose it and then accept the consequences of that choice as if it was a truth beyond doubt.

Such a choice is not just an individual choice. Values ​​and norms are intrinsically social: they say something about how we want to live together, about what behavior we accept from others and how we relate to others. In short, it is up to us to determine what we consider important as a collective.

In the case of the measures around Covid-19, choices have been made by political leaders; the question is how society itself can make that choice. How can you organize this collective choice process? How do we ensure that given the absence of an objective or absolute moral truth, we, as society, can develop a shared morality? A form of deliberative democracy seems to be necessary here. Only in a democratic process based on the equality of all participants can you arrive at a balanced collective judgment about which values ​​are shared.

A deliberative democracy consists not only of procedures, but also of values ​​and principles that are seen as inalienable. All these values ​​and principles arise from the dignity of each individual person. Whether its equality, justice or tolerance, it all comes down to the simple fact that no person is better than another.

There always will be a tension between consensus and deviation. Constant attention will have to be paid to what exactly equality means in concrete situations. It is precisely within the framework of deliberative democracy that such tensions and such questions can be discussed in such a way that acceptable, but temporary, solutions can be reached. In addition, only the frameworks of deliberative democracy offer the opportunity to the weaker members of societies to directly address the strong, and to demand a fairer distribution of power and resources. Not on the basis of struggle, but on the basis of the values ​​that underlie democracy.

What is the role of ethicists in this? Are they still necessary? Maybe not if they look for moral values that are universally valid ​​or if they conquer the value of values – that would be some sort of decadent intellectualism. However, they may play a constructive role if they become concerned with the question of how to feed this collective choice process.

First of all, it is necessary for ethicists to look at how concrete situations relate to abstract values. As stated above, a value encompasses a multitude of different situations and denotes it with a single word. But what does that mean exactly? How does the interpretative step between situation and value work and what are its implications?

Determining a value is not an end in itself, but guides actions and choices. A value is an evaluation that motivates to intervene. This means that an ethical analysis must not only determine whether something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but especially how it can be improved. It concerns the identification of alternative options for action and the exploration of the consequences of those options.

All this requires not only an abstract understanding of value, but also an understanding of a concrete situation in which a value is in force. To be able to interpret the operation of the application of a value requires an accurate command of the empirics of the situation. Consideration must also be given to the possible consequences of applying a value.

In this, it is important for the ethicist to look at the consequences of her own interpretations. It is crucial that an ethical analysis reflects on itself. One may tend to forget it, but ethicists are people too. They sometimes think they can cling to a neutral position, but that just doesn’t work. What you can expect from an ethicist is that she examines her own assumptions and takes a critical look at the implications of those assumptions. That she distances herself from herself and reconsiders her assumptions and interpretations where necessary. That she enters into a dialogue, both with herself and with others.

Thus, ethicists can help understand values ​​by looking more closely at the significance of assigning values to a given situation and by examining the consequences of this value assignment.

In addition, ethicists can contribute to identifying the preconditions of deliberative democracy. The question is how to organize the process of collective choice-making? This contribution is an extension of the work of Habermas, Rawls and Rorty. Work that has been the subject of much criticism, because either it is not universally valid or it is an legitimizes the established order. Such criticism has hindered the further practical elaboration of these theories, while it seems that that is precisely what is necessary.

These thinkers have been mainly concerned with drawing strict, unambiguous boundaries between domains, such as the public and private domain. They haven’t looked that much at the ambiguity and porosity of those boundaries. Moreover, they often assume deliberation within a static and singular community, but our world is globalized and dynamic. Citizens are increasingly global citizens, but jurisdictions remain nationally oriented. There is still much work to be done.

These ethical projects will become particularly important after the corona crisis. We will need to thoroughly recalibrate our values. Do we try to pick up our lives again as they were before the crisis or do we realize that we want to do a number of things fundamentally differently? Do we place the primacy on the economy and consumption as before or accept a lower level of prosperity?

It also needs to be realized that global inequalities will be exacerbated by Covid-19: poor countries have fewer resources to effectively protect their populations. How should we deal with these inequalities? What is the right policy, what are the right forums to discuss it with?

Moreover, the corona crisis is not the only crisis we are dealing with. Just think of the climate problem, which appears to be just a slower version of the corona crisis. The climate also demands moderation, sacrificing economic growth. The climate is also exacerbating existing inequalities. Climate also demands the way in which values ​​are ranked.

In short, it is inevitable that important collective choices will be made. The processes that lead to such choices must be organized and supported. Ethicists can play an important role in this, but they must climb out of their trenches. The global crisis that we are in the middle of now gives ample reason and motivation to do so.

Further reading:

Habermas, J., & Ben-Habib, S. (1981). Modernity versus postmodernity. New German Critique(22), 3-14.

Rawls, J. (2009). A theory of justice: Harvard university press.

Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


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