Moral Character and Purpose in the Face of Absurd Adversity

Who do you want to be? Can you be depended on in humanity’s COVID-19 crisis?

Posted Mar 26, 2020

Nikki Zalewski | AdobeStock
Source: Nikki Zalewski | AdobeStock

"What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise."

So concludes Albert Camus in his now more-prescient-than-ever 1947 novel The Plague, which imagines the modern French Algerian city of Oran severely afflicted by a return of the rat-borne plague. Camus describes very well our present situation and the differing expressions of human nature in times of crisis and profound personal threat.1

Among Camus’s characters is Dr. Bernard Rieux, a practical man at the front lines of battling the epidemic, who says “I have to tell you this: this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” Which, he explains, means “doing my job.” Another character, Father Paneloux, the Jesuit priest, tells his congregation that the plague is God’s punishment for their sins, but then is at a loss to explain the death of a child. And then there is Cottard, an unstable and secretive man who seems happier during the plague than at other times as everyone else now shares his usual state of fear, and who profits from the outbreak by running a smuggling business.

Who are you? Who do you want to be?

Do you want to be the person volunteering to shop for the elderly and delivering meals? Or the person hoarding enormous quantities of supermarket items far beyond your personal needs, contributing to shortages for everyone else? Do you want to be the small distillery owner redirecting your business to produce alcohol-based hand-cleaning solution and selling it at a marked-down price, then donating the money to food banks? Or do you want to be the guy buying up 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer to sell them at a huge profit on Amazon and e-Bay (and arguably worse: the people issuing death threats to him)? 

We’ve all read countless examples of human altruism and “random acts of kindness and generosity” during this outbreak. Such as the British woman who answered a Facebook plea from someone she barely knew, driving eight hours to collect a stranded immune-compromised student from a university in Manchester to bring her to the airport as other transportation options were shutting down. Or the Chicago high school student who launched a campaign to help classmates whose families struggle with food insecurity. Or the “Caremongerers” group that started in Toronto and rapidly spread across Canada, quickly attracting tens of thousands of volunteers in a network of Good Samaritans looking to donate whatever kind of help they can to whoever needs it, especially seniors and those most at risk amid the outbreak. Or the computer experts who have offered to help the less technically savvy set up home offices during the pandemic, at no charge. And the millions upon millions of small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness by ordinary people, not only toward their own family and close friends, but toward neighbors and strangers.

But then there are the psychopathic predators and people just lacking any moral compass—computer hackers, fraudsters and cyber scammers. Such as those using phishing emails or voicemails claiming to be from a Public Health Agency providing test results and prescriptions, then asking for personal information and credit card numbers. Or the malicious ransomware app preying on people’s anxious need for COVID-19 information. And all manner of scams exploiting people who are desperately looking for ways to protect themselves.

Irrational beliefs

In every crisis, there are charlatans and snake-oil salesman peddling miracle cures to the vulnerable and gullible. And there are true-believers touting their “alternative therapies”—the practitioners often as credulous and well-intentioned (but scientifically illiterate) as the people paying for those therapies.

Let’s not forget how human superstition and irrational beliefs in credulous cures are what enabled COVID-19 to jump species in the first place. But don't be smug and judgmental about other people’s irrational beliefs, as we all have many of our own, and we are usually blind to them. This is a general human tendency, not one peculiar to any group. Another illustration of our common kinship. 

And what to say about the Florida spring break beach revelers flagrantly ignoring pleas by public health authorities for social distancing? Are they selfish? In denial? Ignorant? Or just succumbing to the irrational, youthful belief that they are invulnerable and immortal?

Also inevitable in every crisis are the conspiracy theorists. These individuals typically feel ever so smart and superior in their perception that everyone else has fallen for the conspiracy, while they have uncovered it. Yet they are completely oblivious to how transparently they reveal their own credulity and their complete lack of intellectual sophistication, in the utter implausibility and ridiculousness of their ideas.

A little more benign but still disingenuous and self-serving are the types of individuals who pose online as famous, credible people, sending emails with fake subject lines such as “Beautiful message from Bill Gates” to ensure it goes viral. Trying to promote their own ideas of inspirational, motivational sentiments, but reflecting an underlying agenda—in this particular case pushing the old trope that everything happens for a reason.

Caring for and relying on each other in an indifferent universe

All the big questions of the human struggle in an indifferent universe are brought to the fore by this pandemic. Are we humans sufficiently cooperative and rational to depend on each other, to master nature and to flourish together? We have evolved through blind forces of natural selection2 to have both cooperative and competitive instincts, selfish and altruistic tendencies, compassionate and aggressive drives.

Among other things, COVID-19, and Camus’s fictional imagining of just such a scenario, captures a societal dynamic dubbed “the tragedy of the commons.” (The original version of the concept describes a scenario in which herders allow their animals to overgraze on common pasture land, thus ruining it for all of them). People must act against or limit their own self-interest for the greater common good, or tragic outcomes ensue—depleting or spoiling shared resources. We are already familiar with this problem on a global scale with climate change. Only cooperation, collective action and self-restraint can preserve and grow our shared resources and enable us all to survive, and ultimately to flourish and prosper together. People vary in their propensity to cooperate and in the strength of their moral character. They vary in their self-control, their altruism and their integrity.

A common finding in tragedy-of-the-commons research, according to one expert, is that roughly a third of participants act as selfless leaders, using whatever tools the experimenters make available to solve the dilemma of cooperation, roughly a tenth are selfish exploiters of any cooperation that arises, and the balance are guarded cooperators with flexible morals.3

Importantly, culturally evolved moral norms, many of them informal, can and do powerfully shape human behavior. Social pressure is a potent force, and reputation matters a lot to most people, encouraging the better angels of their nature to prevail. Coercive institutions such as police and courts are not required nearly as much as many people assume in the reinforcement of cooperative behavior, though those institutions certainly do have an important role to play. Religion is an ancient form of large-scale institutional societal control, a predecessor to more evidence-based and democratic institutions. Coercive institutions are more effective when they themselves are the product of culturally evolved moral norms and are reflective of the social consensus, established by a democratic social contract.

California Governor Gavin Newsom recognized the powerful role of social pressure and reputation when he said he didn’t expect police will be needed to enforce his stay-at-home social distancing order in the current COVID-19 outbreak, saying, “We will have social pressure and that will encourage people to do the right thing.” Enlightened officials in other jurisdictions in democratic countries have said similar things.

Sense of common purpose

People need a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. We are motivated when we are working toward a cause larger than ourselves. COVID-19 presents just such an opportunity, as do other longer-term collective human endeavors, like combating climate change, and more generally improving our collective quality of life—pulling together in a global collective human project to increase human flourishing. Our sense of purpose comes from caring about our fellow human beings in an indifferent universe. It comes from understanding that random adversity can strike at any moment, and from understanding that we have only each other to rely on.

Who do you want to be? Can you be depended on when it matters most?

References

1. One criticism of the book is that it focuses almost exclusively on male European characters, in a setting in which that demographic would have constituted roughly a quarter of the population at the time.

2. And through the often underestimated parallel sculpting influence of sexual selection.