Updated: May 5, 2021
In many countries, lockdown conditions are easing up. In others , lockdown conditions are returning. Is this pattern inevitable?
It is tempting to answer “yes” after seeing many leisure spots being inundated with visitors, mostly ignoring social distancing. It is very easy to be angry, disgusted, disappointed, or frustrated by this. So why can't social distancing work on a more long-term basis?
In this blog, I want to focus on constructive ways to think about being the change that is social distancing. The aim here is to try to illuminate a positive path forward to mitigate being caught on the emotional pendulum swinging between lockdown and freedom.
Let’s take a concrete instance of social distancing—wearing a mask.
Let’s assume for the sake of this blog that the science is uncontroversial with respect to the benefits of wearing a mask for both the wearer and others when in crowded or enclosed spaces.
The question that I would like to pose to each of us:
“How do you be this change?”
How can wearing a mask be a normal habit as opposed to an awkward imposition? (Think of how shopping with your re-usable carrier bag became a habit.)
Here are a few ways to think about how this change can happen:
Behaviorism, or the idea that we ought to find some way to change the behavior of citizens by incentive or sanction. The strength of this approach is that although we often like to think of ourselves as the rational animal, most of our actions are motivated by things absent of reason and logic. Reward and punishment work very well as behavioral motivators.
The weakness of this approach is that in addition to treating us like children, it does not really say much about doing things for the right reasons. Is desire for reward or fear of punishment the right reason?
It was the philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her book The Human Condition (1958), who argued that behaviorism creeps in as a dominant force when there is an absence of a shared understanding of what is good. In short, the lack of moral and ethical cohesion creates a space in which something more basic determines action.
Individualism, or the idea that I am responsible for my own safety and well-being and perhaps also to those most immediate to me (e.g. family). The strength of this approach is that it requires a small scope of concern and is most likely easier to manage than having to rely on and deal with others. It’s perfect for a certain kind of misanthrope, and it seems endemic to the American psyche.
The weakness of this approach is that it relies on a misguided sense of autonomy. That is to say, the individual does indeed rely on other people. Without a community and social infrastructure, you’d lose the conditions for individual existence—save in the situation of Robinson Crusoe. Or consider how individualism often feels viable until one suffers an unexpected loss or setback from which no individual by him- or herself can recover. A pandemic might be a good example of this.
Solidarity, or the idea that if we unite together for a common cause, we can get through it. The strengths of this approach are its application of will power to get something done and the resulting sense of collective identity.
However, solidarity is not always a good thing, as when it is directed towards an end that is questionable, or if cohesion within a group means ostracizing others. With respect to mask wearing, I worry that a strong sense of solidarity can become unthinking and indiscriminate, judging too quickly that those who differ or depart from what is expected are in some sense immoral or, dare I say, unpatriotic.
One of the above may be appealing, but let me dwell on another option.
Virtues and Wearing a Mask
Let us return to Hannah Arendt who argues that some kind of ethical or moral sense needs to be present and living within a community for it to do things for the right reasons. A significant component of most ethical theories is virtue.
A virtue is a quality or trait that enables one to accomplish what is deemed good or praiseworthy. Courage is a typical example of a virtue. Moreover, as some philosophers will argue, exercising a virtue also enables one to understand why one is acting in such a way. This is because when being virtuous one reasons how to exercise that virtue. To be courageous in public speaking and to be courageous in sport often involve different applications of courage.
Another interesting thing about virtues is that while they are individual, they also provide a means for connecting with others. Being virtuous is often a performance that others can see. As visible, it can therefore create a bond or common link with others. This is often referred to as a shared understanding of what should be done and why.
Much of what I have just said speaks to the weaknesses I noted in the other approaches. But in closing, let me just provide an example.
Respectfulness seems to be a virtue that could be decisive during the pandemic. It involves closeness as well as distance. Closeness in terms of recognizing another as an equal in some manner. Distance in terms of acknowledging their individuality. Arendt captures this coincidence in terms of the idea that we are all equal because we are all unique.
The exercise of respectfulness in today’s climate might thus emerge in terms of a practice that could recognize another as deserving respect yet keeping them distant. It might just result in a practice of wearing a mask. In wearing a mask, one respects the health of another and treats him or her as an individual by keeping one’s distance.
No incentives. No sanctions. No extremes of individualism or solidarity. Just a reflection on and development of one’s own character as a way of relating to others.
To be sure, virtues require cultivation and practice; but we do tend to have more time on our hands, these days . . .
As Ty Webb (Caddyshack) might have said on this occasion, “Be the change . . . “
Todd Mei is Senior Lecturer and Head of Philosophy at the University of Kent. He runs the public philosophy website philosophy2U.com and is a keen windsurfer and recovering rock climber.