Updated: May 4, 2021
Philosophers often take consistency as a requisite for reasoning. It is unreasonable to have a belief that something is true or right in one instance and then contradict that belief in another instance. For example, what would you make of a person who avers the coronavirus is like the common flu and then in another instance avers that it is not like the flu?
If there were a lack of good reasons or context to explain the pivot in belief, then such a person would not be very trustworthy epistemically—in terms of being an accurate source of information. And this distrust would even apply morally—if the lack of accurate information resulted in disrespecting or disadvantaging the livelihood of others.
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a great deal of pressure on many of our social beliefs and practices. And while it is not uncommon for contradicting beliefs to be present in a society (given that there are many individuals with differing ideas), it may be helpful to underscore the significant kinds of inconsistencies emerging from the pandemic. Far from being cynical (though I admit to having such a streak), highlighting contradictory beliefs and practices can help us to gain a critical perspective . . . perhaps with a view to initiating some much-needed changes.
In no particular order . . .
(1) Essential Workers
When lockdown conditions ensued in early Spring 2020 for many Northern Hemisphere countries, it became readily apparent how important healthcare and essential service workers were. During difficult times, it helps to show solidarity with those who are keeping essential services functional; and Britons famously displayed their appreciation with a “Clap for Carers,” which has interestingly returned this winter. Though such acts of solidarity are well-meaning, they often risk concealing real issues with respect to the sacrifices such workers make.
Enthusiasm for essential workers risks substituting gratitude for proper compensation. A May 2020 study from the Brookings Institute found that the majority of US healthcare workers, who were not doctors and nurses (or 20% of the healthcare workforce), received a low wage (or a median of $13.48/hr). While there have been some attempts at making improvements in the US and the UK, significant, meaningful, and long-lasting change remains elusive.
(2) Rent Collection
Landlording has been engrained in Western Societies well before anything like the study of economics arose in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even then, economic theory was part of the moral and practical sciences. It was David Ricardo (1772-1823) who first and most famously gave formal expression to the theory of rent and who less famously raised some skeptical questions about whether or not landowners should be collecting rent for private consumption.
Today, nonetheless, the private consumption of rent is seen to be a democratic institution and, depending on whom one reads, an integral ingredient for individual freedom. There are good reasons to be critical of the current form of landlording; but for our purposes we need only note that this conventional practice has come under serious skepticism and criticism during the pandemic. This is because the private collection of rent has been shown to be parasitic on wages.
Consider how in both the commercial and private sectors, businesses and tenants have had trouble paying their rents. Why? Businesses lack the footfall and sales to pay normal fees; and many tenants are simply out of work.
Imagine if there were no landlords at all?
Apart from the provision of some capital improvements, there is not much else that would be lacking. The remote working conditions of the pandemic have, of course, changed how businesses are thinking about office space. It gives cause to wonder whether we need landlords at all? They may express a right to rent as a result of owning a title to a plot of land; but that seems quite arbitrary in “the grand pandemic of things”.
(3) Crypto- and Digital Currencies
The wave of the future . . . or not?
The need for contactless payment has meant many of us have stopped paying in cash. We either use contactless credit cards in-person or conduct business online. Part of this wave of change has highlighted cryptocurrencies as the future of exchange. Often touted for its lack of regulatory and institutional bias, its transparency of record, its anonymity, and its facility for conducting transactions, cryptocurrency might seem a good candidate for the future of exchange.
However, most cryptocurrencies are designed as speculative assets rather than as a medium of exchange. This is due to the limit set on how many units of currency can be produced. Having a limit on their “printing” makes them ideal for pyramid-like speculation and impractical as a medium of exchange for a large population.
Digital currencies, on the other hand, are generally controlled by central banks or governments. There is no fixed limit to their printing. Yet, the fact that they are controlled by a central authority means that the benefits offered by cryptocurrencies vanish. Digital currencies can be used by governments to control how its citizens spend (by putting time or commodity limitations on the capacity for exchange) and to monitor how its citizens are behaving (by keeping a record of how digital currencies are spent).
For an excellent discussion on the differences between crypto- and digital currencies, see this Back Story podcast.
(4) Radical Change in Society
Do you remember how quiet and serene the outdoors became during the initial stages of lockdown? Birdsong was more prominent. Streets were open for pedestrian meandering. If you lived by an airport, you may have noticed how the drone of jet engines was replaced by a sense of solitude.
Fitness-wise, more people were active outdoors when permitted—walking, running, open water swimming. Economically, many businesses quickly adapted to remote working conditions on a permanent to semi-permanent basis.
Yet, despite glimpsing what can be beneficial for the present and the future, we often find ourselves missing and opining for the old familiar things. We might have enjoyed the solitude brought by the absence of cars on the road, but we also miss taking our drives in the city or country to see sites and visit others. Instead of embracing the freedom and potential work-life balance that remote working can offer, some businesses insist on a “big brother” system of monitoring workers at home. Moreover, working from home can in some instances mean shirking a duty of care for one’s employees. Often employers do not provide proper equipment for the home office. There is also the significant problem of how women are still, for the most part, the ones who lose out in remote working scenarios since childcare tends to default to them.
(5) Trust and Distrust in COVID-19 Vaccines
Most of us tend to believe that proper vetting of medicine and vaccines takes a long time simply because the process of testing the efficacy of drugs is laborious—epidemiological studies of different groups of subjects takes time to monitor; and ruling out any external factors or mechanisms that might influence results is always a concern.
Assuming that political interference or bureaucratic incompetency does not compromise clinical trials, it seems that the length of time invested in testing a drug is due largely to indifference and competing commercial goals in the industry.
So perhaps we should not worry at how quickly the COVID-19 vaccines have been approved?
(6) Existential Crisis
This last item is positive. Crisis tends to be paralyzing, especially when daily routines, resources, and habits are disrupted or eliminated. The economic crisis brought on by the pandemic was paralyzing at many levels—individually, job losses and business closures; collectively, inflation or higher taxes and a drop in production.
A September 2020 study of the US economy by the Brookings Institute notes:
COVID-19–related job losses wiped out 113 straight months of job growth, with total nonfarm employment falling by 20.5 million jobs in April [ref. omitted]. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic shutdown created a crisis for all workers, but the impact was greater for women, non-white workers, lower-wage earners, and those with less education.
Nonetheless, crisis can also be invigorating and motivating, especially the existential kind. Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) is famous for his notion of grenzsituation, or ultimate or limit situation. By this he intended to capture those moments that are so shocking that they elicit an existential fight or flight response—either crawl back to what you find safe and familiar; or embrace the situation in order to understand what changes you need to make.
So the economic crisis of the pandemic has, by way of existential crisis, proven a positive event for many people who have decided to venture into new careers. When the familiar breaks down, and one is not entirely satisfied with the familiar to begin with, so comes the opportunity to strike out and take those first steps towards radical change.
I am a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. I was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, I am also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, I can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.