A starting point on this issue is quite difficult to identify. There are simply too many different levels of analysis to take into account when thinking about such a broad-scale issue. I suppose, however, that all of these levels of analysis can be categorized into three overarching meta-principals: morality, psychology, and politics — the latter most, in essence, an after-effect of the former two.
My personal experience in the world is emblematic of these overarching principals. When I first heard about the coronavirus, it simultaneously flew off of my radar and it continued to do so for several weeks. I simply knew too little about it, and it was too far away from my geographical location for me to care. Likewise, I — like many others — have grown to be averse to consuming television news, due to the polarized state of American politics — my media intake for several years at this point has almost entirely been that of books and podcasts. The reaction I had was never articulated: I never explicitly said or thought, “I don’t care; it’s not my problem; we’ll be fine/unaffected by this,” but these cavalier platitudes were implicitly manifest in my actions. Or, rather, my inaction, characterized by a complete lack of worry — a perfect continuation of the normalcy of my life, unmediated by protective measures.
As someone who genuinely cares about science — which, in this instance, makes me sadly (given that it is 2020 and over half of the U.S. population still does not believe in evolution by natural selection, to give an example) anomalous amongst my fellow Americans — my attitude about this outbreak immediately changed the moment I heard leading scientists from John’s Hopkins and Yale discuss the severity of the situation. However, I cannot help but be retrospectively jarred at how unconcerned I was about this problem — and for that matter, just at how normal this lack of concern was. My reaction — and the reaction of countless others — has been exemplified by the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in his book Against Empathy.
Bloom makes the case that empathy alone is not enough to constitute an effective/practical ethical system and that it, in fact, is counterproductive in the creation of such ethical systems. This is due to the fact that the most pressing of ethical issues — like that of the coronavirus — are those that entail the suffering of countless people. And insofar as the term “empathy” is defined as putting yourself into the shoes of others, psychologically speaking, it is impossible to have empathy for countless people. Cognitively, we are limited in our capacity to empathize and it is a cap that is reached far before we start speaking about large groups of people. Empathy is extremely egoistic: it puts blinders on big-picture ethical issues and only has the capacity to extend itself across individuals, not groups; show us statistics of large numbers of deaths from disease and we merely wince and then go about our day; however, show us a picture of one child afflicted with this disease and we will begin to take moral actions to help this child. The data shows that the more children that are in such pictures, the fewer people feel morally moved by them. On top of this, the further outside of an individual’s kin one is, the less amount of empathy will be extended towards them — and nothing is further outside of one’s kin/psychological-capacity for empathy than a large scale group of people who are far away.
Hence, America’s deranged response the moment the coronavirus became a domestic problem. While it is doubtful that empathy was the motivating factor behind our incompetence to react and our incompetence in reaction, — as, in the case of America, it is flat-out egoism that has caused this, not egoism masqueraded in compassion — empathy would have failed us. At the very least, this has been a failure to utilize Bloom’s moral solution to empathy — i.e., rational compassion, whereby, instead of making moral decisions based upon emotionality (selfishness, empathy, greed, etc.), we make them through rational deliberation, whereby the outcomes of such deliberation entail that when we try to act in the “right” way, we try to ensure that it establishes a context where the least amount of suffering possible is produced — has cost us more than we can afford — economically, morally, interpersonally, etc.
What living in a crisis like this has taught me more than anything, is the Utility of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Our national and local government-imposed restrictions on civil liberties have been the only impetus for the majority of Americans to readjust their behavior accordingly. Given how haphazardly such readjustment has been — evidenced by the patent fear of the masses, compounded exponentially (beyond what the facts warrant) by the media — it seems that, quite frankly, the government has still not done enough. We are, as a society, slowly ripping off the bandage — prolonging and intensifying the suffering with our approach. Cases of the coronavirus are still increasing in rapid numbers, and accompanying this, panic is ensuing.
Our approach is, in essence, Hobbes’ Leviathan-lite, which in a way is like the politics of Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza’s politics is fundamentally parallel to that of the American constitution only what Spinoza calls “sages” will act according to reason without coercion/governmental imposition; most other people need some sort of coercion. This is as clear as ever now. What is most reasonable ethically at this moment in history is total quarantining (see China’s report of no new domestic cases, and a return to normalcy, as a result of their government-imposed total quarantining) — a quick ripping off of the bandage, so to speak. So few people are totally self-isolating, that the effect of it is negligible. Indeed, a fair bit of the people who actually are self-isolating are those who cannot — due to an ailment or disability — leave their homes. The noble sages of our age are far outweighed — a banally forlorn understatement — by what Spinoza referred to as those in bondage: namely, he majority, who are characterized by emotional reasoning, swaying of one’s decisions by external forces and have little control over the outcomes of their lives. This is the essence of human nature at its basis. It is our default mode. Spinoza’s solution to this is complicated, but it takes a lot of ascetic and moral work at the individual level to turn a person from bondage into a sage (or, as Spinoza would rephrase it, a “free man” who acts according to reason, not according to passions that are wholly unmediated by reason). So, in turn, we must cut people some slack: being a sage is quite rare, and becoming one takes a lot of psychological and ethical work.
In moments like our current pandemic, though Spinoza’s solution of American style constitutional-republicanism is inadequate — it leaves far too much room for the masses to deviate from what reason warrants (i.e., as much social distancing as possible — which, in reality, the optimal outcome is short-term total social-distancing.) Without imposition from the government, the populace will continue to give higher precedence to their own selfish immediate needs. Most cannot even see that it would be rationally selfish (moral or not) to totally self-isolate — it is in our rational self-interest to totally self-isolate, because it will allow us to return to normalcy at a more rapid rate.
I digress; however, we can see in this the ineptitude of our government’s response, which has consisted of voluntary self-quarantining and the closure of “inessential” businesses. The Leviathan — i.e., total governmental intervention — is warranted in the short-term here. Such voluntary impositions are simply a get out of jail free card for those — i.e., most Americans — who are still nonchalant enough to put continuing their normal lives on a higher moral pedestal as (1) the lives of potentially millions of people and (2) the long term potentiality to have a normal life. The masses will take advantage of democratic latitude and in doing so, extend and deepen an already deep and expansive crisis. Without a greater external force (a Leviathan), human self-interest (which at its basis, is not rational when it comes to large-scale ethical issues) will take precedence over rationality.
The worry is that this is a totalitarian level stripping of freedoms. It is true, that in some sense what is being proposed here is a form of authoritarianism. But in the short term, we need to sacrifice our freedoms and liberties so we can preserve them for the long term. Our thought, speech, and religion will not be infringed upon. If we yield our right to move to the state for the short-term, our hikes and adventures in the long term will flourish. In essence, we need to re-learn — and for most of us, learn for the first time — delayed gratification. Otherwise, we will not have another opportunity to do so for a long time, let alone return to normalcy again soon.