Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Virus is not a moral beast.

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It is not wrong to learn from events in our lives. If we carry a heavy box and drop it on our foot it is reasonable to see this as a lesson to ask for help with heavy loads in the future. We have experienced what might happen if we don’t ask for assistance. The distinction between this “looking for the lesson” in unfortunate events, and treating unfortunate events as a moral message from nature, the universe, or God must be made. This is especially so with diseases like COVID-19. We must not ignore the amorality of the virus’ behaviour, the amorality of solutions to the pandemics spread and the consequent responsibility we ourselves have, to insert morality into the choices we make in response to the pandemic.

When I stress the amorality of COVID-19 this should be obvious. The virus infects people with no right or wrong to it. It doesn’t seem to be as easily caught by children, but not because it recognises their innocence or views their deaths as any kind of greater tragedy of lost opportunities. Likewise COVID-19 will cause death and calamity among the poorest people far worse than for wealthier groups who can afford to isolate and who have greater access to clean water and medical care. But COVID-19 is not in favour of the rich. It is not opting to be crueler to people of colour who have a greater risk of death from the disease and a harder time avoiding it. Neither is it concerned about not being racist or concerned about treating people of disparate wealth fairly.

We need to note the amorality of COVID-19 because there are powerful psychological forces encouraging us to give it a moral dimension. We ask ourselves, “why is this happening now to this generation of humanity?” and for those of us lucky to live far from epidemic epicenters “why am I spared?” and the immediate answers are not particularly satisfying. Viruses are a part of this planets evolution. The periodically move from other species to us, particularly at the intersection of wild animals and humans. This virus spreads through human proximity and the modern world is a crowded place with extensive movement between nations. Human population density and travel within and across countries produce, from the virus’ perspective, a connected web of habitats over the earth. Spreading is inevitable.

But spreading is also not inevitable. A society which housed its homeless, encouraged workers to use their universal sick leave and had a strong responsive health system would drastically reduce the spread of the virus. We could say the virus is telling us to reform our society or suffer the consequences. We could say the virus is a wake up call that the health of everyone depends on the health of the least of us and our economies should reflect that. Except there is a problem with this conclusion because it is also possible to conclude that a society which normally restricts human movement, tracks who you talk to and forbids gatherings of ten or more people, while incarcerating the homeless is also protected from any future diseases. The virus might be a wake up call that we cannot tolerate certain human liberties.

Attributing either of these moral conclusions to the virus is what existentialist philosophy calls an act of bad faith. There is a choice to be made as to what lessons should be drawn from the pandemic and the choice belongs to us. When we attribute that lesson to the virus, to fate, God or the universe it conceals our moral choice and responsibility. We think this leaning on the virus as authority strengthens our arguments but it simply locks us and those who disagree with us in positions of polarised difference. By trading facts about the virus as if they were themselves political arguments about how society should be, we politicise the facts or at least what they mean and we hide our own biases. I don’t think we should hide a bias against death camps and for public housing myself – we should argue that bias explicitly.

Such biases are necessary because nature is not designed for us. Sunsets are not beautiful to amuse us. Leaves don’t fall in piles for us to play in. We can find sunsets beautiful and play in piles of leaves but it isn't their intent. If nature is attacking us, in the form of the virus, it therefore does not mean that we have done something wrong. We have not necessarily acted incorrectly. It is true that there are generally patterns of co-operation in nature as much as there is competition, if not more. It is true therefore that when the world becomes more inhabitable for any reason we should check our own interactions with the world for causes. But it's also true that what is incompatible with accommodating nature is not necessarily bad. It might make life harder for our species if we extend human life regularly beyond sixty. It might create vectors for viruses in immune compromised senior citizens. It doesn’t make it wrong.

A particularly dangerous type of bad faith is when the virus is attributed to an angry deity. When this is done any motivation that suits the speaker can be ascribed to the deity; it doesn’t even have to relate to how the virus behaves. After all, God could send a plague of locusts for completely unrelated crimes and their priests would be required to tell us the meaning of the catastrophe. I listened to a lengthy Christian sermon expounding how God is displeased with impiety and irreverence and especially liberalism in the church and has therefore sent the virus as a broad chastistement and reminder that they, with a view that corresponds to the preachers own, are to be heeded. Of course this interpretation comes from people who thought that acknowledging Jesus as God, complete with conservative affiliations, was a good idea before any pandemic. I suspect if I listened to the sermons and speeches of people of all manner of beliefs I would find someone in each case saying COVID-19 is a call to plead to their God for mercy and align oneself with their Gods views. The virus enables the speaker to pretend the message is not from them.

When this bad faith is criticised we shouldn’t expect critics to be able to answer “Why couldn’t this be God saying something?” Proving a negative is nigh impossible. Why couldn’t the virus be a coded message from aliens? Why couldn’t it be an ex-partner trying to get me personally? Why couldn’t the pandemic be something I willed into being with my own psychic powers when I thought I might get sick? Such a question shifts the focus of the conversation. If the critics doubt that the virus came from God this can be labelled a refusal to permit God to act freely outside the critics own definitions of morality. That refusal and its theological arrogance becomes the new topic for dissection. Meanwhile the bad faith act of using an amoral virus to claim a moral message from God (in support of the speakers own views) escapes scrutiny.

We are all tempted to tolerate bad faith speech when it supports values we agree with. If you tell me that this pandemic is nature encouraging us to slow down and smell the roses I might think a death toll in the hundreds of thousands to be an extreme way to communicate this but I still like the sentiment. As I scroll my social media feed I might be tempted to give that idea a thumbs up, even more so if you think that the virus is a call to look out for the vulnerable in society or to cease the trade in wild animals. I am more likely to recognise bad faith claims when they disagree with my values. If the virus is used to push values I like however then I have opened the door to it being used to communicate all manner of ideology.

It's true that we should learn from this pandemic. We don’t want to be here again. We don’t want to repeat scenarios where a UK nursing home has a secret room for bodies and lacked PPE for staff or see the levels of panic and distrust that leads a man to try and crash a train into a hospital ship docked in New York. Or watch footage of Iranians licking surfaces because of their faith in Allah to protect them from the virus while the elderly just collapse in the street. There is a lot to be proud of our response to the pandemic and quite a bit that we need to reassess. All I am urging is that we own the choices and values we bring to that conversation rather than claiming they are revealed in the pandemic itself.

You could conclude from all I’ve said so far that God has no place in this conversation. Certainly a God who speaks to us in storms and whose wisdom is divined by priests should be dismissed for the puppet they are. For one thing, why did they fail to warn their priests about the toilet paper shortage? But the people who are stitching face masks for front line health workers include people inspired by their faith as well as atheists and agnostics. Just like the Sikh foodtrucks during the bush fire crisis there are people whose God urges them to volunteer and to advocate for others in the midst of this pandemic. Such a God is not one whose morality is reflected in the pandemic but one whose morality must be inserted into it. Such a God resembles and inspires our own creativity and invention and ultimately our moral responsibility. I tip my hat to them and their followers.


  1. I generally agree with your main point here Tony. The idea that we should try to discern some mysterious message from God in this pandemic is not really a biblical idea and it can be co-opted to mean whatever you particularly want it to.
    When Jesus referred to natural disasters and accidents, he didn't suggest that they were meant to be particular messages from God. He calmed storms, but didn't give those storms a particular moral reason for arising. He also spoke of earthquakes, famines and plagues as common occurrences that will just continue to happen until he returns and we shouldn't be alarmed by such things.
    The one place that Christians often point to is where Jesus talks about a tower accidentally falling on some people and draws a moral lesson from the disaster (Luke 13:1-5). But I actually think this story backs up your point. Jesus doesn't suggest the tower falling was a message from God. He in fact stresses the point that the people who died were not particularly deserving of punishment. They were just like us. The point he does draw from that tragedy seems to be that life is fleeting and you never know when you're going to have to stand before your Creator and give account and so he says "Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:5)

    All this isn't to say that I don't believe God is in some way in control of all natural occurrences. As Jesus also says: "Yet not one [sparrow] will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care." (Matthew 10:29) and the entire bible is full of references to God's Sovereignty over nature. At the very least we can say the bible clearly teaches that God knows about all disasters past present and future, and They are able to prevent them or redirect them if They willed. So a Christian can never really let God "off the hook" by claiming They are not in control of the Universe.

    Also, it is clear in Scripture that some natural occurrences are not natural at all, but directly sent by God. The wind that blew and separated the Red Sea and the plagues (that you reference in your image) are perfect examples. But the people didn't need to guess whether or not these were a message from God. God spoke and told them that it would happen before it happened and said WHY it would happen.

    This is why I agree with the main thrust of your argument in the article. I think in the absence of God specifically saying otherwise, we should not speculate as to if there is some divine message behind this pandemic. If it is from God, then God will use it to achieve Their purposes without us needing to know about it. And if God sent it and we are meant to know God's specific purpose, then I say that responsibility to communicate that purpose is on God's shoulders, not ours.