One useful thing about this very strange and painful moment: You can pick up the phone and call one of the world’s foremost moral philosophers, and it’s pretty certain she’ll be home to answer. Many of us are stuck at home, contemplating a queasily uncertain future, but some are better trained for this horizon-gazing than others.
Susan Neiman is the author of Evil in Modern Thought and Learning from the Germans, among other books, and director of the Einstein Forum in Berlin. Right now, she should be on a book tour or planning lectures, but her world – like all of our worlds – has shrunk. Her work may be smaller in scope, but it is vast in importance, because it involves keeping a file folder that she calls “Good Corona News.”
“I’ve been really struck by the decency of people to each other,” says Dr. Neiman, when I reach her at her flat in Berlin. (There’s clattering in the background; she may be doing dishes.) “We’re in a situation – and I wrote about this in my book Moral Clarity – where it actually makes sense to assume the best of people. Self-fulfilling prophecies are real things. The more that you assume people will act decently and generously towards each other, the more that will happen. If you start thinking it will be a war of all against all for the sake of toilet paper, well then maybe that’s what we’ll see.”
In the same way that meteorologists might welcome a good storm, philosophers will find this moment useful. How often do things change this radically and quickly? How often do we sit back and allow ourselves to contemplate existential questions, rather than how many carbs are in a plate of pasta?
It is a pivotal moment, Dr. Neiman agrees, and in order to imagine the future, it’s useful to think about what we were willing to consider acceptable in the past. “You look at your calendar from six weeks ago and it makes your heart ache to think about normal life – except what was normal was pretty awful for large portions of the population. I think people are acknowledging that this is a chance to do something about it. Whether we do is up to all of us together.”
The phrase “all of us together” is crucial. There are any number of individual, heartwarming stories that have buoyed spirits all around the world – the taxi driver who takes patients to the hospital for free, the neighbours who organize virtual birthday parties and meal trains for their streets – but it’s not going to mean much in the long run if there isn’t concerted, systemic and permanent change. And that’s going to mean cementing this fragile moment in our memories and actions.
We’re already starting to see how it could go either way. In Hungary and Poland, the governments have used the pandemic to tighten authoritarian holds, while the European Parliament condemns this attack on “European values.” In the United States, while some states struggle to keep their hospitals afloat, others have used the cover of crisis to roll back abortion rights, and the federal government hopes no one will notice if it quietly guts pollution controls.
But there is so much encouraging news for those who hope for a more humane, progressive future. Take the issue of labour rights: For decades, the ability of workers, especially low-wage ones, to engage in collective bargaining has been undermined. The struggles of low-wage and contract workers to organize has largely flown under the radar. Now, people are realizing that the Mount Everest of boxes arriving at their doors are packaged and delivered by people who don’t want to work under gross conditions.
Megan Tobias Neely wrote recently in the Harvard Business Review: “The current moment provides an opportunity to make lasting changes to the status quo and improve conditions for all workers.” She was writing about the American context, but in Canada we’re beginning to understand that we need to pay care workers a better wage and offer them proper job security and healthy working conditions. Quebec’s Premier, François Legault, had to call in the army to help deal with the virus crisis devastating the province’s long-term care homes, and now says he takes “full responsibility” for not increasing care workers’ salaries more quickly.
It’s useful to hear admissions like that – as long as they stick. In the same way, it’s good to know that grocery-store clerks’ and cashiers’ wages are being temporarily increased, both in recognition of the danger they face and the essential nature of their work. But why temporarily? In a year, when there is still danger, will they be less valuable?
It’s not often that the landscape of our world changes before us. It happened on Sept. 11, 2001, and we’re still experiencing the ramifications of the bad decisions that followed quickly after, in the rush to war and the privatization of public spaces. Now the world is changing again in wondrous ways, with foxes wandering boldly in the streets and goats deciding they don’t like fences after all. Visionary cities such as Paris, Milan and Berlin are imagining how urban geography might be enriched with more bike lanes and space for pedestrians (Canada, unfortunately, has not yet seen this particular light, as my colleague Oliver Moore has pointed out).
Any positive change that does follow this moment will require concerted attention and action. No outcome is guaranteed. As Dr. Neiman said before we wished each other good night: “There is a chance to change. Whether humankind is going to take it is another question.”
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