Thinking ethics in crisis times – a reflection on the Covid-19 pandemic

The outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2-virus has now lead to a global pandemic, followed by a worldwide mobilization to control the spread of the virus and courageous attempts to care for the vulnerable and the already affected.  Of course, the current crisis needs a prompt practical and globally coordinated reaction, but let us use this case to also go into some deeper thinking about the world we live in and in which the current crisis became possible.

The deeper crisis behind the Covid 19 virus pandemic

After all, as also Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri remind us in their reflection on the ‘wet markets’ (the open public slaughterhouses such as the one in Wuhan where the virus started to spread), we should not forget that the emergence and spread of the virus is nothing but a consequence of – in this case – three critical conditions typical for our current co-existence:

  • a concentrated population living in miserable conditions in megacities;
  • the obsession with eating meat without being morally bothered about animal well-being while served by a fucked-up meat industry;
  • global mobility of people.

Global mobility of people is a logic consequence of our human tendency to explore, now supported by transport technology. It has bright sides (discovery, meeting other people, learning about other cultures) and dark sides (forced migration, ecological burden). In contrast to that, there is absolutely no bright side of condition 1 and 2. These conditions are aspects of a deeper crisis behind the Covid-19 virus and they made the emergence and spread of the virus itself possible.

While luckily most of you reading this text are not suffering from miserable conditions in megacities, for us eating meat and the meat industry require continuous moral attention. And if you think that we now exceptionally suffer from a global problem caused by those horrible local Chinese wet markets far away from most of us, then remember the dioxin chickens, swine fever and mad cow disease problems we had to deal with in Europe in the recent past. While the first victims of these malady outbreaks where the preventively en masse killed animals in the first place, it would be very unwise to only see these outbreaks as controllable ‘side effects’ of a ‘civilized’ but – in terms of mass production and treatment of animals – even so fucked-up meat industry. And we don’t know for sure yet what these practices will mean for human and planetary health in the long term. Likewise, for SARS-CoV-2, insight is building up that the conditions in which it can emerge and spread might be due to more fundamental problems such as loss of biodiversity and the destruction of nature in general.

Ethical reflection beyond comfort zones

Ethical reflection requires us to critically think about our own comfort zones and their boundaries, and the Covid-19 crisis now provides us food for thought to do that in multiple respects. As an example, in Belgium, understandable criticism rose towards those throwing a last party before bars would close as one of the measures to slow down the spreading of the virus. At the same time, while trying to make moral sense of the crisis, there is no criticism towards the meat eaters, and many of us would not even think of it as a relevant consideration…

Luckily, we have more time for ethical reflection than we have to tackle the crisis today. Can the meat eater criticize the lockdown partygoer or vice-versa? As well lockdown partygoers as meat eaters construct their own comfort zone. Wanting to gather with friends a last time before a lockdown (aimed to control a virus) is understandable, and not. Eating meat is understandable, and not. In the same way as we have the freedom to gather in a joint comfort zone, we have the freedom to engage in critical reflection about that zone. That last thing will rarely happen (because it’s a comfort zone), also because it is more tempting and easy to criticize the other’s behavior. In other words: critical ethical reflection about our comfort zones has only value if we do it together, beyond our comfort zones. But we knew this already.

The consequent critique formulated within the New Humanism Project is twofold:

  • The meat industry is only one example of how we are today steered and corrupted by a neoliberal market that, by design, is not able to set its own ethical boundaries. Those boundaries would need to be set ‘from the outside’ by inclusive local, national and global politics that is prepared to engage in joint ethical reflection.
  • Today, our current systems of democracy (based on self-interested party politics) and international negotiations (steered by nation state sovereignty) rather hinder than facilitate or stimulate formal approaches to joint ethical reflection. Apparently, it takes a crisis to transcend populism, egoism and profitism for once, and to make a pragmatic temporary deal possible. But then it is already too late, as we see today.

The cause of the current virus crisis is not the Wuhan wet market as such. The cause is rooted in the problematic and outdated political and economic systems of today. These systems made the emergence and spreading of the virus possible, they hinder the proper management of the resulting global crisis and, perversely enough, as Naomi Klein points out, those who like to operate in these systems may even misuse the crisis in their own interest.

In the New Humanism Project, we state that only advanced forms of deliberative politics, supported by reflexive scientific advice and pluralist forms of education, can help us to avoid these kind of crises, and, in general, to make this world a better place for all. If you want to join the discussion, let us know your thoughts on this page below.

So let’s now tackle the crisis, follow the recommendations with regard to social distancing, flatten the curve, research remedies and cures, care for the vulnerable and the affected, care for our medical and other essential workers and care for each other, until this virus is under control. But let’s not forget meanwhile, and certainly afterwards, what brought us here, and let’s set up that joint ethical reflection together.

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