COVID 19 has reversed our values and vices: Was Aristotle right and Plato wrong? Does morality need wealth?

In my professional communities, certain words tend to be viewed as out and out goods (intrinsically good – good in and of themselves we would say in the ethics business).

The pre Covid 19 virtues. These words include autonomy, diversity, individual expression, inclusion and cohesion.

  • Autonomy tends to mean doing what we want to do and that tends to lead to diversity, doing things differently from one another.
  • Inclusion is about a virtue of hospitality or welcome, recognition, enabling all to feel they have a part. Cohesion is about people getting on.
  • Individual expression is about creativity, revealing yourself in the way you see fit.

Of course in truth, these rub up against one another. Hermits who choose to do their own thing don’t want to be included. Diversity can lead to disharmony, not cohesion. But achieving a consistent set of values is easier said than done.

Then we have the pre Covid19 vices.

  • Segregation and exclusion (separating people, keeping them apart in groups)
  • Uniformity (all doing the same thing, conservatism)
  • Communal priority of individuality (where the group tell the individual what to do)
  • Restriction of freedom and modesty (in terms of movement, expression, dress codes etc).

At least these were the designations before Covid 19. Now the vices are virtues and vice versa

Covid 19 Virtues

  • Segregation and exclusion (keeps people safe from each other especially the vulnerable)
  • Uniformity (we must prevent deviation from the safe behaviour which is for the good of all)
  • Communal priority of individuality (individual freedom is sacrificed for protecting the lives of the many)
  • Restriction of freedom and modesty (your own identity expression is less important that keeping others safe).

Covid 19 Vices

  • Autonomy is irresponsible and blatantly harmful to others.
  • Inclusion threatens the most vulnerable.
  • Individual expression undermines the survival of the community.

Context is all?

So much for universal virtues! What is striking is that the virtues or values must be placed in context to be understood. The change in context seems to be behind the changing moral status of these ideas. So does this mean that values or virtues and vices are always contextual because the good life is always subject to the conditions? Maybe Aristotle was right about the good existing in context in this world and not above the world as his tutor (Plato) thought.

And does this mean our old virtues were the produce of privilege (the peacetime, stable and friendly wealthy existence we used to have?). Now we face threats to our safety and security, are the true virtues emerging? Are our old virtues conditional to wealth, which would mean our condemnation of the vices we see in others might just be the produce of ignorance of what it means to live in uncertainty and danger?

Do we now have something to learn from traditions that previously disagreed with the virtues I listed, traditions that praised some of the vices? Conservative religious traditions would not have agreed with my list. Is there something in what we can learn from how Covid 19 changes our perspective that might challenge our preconceived sorting of virtues and vices. As I look at a country which until recently was deeply suspicious of face-covering in cultures and religions, and now see face covering as standard, I wonder: Was there a hidden value to the things commonly judged as vices which we did not see before?

One unpalatable observation from an old Bible story is that the Good Samaritan in the story had money to pay the in keeper to look after the beaten up strange by the side of the road. He was wealthy! Today our Good Samaritans need face masks and PPE or they become threats to others.

Are you feeling uncomfortably ethical yet?

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1 Response to COVID 19 has reversed our values and vices: Was Aristotle right and Plato wrong? Does morality need wealth?

  1. Mark Ryding says:

    I think we can rescue Plato. After all, he too reminds us that context can’t be ignored. He requires you to tell a lie to your neighbour asking for his sword back – in the context of your neighbour having become ill and gone mad! I would have thought, in this time of fear of illness, that Plato’s Republic would be the perfect place to self-isolate as the Guardians would be out every day measuring the distance between people and issuing fines to people ignoring the lockdown. In fact Aristotle’s empiricism has been of very little help this year precisely because we have not experienced this before. Our scientists are making policy based more on what they ‘think’ will work rather than on what they have any evidence will work. Finally, perhaps the problem is with the virtues and vices you identify. They sound a bit BBC rather than Platonic. No BBC programme would invite Socrates, Plato and Aristotle on to discuss Covid-19 because they wouldn’t represent a ‘diverse’ enough panel. And that would be a shame.

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