The Banality of Morals

Today is April 2nd, 2020. As of today, the Johns Hopkins University’s Corona Virus Resource Center reports well over 900,000 confirmed cases globally and just short of 50,000 deaths[1]. Compared to when I wrote my last post two weeks ago, this is more than four times the number of confirmed cases and more than five times the number of deaths. Three countries – the United States, Spain, and Italy – now count more confirmed cases than the whole of China, where the virus originated, and the death toll in all three countries has also surpassed China’s.

Many countries have reacted to the situation with sigificant lockdowns, cancelling all public events, closing schools, universities, shops, and restaurants, and confining citizens to their homes. According to recent analysis, these lockdowns have already prevented another 60,000 deaths in Europe alone[2].

At the same time, the lockdowns are creating political, economic, social, and psychological challenges of a magnitude which most countries have not witnessed for decades. While there is still a fair chance that many of the more industrialized countries might be able to somehow manage the consequences in the longer run, the impact will most likely be dire for countries with patchy healthcare systems and high overall poverty levels[3]. So: Yes, there is an imperative to safeguard lives and livelihoods[4] – but we have to face the fact that, globally, both our lives and our livelihoods will suffer from this crisis, either directly or indirectly through side effects from the lockdowns.

An imperative of morals

Given the calamity of the inevitable double loss of lives and livelihoods, questions have been raised like[5]: Are we currently giving up too many basic rights (which might remain restricted even after the crisis)? Are we creating too much damage for businesses (undermining their ability to recover)? Are we making unsustainable tradeoffs of “money vs. lives” or of “(current) lives vs. (future) lives” (overlooking the implications of today’s decisions for the future health of our economies)? Are we putting too much pressure on our communities, our families, and on individuals’ minds and souls (overestimating what people can handle practically and mentally)?

All these questions have one thing in common: They assume that there is a tradeoff. What they all miss is: Right now, there is no tradeoff, because – maybe for the first time in history – communities are following an imperative of morals, and morals, by definition, know no tradeoffs. The moral imperative: “Don’t kill”, means: “Don’t kill” – not: “Don’t kill unless the number of people you kill is less than the number of people killed by your enemy”, or some similar conditional framing[6]. In the case of measures to slow down the spreading of the coronavirus, the more specific moral imperative followed by societies implementing a policy of lockdown is: “Don’t consciously create a situation in which your health system will not be able to provide appropriate health care for all in need”[7]. This moral imperative is logically immune against arguments comparing death rates with corona virus with death rates induced by the flu (or by other causes of death), because under normal circumstances our (Western) health systems are sufficiently equipped to take care of people suffering from flu (or other ailments potentially leading to premature death). And, being a moral imperative, it obliges us to work to create the causes and conditions for our health system to be able to cope with the expected number of people needing treatment in hospital and in intensive care – both by expanding the capacities of our health systems and by limiting the number of people needing treatment.

Morals Are Boring

Unfortunately, following an imperative of morals is generally not very exciting. Walking the earth not killing, not cheating, not stealing, not lying, and not ever desiring what others have makes for a rather uneventful life that is unlikely to become the material for a nobel prize winning novel or for a blockbuster television series. Similarly, staying at home to refrain from potentially catching and distributing the corona virus is unglamorous – despite all attempts to turn #stayathome into a fancy hashtag or to drum up activities like collectively sewing breathing masks at home. And working in supermarkets, delivering goods, keeping production up and running, or caring for patients in hospitals these days is not very glamorous either – it’s hard, tiring, and potentially dangerous work.

Not only are morals mostly boring in general, but the particular kind of behaviour currently required from us by the moral imperative is even more boring: Most of us are waiting. On an individual level, sick people are waiting for a cure, people who tested positive are waiting for symptoms to set in (or subside), people with symptoms are waiting to be tested, and all of us are waiting for infection numbers to go down. On an institutional level, hospitals are waiting for the waves of sick people to ebb – or are waiting for them to come, if they haven’t yet arrived; businesses are waiting for supply chains to recover – or waiting for them to break down, if they haven’t yet cracked; governments are waiting for lockdown measures to take effect – or are waiting for them to be needed, if they haven’t yet been decided on.

Morals Cannot be Measured

In addition, the effect of following the moral imperative of our times cannot really be measured. We will never really know how many people did not die because of the lockdown measures. We will never really know how many people did not fall sick because of the lockdown measures. We will never really know how many people were not exposed to a potential infection because of the lockdown measures. Or, as the German virologist Christian Drosten put it in a recent podcast: “There is no glory in prevention”[8]. This immeasurability makes it impossible to factually quantify any of the tradeoffs described above – and thereby makes the morale imperative impossible to deal with for all those who are used to working with key performance indicators, growth rates, or bottom line impact.

Morals cannot be measured – not only in this particular case, but in general. Nobody can walk around with daily, monthly, or annualy increasing stretch goals of getting better and better at “not killing”. We cannot embark on a global competition of who’s best in “not lying”. None of us can outshine their neighbour in not wanting their house, husband, pet dog, or toilet paper. However, our society is used to measuring everything all the time – from GDP all the way to individual steps taken on a given day. Pursuing a goal that cannot be measured, we feel helpless because we lack our usual means of putting things into perspective. In that sense, maybe the hashtags of #stayathome or #maskeauf are understandable attempts to overcome unmeasuraebility by at least visibly showing compliance with the moral imperative.

Morals Are Demanding

Finally, unfortunately, morals are demanding. Every single one of us know how hard it is to really stick to “not killing”, “not cheating”, “not lying”, and the like – already as an individual and on a purely individual level. Right now, well beyond the individual level, a multitude of states have convened on following the moral imperative of not creating a situation in which their health systems will not be able to provide appropriate health care for all in need. From an ethical standpoint, this is an honorable stance, and it is tempting to interpret what is happening as a sign for a general shift towards a higher importance of moral considerations in the future[9].

However, sticking to the moral imperative beyond the immediate requirements of the corona crisis will be a challenge: If we are serious about not creating situations in which our health systems will not be able to provide appropriate health care for all in need, what about those people within our societies who are not sufficiently covered by health insurance? What about differences in treatment depending on what people are willing and able to pay? And right on our European borders: What about our moral obligation to provide approriate health care for those waiting in the refugee camps in Greece, in Turkey, and beyond? And on other continents: What about our moral obligation to help those in need in any region of the world? The moral imperative is demanding – and has no mercy. Once we adopt it for the smallest sliver of our world, it ruthlessly expands to all of humanity – and beyond.

All in all, there is something frighteningly banal about morals. They are mostly boring, and they readily escape all attempts to measure them in the ways we are so used to. At the same time, morals are extraordinarily taxing. They are highly demanding already on an individual level, and they readily expand to become all-encompassing and all-pervasive when applied by societies. With all this, the question might actually be whether we collectively manage to both endure the banality of morals – and live up to their highest demands.

Or, as Vladimir puts it while waiting for Godot: “Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. […] But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”

[1] For daily updates on numbers, I have switched from the World Health Organisation’s Coronavirus Dashboard to the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Map, as the former – while most likely more accurate in the longer term – tends to lag behind due to delays in their formal reporting processes [all sites retrieved Apr 2, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] See this article on a recent study reported on by The Economist [retrieved Apr 2, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT

[3] See, for example, last week’s lead article in The Economist, as well as several other articles in that issues [retrieved Apr 2, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT

[4] As framed in [3] See, for example, last week’s lead article in The Economist, as well as several other articles in that issues [retrieved Apr 2, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT“>this insightful white paper published by my former colleagues at McKinsey & Company [retrieved Apr 2, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT

[5] You’ll all have come across articles and posts raising one or several of the following questions across newspapers, online news sites, and social media. I’m refraining from singling out any specific authors or arguments here, as the specific twist of their respective stories doesn’t make a difference for what follows here. BACK TO TEXT

[6] Of course, ethics know all the dilemmata resulting from such rigid principles, especially when they conflict with other ethical principles. Philosophers have debated such issues since the inception of moral theory. If you’re interested, read up on the moral discussions around killing tyrants – or on the more recent discussions around how to “teach” autonomous vehicles whom to spare when the choise is between killing a child and killing a senior citizen.BACK TO TEXT

[7] In some countries, there are legal matches to this imperative. In Germany, for example, not following this imperative on an individual basis would probably be considered equal to the (legally punishable) “failure to provide assistance”, i.e. the duty to help somebody in need.BACK TO TEXT

[8] This quote is taken from podcast 24 (March 30, 2020) of Christian Drosten’s daily corona virus update provided by Norddeutscher Runfunk [retrieved April 2, 2020].BACK TO TEXT

[9] One of the more thought-through optimistic scenarios of a post-corona world that crossed my timelines is this article published by Matthias Horx in mid-March 2020. [retrieved April 2, 2020].BACK TO TEXT

7 responses to The Banality of Morals

  1. Very good, very interesting! And for moral being one of my favourite subjects I think that on the long run it never works if it is an (often) restricting rule you better follow but it has to be filled with inner meaning – a personal decision to act like this will make it a lot easier to deal with the boring aspects. On a higher level that may be from many points of view also the challenge of this days: how willing are we to put our own needs not first?


  2. Joanne

    again thanks love you sharing of wisdom and reflections. We had just a very hot debate at our virtual dinner table as our youngest is just back and in quarantine in our house about the moral of kidnapping plaines with mouth masks destined for France by the Americans on the tarmac.
    Which about us versus them morals and about value of contracts and given word versus money

    Similarly I think there is at a European level just a last chance to put moral at is as Europeans versus them the other countries ‘they spanish or Italians..

    It is only if we can morally think about solidarity wider ( from city to region nation and continent) that we will be able to think beyond our western world

    Keep writing and sharing


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