Published in Age of Autism. April 25, 2020
Seated with the five children around the dinner table in the summer of 1957 my father presented us with a puzzling observation. He said when the Good Lord had created all the animals he decided to create one more. This one would walk upright and would be gifted with the capacity to reflect. And then our father added, “Children that is what He should not have done because He created a weird species”. I often think of his comment in the bizarre days we presently go through.
We could have seen this coming. We could have known that one day in whatever form Mother Gaia, whom humans had made very angry, would retaliate. But we preferred to be not prepared, busy as we were running together towards our extinction. All the signs were there but we sat paralyzed as rabbits in the lights of the upcoming car. The weird species is now hastily cooking up all kinds of beautiful scenarios on how different the post-corona world will be. We offer each other generously pseudo-philosophical reflections about how beneficial this period is for us, how we turn to our inner selves, and how we focus on the here and the now. Few dare to say that what is now called the “new normal” is not normal at all. We are social animals and not made for life in isolation, we are touchers, kissers, and huggers.
It seems to me a mistake to believe that we will act in fundamentally different ways after the pandemic. In her great study on human history “The March of Folly”, Barbara Tuchman showed us that humanity does not learn from its own mistakes. We do not have the moral courage to face mistakes and change course. The international community made a solemn promise after World War II: “Never again!”. The ink of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had not yet dried up and we began again to kill each other massively. Of course, there are worldwide moving and encouraging signs of cooperative behaviour but that is always the case in moments of great catastrophes. The weird species does indeed have an altruistic side but it is a thin line that separates this from our selfish genes (Richard Dawkins).
Even if one does not expect that fundamental transformation towards a more human world is a realistic option, we may still learn from this global epidemic. It is conceivable that the virus confronts us with one of our most nasty characteristics: the weird species is an arrogant species. Arrogance is our most evil problem: white is better, male is better, rich is better, human is better than animal, private is better than public, winner is better than loser. Our obsessive arrogance seems to me to be the result of our ontological anxiety. We are the only species that knows life leads to death, but we do not know when and how the sentence will be executed. In particular news media have rendered anxiety a shared perspective on life. For the first time in history millions of people can watch simultaneously stories of fear and crisis. For global audiences the media create a world that is dangerous and in which things may be getting worse. Media do not create people’s sense of risk and danger, but they amplify the disposition to expect that things will work out the wrong way.
Our deepest worry may be that the human being is the most useless animal on the planet. That we are expendable and that in spite of all our achievements we do not matter. If we become extinct we will be the only species that will mourn our demise. We are morally not better or worse than non-human animals and yet we are so arrogant! Especially in our relation with the earth system. Humans are the leading force in killing other species at a rapid rate. Humans may -as the most powerful species – think of themselves as the centre of the planet but are increasingly unable to control it. It is debatable whether, as Pope Francis states in “Laudation Si: On Care for our Common Home; encyclical (Vatican, 2015) ”nature is our loving sister”. Clive Hamilton may have better cards when he writes in “Defiant Earth” “Now when Mother Earth opens her arms it is not to embrace but to crush us”. Hamilton argues that we no longer have to save nature, but we should save ourselves from nature and from ourselves. The interesting conclusion is that we are not any longer free to treat the Earth as we please. Our enormous power comes with an unsettling moral responsibility: we no longer can choose between dominion or stewardship. We must understand that the forces that were expected to bring us more freedom, more equality, and more civilization also brought disruption of the earth system, lethal arms systems, unprecedented ubiquitous surveillance and a tweeting culture that effectively erodes whatever minimal deliberative social processes we had developed.
Maybe the corona epidemic manages to confront us brutally with this human arrogance. I deeply admire the healthcare people but how little do they know! The medical profession has to admit that in spite of brilliant minds and big labs it does not know how this virus did originate, how it spreads and how it can be cured. A smart virus has beaten us on all scores! We have no medical answer, but equally no psychological, paedagogical, economic or moral-philosophical answers. We do not really understand how to deal with the pressures that the current crisis confront people with. How to cope with a social distancing when physical contact is a biological necessity? How to live without the flow of oxytocin that is released in our brain by direct contact with others? And, arguably the most pressing concern is about children: citizens of post-corona societies. Did we sufficiently test -against the interests of children-, all the measures that governments propose, such as lockdown strategies (a.o. the closure of schools), the social distancing (a.o. the prohibition to visit grandparents), the surveillance initiatives, the stress caused by the constant media reporting on dying people, and the belligerent public discourse that focuses on “the war against the virus” and our people in “the front lines”? Most of the measures, however well intended, would probably not stand up against the provisions in the International Convention on the Rights of Children. This is actually a much broader issue as most of the government measures around the world amount to restrictions of fundamental human rights. Among the rights that are violated are the right to family life, the right to education, and the right to assembly. Governments have an obligation to respect the rights of individuals and groups of their societies. However, this obligation is subject to limitation clauses which means that governments may derogate from their “obligation to protect” if this is strictly required by the national situation. Among the basic conditions for a permissible limitation of fundamental rights are an official declaration of the state of emergency and a notification of this state to the pertinent international bodies and other states party to the relevant legal instrument. It is also required that there are judicial guarantees for a regular review by national courts of law. This is somewhat problematic since courts -however critical of limiting rights they may be- tend in emergency situations to loyally follow instructions of their governments. It is essential that restrictions of human rights must be justified by demonstrating pressing social needs. It is at this point that we need to seriously look at how governments justify their Corona prohibitions and the fines and arrests they impose for those defying these prohibitions. At present I do not see governments offering solid arguments based on scientific evidence for their measures. Justification seems to be primarily based on televised virological babbles and their echo-chambering by government officials. Subjective political preferences are taking the place of a transparent, democratic exchange of different views. Even if these get a lot of popular support, they do not justify limiting people’s fundamental rights. I do think that our arrogant claim to superior knowledge stands in the way of the much-needed critical inquiry and dialogue.
A major scientific finding of the 20th century has been to discover how little we know and that most of our scientific inquiries are not driven by knowledge but by ignorance. And yet, in all our scientific endeavours we continued to claim that we are the single proprietors of the ultimate truth. This allowed us to deal with other opinions in very condescending ways. It is possible that once confronted with the limits to our knowledge we may realize that criticism of those who take alternative routes (for example in medicine) and raise fundamental questions about accepted wisdom (on such issues as for example vaccination) should be based upon more certainty than we presently have. The acceptance of our failures also opens up the possibility for moral reflection. If we were perfect we would not need moral guidance. It is precisely in the weaknesses of the human condition that we need to reflect on the moral choices we make.
Our current situation can be summed up –paraphrasing Merleau Ponty– in this metaphor: Together we are in a dense fog on our way to a goal that we do not know and that may not be there. On the way we don’t know what we are doing and do what we do at random. With this ignorance it would suit us to humbly and patiently listen to each other and to the confused discourse of the world. This way we can walk together towards a world where people can interact in humane ways. We will have to walk towards that world in the company of a weird species.
Maybe my father was right but the Lord, or the blind watchmaker or genetic evolution decided otherwise and so the best we can do is to walk together (holding hands as soon as this is allowed again) with the other members of our weird species. It may be, as Richard Dawkins has argued, that we are genetically disposed to selfish behaviour. However, early in our evolutionary history we discovered that hunting for game and especially big game had its own specific requirements. Coordination and cooperation were absolutely essential for the fitness of the group of hunters. Even more important than cooperative hunting was sharing the meat which was a source of good feelings and positive socializing. Efficient cooperation was good for all members of the group and therefore it paid off to encourage generosity. Although there seems -today- to be more cultural support for ego-centered competition and greed than for sharing and altruism, the global youth rebellion- with iconic figures such as Greta Thunberg, may be an important sign of changing times. The good news is that we can learn altruistic behaviour: we have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth as Richard Dawkins wrote. The good news is that (as Charles Darwin proposed) we can rise above our origins and can extend positive feelings to all human beings. The good news is that this weird species is the only species on earth that can transcend its shortcomings, recognize its ignorance and defeat its arrogance!
Cees J. Hamelink, studied moral philosophy and psychology of religion and is emeritus professor of global communication at the University of Amsterdam. He continues to teach as Athena professor of public health and human rights at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. In July 2020, his 19th monograph “Communication and Peace” will be published by Palgrave MacMillan. Professor Hamelink is also a jazz musician. Among his albums are “September”” and “Sharing Shearing”.