Where to from 2020?
The pandemic is just one of many horrors afflicting the world as we exit 2020. How should we respond? What are the ethics?
When I was young, my grandmother told me the newspapers were full of just two kinds of stories: horrors and jokes. A quick scan was enough to prove her right. The jokes were of course welcome relief, but even they were sometimes tainted by horror, as in the case of cartoons which were designed to show us the absurdity of the latest piece of politics or economics.
Times since then have changed and yet remain the same. By any reckoning, the year 2020 was one of horrors. The COVID-19 pandemic was not only a disaster in itself but it also highlighted many of the pre-existing failings in our society, whether at the local or national level or indeed the international. Groups that were in any way vulnerable, like the poor, aged, unemployed or underemployed, were hit with particular severity, while whole industries and economies, built on fragile assumptions about continuity, collapsed. The human race was unprepared and paid the price.
The pandemic was, to use a well-worn but apt expression, merely the tip of an iceberg. Here are a few salient points:
More than a tenth of the world’s population live in extreme poverty – and this while billions enjoy a life of affluence
Around 80 million people are forcibly displaced – effectively refugees
Up to 1 billion children aged 2–17 experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect in the past year
2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, as individuals in 64 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties
Total global military expenditure rose to $1917 billion in 2019, the largest annual increase in a decade
Global grain yields have declined by 10 percent from heatwaves and floods connected to climate change, unleashing hunger and displacement, while over 1 million people living near coasts have been forced from their homes due to rising seas and stronger storms.
COVID-19 has been a grievous setback to the world in many ways and so it is no wonder that most people are eager for a better time post-2020. Reality is, however, that there are massive problems of other kinds all around the globe, some of which are exacerbated by the pandemic. Climate change, extreme poverty, violence, militarisation – the list goes on. We can choose to go with the flow, so to speak, returning to the status quo once COVID control measures have done their work, or we can aim for something better.
Times of stress like this can be an ordeal for many reasons. Every day we are confronted with the unfairness of it all, some people bearing huge burdens, others suffering only mild inconvenience. The stress is compounded by the uncertainty – when will it all end and what shape will we be in when that day comes? So we are driven to asking yet again the basic questions about the purpose of our own existence. The easy way is always an option, but there are powerful reasons why we should go down the more challenging way, orienting ourselves to the wellbeing of others no less than our own. The waste of life and suffering of 2020 and beyond should not be in vain. We should set our sights ever higher and strive more zealously than ever to end not only the pandemic but also the other causes of suffering around the world. For why bother to live if we cannot make life better – for everyone?
And so on.
None of these is new. They are current manifestations of age-old human failings of ego and greed, allowed to run rampant by lesser failings such as fear and apathy. An advanced civilisation should have mechanisms to counter these failings: organisations, laws, budgets and the like. But even these mechanisms are in trouble. A particularly disturbing development is the decline in democracy, not a universal phenomenon but widely spread and apparent in major nations like the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, India and Brazil. Add to this the rise of authoritarian states like China and North Korea and we have real problems.
Can we as a race do better? Of course we can. We need, however, some steadying, some pause button to make us stop and think and reflect. We need to consciously ask ourselves what we want to make of our lives and our world, and what do we have to do to get there.
Why should we bother?
Why should we bother to challenge the way things are? Why should we not just go with the flow? This, after all, is a time-honoured approach that has enabled millions to survive and even live tolerably comfortable lives. Two answers spring to mind. These lives, regeared, could have been better, and secondly, whatever our own personal circumstances, we are all in this together. We can never avoid the fact that we humans are a collective, responsible for each other as well as for ourselves.
All of this gets down to the simple question of why we are alive. More broadly, why does the world exist at all, and why, as the 17th century philosopher Leibniz wondered, is there something rather than nothing? Different systems of thought have suggested answers, but the reality is that no one knows because no one can know. We simply have to accept that we and other forms of life exist, and we have to make the best of it.
This may seem not very satisfactory, for at some point we need a firm foundation for moving ahead from day to day. The foundation, I think, comes in two forms. Firstly, we can say we exist to keep the whole show on the road; less colloquially, our function in life is to maintain the ongoing process of creation. This avoids further hypothesising about the reason for existence in the first place, but it at least explains the next step down, which is why we in particular – you and I in the 21st century – exist. The word “function” is a bit weak, for it simply describes what we do – procreate and so on – rather than actually say why, but it’s at least scientifically accurate.
The second point to make comes from the fact that, as mere mortals who weren’t around at the big bang or the inception of life 10 billion years later, we can at least make up our own purpose in living. We have this freedom. An atheist would say this is absolutely the only possibility. A person of religious faith might say there is a divinely ordained purpose, but I as a 21st century person from the Western tradition of individual liberty say: this is for each of us to choose.
Introducing freedom of choice is, at first blush, wonderfully liberating and invigorating. You can choose your own purpose for living and so can I; we are (presumably) both happy. One response might be that we each make our own choices according to circumstance, and that what we say today might be different from what we say tomorrow. I have no quarrel with this, though I think in practice we probably have a more or less consistent approach to life in which we say X is our reason for living, not Y. Many would say their purpose in life is to be happy. Others would say their purpose is to make the best of themselves in a chosen pursuit, such as tennis, or designing computer games, or making money on the stock exchange. Others, perhaps not so many, would say their purpose is in general terms to serve – to serve their family, their community, their faith or whatever. For myself, purpose in life is to make the world at large, including myself, better, kinder, more gentle.
I’ve introduced the word “gentle” here for a reason. In 1968, US Senator Robert Kennedy announced to a shocked crowd in Indianapolis the assassination of Martin Luther King, exhorting them to rise above the horror:
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and for our people. We must rid ourselves of all division, hatred, violence, and lawlessness if we are to survive as a nation. It is our capacity to love and have compassion for one another that will build the nation our forbearers had in mind. We can rebuild our nation one person at a time. Remove the disdain and division from your hearts and let’s work together. It is up to all of us to make this country a light for the world to see.
So if you ask what is the meaning of life – our being alive – my answer is this. I do not know, for no human can know, why the universe came into being, why Earth, why life, why human life, why you or me, but we have it as given that we are here to perform a biological function, that is, to further the work of creation. How we choose to do so is the purpose we make for ourselves. It is the purpose we create for ourselves.
Robert Kennedy’s purpose, which I’ve adopted for myself, is not one to be accepted without question. Consider again the alternatives. When we choose a purpose we do so with reference to a number of variables. Ones that come to mind most readily are self versus others, giving versus getting, and action versus inaction. A focus on the self will most likely mean simply that I (the self) will want to be, above all, happy. A focus on others will mean that, while acknowledging I have my own needs and wants, I put those of other people before my own, whether they be family or community or society as a whole. Thus, for example, my purpose in life is to be a good partner and parent. A focus on giving will follow the decision we make on the self/others spectrum: do we want to make a lot of money or give away a lot of money, do we want to develop our own abilities or help others do so. A focus on action will mean that we are seriously purposeful, not content to treat life as one big holiday (if such were possible). And behind all this there is the scope of our ambition, whether or not we want to want to be small all our lives or to rise up and make our mark – once in a while at least.
Who is to say what is right and what is wrong? There are indeed plenty of people with claims to make on this score – myself included. Ultimately, though, we make our own choices anyway, so the best that pundits like me can do is to make suggestions. The most important decision we make in life is whether we live for ourselves or for others, or for ourselves and others. Quite naturally, perhaps unavoidably, we put ourselves at the centre of decision making, but this does not mean we have to be guided solely by self-interest. To do so would lead to a very narrow life experience, one where we cut ourselves off from feeling for others, not sharing their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows, and so on. There are people who do this and are sometimes quite successful in their closed ego-driven existence, people who thrive on power and property and the exclusion of others. But isn’t it more natural and healthy to embrace the wholeness of life and to draw others into our own experience of living?
Not all bad
Fortunately the picture around the world isn’t all bleak.
We can take comfort from the fact that, over time, we have refined our sensibilities so that now we see more clearly that certain things are wrong. Not only that, but we have made laws to proscribe them or limit their effect. We have found ways to protect ourselves and the vulnerable amongst us through institutions of one kind or another. The coronavirus has tested the effectiveness of some of these institutions, in ways that have been unexpected. For example, some democracies have found it possible to impose controls over citizens that normally would not be countenanced but that serve to protect life and overall wellbeing. By general consent, civil liberties have been judged as a lesser good than life itself, or health, or the imperative to put food on the table. Some countries have had a different experience, of course, so that as a race we now have a diversity of stories from which we can learn, hopefully ensuring things are done better in future.
But laws and rules and budgets and other institutions are only part of the story. In the end it comes down to individual human behaviour which, when aggregated, makes or breaks society. Clearly the better angels of our nature (to use the words of Abraham Lincoln) have partially withheld their favours; there are some horror stories, including stories in the most unlikely places. One salient example is the widespread refusal by politicised Americans to wear masks or take other simple, commonsense measures that would slow the spread of the coronavirus.
I return to my earlier point, that we can do better, but only if we consciously ask ourselves what we want to make of our lives and our world, and what do we have to do to get there. This is a process that should involve everyone, for we are all participants in the present and most of us will be our own heirs in the future. If we don’t learn lessons from 2020 and enact those lessons, two million lives will have been utterly wasted and many more will have been damaged, needlessly.