In April this year my dear friend and colleague Jen McWeeny published a timely and insightful piece entitled “New Existentialism for Infectious Times” (https://www.europenowjournal.org/2020/04/27/a-new-existentialism-for-infectious-times/) in which she draws parallels between our current circumstances and what Simone de Beauvoir’s debut novel She Came to Stay explores, namely, a situation of social isolation. The moral of the story in Jen’s piece is that, much like de Beauvoir’s heroine Françoise, many of us have come to discover that self-sufficiency and individualism are overrated, verging on what existentialists like Sartre labeled “bad faith” which leads to inauthenticity. Instead, we need to embrace our ambiguity, fragility, and inter-dependence which will allow us to live authentic lives. “We are not passive observers to an unfurling history, but captains of meaning who can determine a different future through honest reflection and authentic action”, Jen concludes.
While I couldn’t agree more with her analysis and sentiment, I would like to add a few thoughts of my own. We are, undeniably, social beings; herd animals, if you will. We come into this world with the help of others, and we share lives with others until the day we die. Self-sufficiency is often glorified by us because it has to do with the sense of control over our environment, including other people. We fear that which we cannot control. But of course, one doesn’t have to be a trained psychologist to quickly realize that control is one of those “necessary” illusions that keep the veil of reality on. As a very wise man once said, “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing it.”
What Pascal seems to be getting at is that there is a core contradiction in us, humans – we run heedlessly toward that which we fear the most: the abyss. But what is the abyss? The realization of the imminent fragility of human existence which the current pandemic has only made more prominent? As a typical philosopher, my answer is “yes and no”. The way I see it, vulnerability is the human condition. It is something we cannot escape and the more we try, the more we fail. But try we do! Sometimes, at a high cost. The moral psychologists call it “the anthropomorphizing-dehumanizing paradox”. We tend to anthropomorphize all kinds of things – non-human animals, human-like machines (e.g., robots), and in some cases, viruses. We think of these human-like entities as having goals, emotions, and even reason. While at the same time, we dehumanize human agents – the marginalized, the ill, or simply, the other. When we dehumanize, we tend to stay away from, project our fears onto, shift the blame toward, isolate ourselves from, and ultimately, ostracize them.
I believe that social conditions make us who we are, and the current conditions are rife with opportunities for the thriving of the paradox. But when you think about it, we have, actually done really well so far. We have taken steps to curtail the pandemic, we have remained, for the most part, cooperative, and most importantly, we continue to exercise prudence. Can we do more? Can we do things better? Of course! But let’s not forget that this hasn’t been the first, and likely, won’t be the last global challenge that we, as a species, have faced. The important thing is that we have learned and continue learning from our past successes and failures. Prudence has always been considered a virtue, an exercise of what ancient Greek philosophers called phronesis (practical wisdom/reason). Practical reason requires that we know how and when, and toward what or whom to apply the general (moral) principles, or laws. In other words, practical reason allows me to judge for myself without falling a victim of propaganda or ideology. For many thinkers, phronesis is at the heart of morality.
But there is another side to it which is often ignored. In order to function in reality, especially when it comes to the moral reality, reason needs the help of empathy. Empathy opens the mind toward the nuances of the other’s circumstances, allowing the subject to contemplate other points of view as well as alternative possibilities, without bias or contempt. Exercising prudence doesn’t mean thinking about the preservation of myself and my family only. It means that I am thinking about the safety and happiness of the other, too. And so, without sounding overly auspicious, it seems to me that we deserve to hope for a better future. To paraphrase the famous saying by one of my favorite philosophers, Immanuel Kant: reason without empathy is blind, and optimism without judgment is empty.
Friday, May 29, 2020