I’ve been a professional philosopher for over four decades. I don’t usually try to pull rank over what look like philosophical claims made by people who aren’t trained in philosophy, but I am going to make an exception here. Why? Because I’ve had it with cliche-ridden “philosophical” drivel, which is offered by people trying to defend obviously unacceptable behaviors, desperately seeking a return to “normal” in the era of Covid. And it’s about to send me over the edge. I mean, if you were an engineer or a doctor or a nutritionist (plug in whatever field you like) and people were making obviously simple-minded pronouncements you knew were misleading at best, it would bother you. And presumably it would bother you a lot more if a lot of other people thought these pronouncements made a great deal of sense.* So let’s see what pearls of wisdom we’re being offered.
When medical people point out that wearing masks in certain public places should be required during a Covid surge, this and other public safety measures are often dismissed as unnecessary with the response: “Well, life is full of risks!” The champions of this piece of news present it as if it were a revelation, a deep truth about life, which they grok, but the rest of us don’t.
But really, is anyone unaware of the fact that life is full of risks? Of course not. Even very young kids know about risks. We calculate different kinds of risks all of the time. Every time we set foot in a car and put on a seat belt, we acknowledge there’s a risk. We are attuned to situations in which risks may exist and we heed warnings. When a lifeguard says that there are sharks in the water, most people get out, even if the probability of any one individual being attacked is relatively low. Risks are many and omnipresent. Walking in a storm carries risks. Going swimming caries risks. Sex carries risks. Getting pregnant carries risks. Going into the military carries risks. Going to school these days carries a risk. I’ll just stop there. The point is so obvious that I seriously doubt anyone would take exception to it.
So, if we all know this, and it has become something of a cliche, what’s the point of having someone, often in a haughty tone, inform us that life is full of risks? We already live our lives in the face of risks, and we calculate, often without much thought, how risky our actions might be, including in such commonplace matters as crossing a busy street. What we’re being offered here is not any kind of new insight, philosophical or otherwise. What we have instead is a cliche masquerading as insight, offered by people who think that they understand something the rest of us don’t, so we need to be taught or reminded. Nay, we need to be scolded, because, you see, we are unwilling to take the risks that that they think—in all of their wisdom—we should be willing to take, and hence, we need a lesson in life.
When we raise concerns about whether enough is being done on public health front regarding Covid, we are met with this cliche about taking risks in one’s life. But leaving aside the absurdity of acting as if this is news to individuals, to state the obvious, this has never been only about risks that may have an impact on my individual life. It’s always been about my responsibility to others (whose risks may be greater than mine). Public health measures are there to prevent people who judge risks incorrectly from bringing harm to others, in this case by spreading a virus. If someone miscalculates about risks in their life, taking too much or too little, we can say, it is their business. But if someone’s risk-taking can lead to harm to others, it is not their business. It is a public health issue.
Focusing on one’s personal willingness to take risks is actually a red herring, deflecting from the main issue during a pandemic: our risk to others and the repercussions for society if everyone only considers their own personal risk. While we can talk about the ethics or immorality of self-harm, ethics primarily involves how we treat others. Don’t tell me about your personal tolerance for risk. Tell me why your risk-taking is beneficial, or at least not potentially harmful, to others.
The cliche about risks and life is often followed by another claim about life, namely, that we need to get on with our lives and live them normally. And what does this claim amount to? I had certain habitual ways of doing things, and now you are asking me to modify them. If I have to modify them, I am not living my life normally. I don’t want to change. Normal is whatever I had been doing.
Approximately 2,500 or so years ago the philosopher Heraclitus taught that you can not set foot in the same waters twice, because the river is ever-changing. This was meant as a statement about change and life, and it too has become something of a cliche. Not only do we run risks, we know that change can’t be avoided. Does any “normal” life not entail changes, many of which aren’t temporary? We encounter a problem that an old habit can’t resolve, and we change, giving rise to a new habit, a new way of doing things. We get a new boss, and he or she wants us to do things differently. We can leave our job or accommodate. Either way, new habits. We go off to college. We move into a new neighborhood. We join the army. We get married. We get divorced. We retire, etc. All of these require much greater challenges to our previous “normal” life than wearing a mask in certain public spaces. Do we typically say in response, this isn’t normal? Or are we more likely to say: this is a hassle, I like this, this is cool, this is not my cup of tea, how am I going to handle this, etc.? The term “normal” here is actually a cover for “I prefer the way things were. Leave me alone.” Okay, but things are not the way they were. There is this virus, see. It mutates. It has changed the game. Your desire to return to “normal” is actually a failure to come to grips with a world that is now different.
And let’s not even get into the obvious cultural blinders: what you consider non-normal is quite normal to a billion plus people living in Asia. But no doubt at some point it wasn’t normal, that is, when masks were first introduced. Then it became normal. Things change.
But there is an additionally galling aspect to this “normal” business. When our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had to change their way of life during WWII, do you think society would have looked kindly on people who said “I don’t want to participate because this isn’t normal?” Of course it’s not normal compared to what existed before. It’s different. And you know what, after the war things won’t be normal again, if you mean by normal what it was like before the war.
There are historical events that transcend our little, relatively parochial, spheres of normalcy. We can choose to deal with them or retreat. But if you choose retreat, don’t dare suggest, as these people often do, that I am risk-averse and unable to live my life. Au contraire, my friend. It is you who are running from reality and life. There is no permanent normal, not it this world, not in this life.
* A word about my criticizing individual behaviors and remarks. The problems we have faced in grappling with Covid are obviously not solely due to ill-informed individuals. People are misguided for various reasons, and in this case, one of them has been the concerted effort to return to business as usual, for the sake of business, orchestrated in large measure by politicians who have been captured by business interests. And this went hand-in-hand with a degree of incompetence and political maneuvering that made the public distrustful of the government. But this is a topic for another piece.
** Do we really have to highlight that public health measures are one of the great success stories of the modern world, helping, for example, to increase longevity? This should not be news. We are made aware of public health measures daily. For example, we are continually warned about the dangers of tobacco, and we are prohibited from smoking in public spaces, because we know that it increases the risk of health problems for non-smokers through second-hand smoke. People are warned not to drink and drive. We require vaccinations for school children, not only to protect the children who are vaccinated, but their community. Recently, we have been asked to mask to prevent the spread of a virus that not only can kill, but can leave people debilitated for months or years. The list could go on and on.