How the coronavirus can help us reclaim the virtues of self-sacrifice and prudence

“Should I wear a mask to the grocery store?” is one of the new questions about our responsibilities to others. Photo taken outside a business in San Francisco on April 11. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)“Should I wear a mask to the grocery store?” is one of the new questions about our responsibilities to others. Photo taken outside a business in San Francisco on April 11. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

It is hard to have a conversation these days where Covid-19 is not the center of the story. Yet it is a terribly uninteresting protagonist. It has no personality of its own and no desire beyond replication of itself. We are the interesting ones, and we make sense of our stories not by asking about survival but about what it takes to live well.

But living well is controversial these days. The protests to lift social distancing orders have encouraged debates over competing goods, such as the economy and physical health. Ordering groceries online raises the concern of asking some to bear risk while others can stay safe. The prospect of using technology for contact tracing requires that we consider whether we are willing to give up privacy to achieve a public health goal. On one level we are all simply trying to figure out the right thing to do, but our choices, individually and collectively, reveal who we are and whom we want to be. This crisis can make us feel that we are the objects of other people’s decisions, but as I wrote in a previous column (“We must not allow the coronavirus to rob us of our humanity. How can we (safely) preserve it?”), reclaiming our agency is a spiritual task as much as it is a temporal one.

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On one level we are all simply trying to figure out the right thing to do, but our choices, individually and collectively, reveal who we are and who we want to be.

A simple question such as “Should I wear a mask to the grocery store?” is most obviously about the epidemiology of disease transmission. But if we step back, we might see the embedded questions not about doing, but about being. What is my responsibility to others? What kind of culture do I want to help create? How do I reasonably preserve the health I have been given? One thing that makes us interesting is that we will answer these questions differently, and negotiating those differences is central to the beauty of living together.

We view many ethical questions through the lens of utility: How can we achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people? But this method can lead to the abandonment of certain groups, like the elderly or disabled, whose value is not fully captured by cold calculation.

Another way of thinking about right behavior is to establish the universal behaviors we can ask of everyone. If we identify these, the thinking goes, everyone will have a shared understanding of what others expect of me and what I can expect of others. This model is less troubling than that of utility, but these rules simply ask for a minimum, rather than offering guidance on the aspirational nature of how to live well.

We have rediscovered the oft-ignored and eldest daughter of ethics: virtue.

As the pandemic continues to raise new questions of how best to live, it seems we have rediscovered the oft-ignored and eldest daughter of ethics: virtue.

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Communities across the world have heralded the heroes of this crisis, most notably our health care workers. We are grateful for their work, but what we are really celebrating is the virtue of self-sacrifice. It is the same virtue we are all asked to exhibit when we stay home even when we would prefer to be with friends. The frustration people feel when some in our social circles refuse to physically distance is not just that they are breaking a rule or a concern they may be spreading the virus. It is a belief that they have fallen short of a shared virtue we believe we need at this time.

Perhaps the most sought-after virtue at this time is prudence. We have had to make many consequential decisions in the midst of the unknown, so we instead have relied on practical wisdom. Some might view closing churches before the epidemic was raging as cowardly; others may suggest that any gathering in the near future is reckless. Getting it right will not simply be a matter of calculating costs and benefits, or of finding some universally applicable rule.

Instead, what we all long for most, from our leaders and from those close to us, is prudential judgment. In the coming months, this will manifest itself most clearly in those who can make the distinction between what I can do and what I should do. We will respect reasonable differences in how to move forward, I suspect, if this mother of all virtues animates our decisions.

The pandemic has also helped us see more clearly that some ideas masquerade as virtues. Chief among them are the twins of tolerance and certainty.

In addition to self-sacrifice and prudence, one might name hope, temperance and fairness, among others, as key to living this crisis well. There is also the virtue of excellence, demonstrated by a range of professionals and volunteers from virologists to supply-chain managers.

But the pandemic has also helped us see more clearly that some ideas masquerade as virtues. Chief among them are the twins of tolerance and certainty. Some may define tolerance in a way that emphasizes respect or understanding, but more often it simply means putting up with or allowing another to do what they deem best for themselves. That does not work in a pandemic, but neither should it be lauded when the stakes seem lower. The same is true for certainty, where good dispositions such as confidence and faith can be twisted into a militant conviction of one’s own position.

Instead, the virtuous person appreciates that there is truth to be had while recognizing how elusive it actually is. Virtue works particularly well in moments of uncertainty because it keeps us from thinking the world is perfectly predictable. It recognizes that reality changes us and we change reality, as we have seen in the constantly adjusted models of Covid-19 mortality made in response to successful social distancing.

If we are just looking to stop the spread of the virus, we will eventually do that with science. Yet it seems we are longing for something deeper. If we merely seek to return to the world we knew before the virus, we will have missed a generational moment. Instead, we can name the false virtues we see more clearly now and resist their allure in the years to come. Even more essential, we can commit to virtues that have been undervalued—self-sacrifice, excellence, prudence—and remind each other that they are the key to stories worth telling.

[Explore all of America’s in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

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