“I was not prepared for how many people are willing to let others die rather than suffer even a moment’s inconvenience.” This tweet went viral a couple of weeks ago. Even more despairingly, the author of the original tweet wrote a follow-up: “I have always known these people existed. I have always understood that this sort of callous cruelty was as much a part of human nature as is nobility and sacrifice. I was not prepared for how many of these people there are.”
I found the weightiness of this assertion and the extent that people were flying in to agree striking. They all agreed that Covid rule-breaking was a sign of the heartlessness of humanity. People replied saying they had ended friendships because of it. Some replied that this – this realisation of the general selfishness of the people around them – had been what had taken the biggest toll on their mental health, greater than any other aspect of the pandemic.
Do you agree with this? It’s such a bleak view of the world – the idea that people are mostly selfish and inconsiderate. It is worthwhile to note that these commenters were essentially saying there is this mass of society that is uncaring and then there is them: the few who have survived the onslaught of capitalistic competitiveness and retained a concern for others.
The issue is that there is an intuitive logic to what they say. A large proportion of us, especially young people, have broken rules in the knowledge that rule-breaking is a large part of the reason we see headlines of ICU beds filling up and thousands dying. The truth is if you have been indoors within 2m of someone from another household without a mask at any point within the last year, you have broken the guidance. There are sometimes excuses but a great deal of us have done so fully accepting that this is how the virus spreads, and realising that, in truth, our need to be doing this does not outweigh the harm we may be causing.
Many of us have stared the facts in the face and transgressed anyway. Thus, the tweeters conclude, human nature is marked by “callous cruelty”. Yet this kind of selfishness is not exactly a revelation. Nobody lives a completely selfless life. For almost every luxury you ever purchase, you could have donated that money to charity, and the good that it would do for the recipient would surely outweigh your gains from a meal at a restaurant or a new pair of shoes. Another example is the acknowledgement by many people of the harms resulting from eating animal products while continuing to enjoy eating such products.
If you press people on why they don’t give more money to charity, though they could, or why they don’t go vegan, though they could, in spite of the fact that they may think these things would be the right thing to do, I think eventually you get an admission of simple selfishness. We may try and make sacrifices for what we believe is right but all the time we are weighing up the importance we place on being that kind of person, and the importance we place on other aspects of our self-interest.
Now, this whole idea may seem fairly obvious to you – of course, we aren’t completely selfless. But it’s not trivial. If we recognise legitimacy in the weighing up of self-interest and moral claims, where does it end? I think a lot of the thinking of Covid party-planners can simply be summarised by ‘So what?’ We want to gather, socialise, enjoy ourselves. We’re young and we want to live fully. So what that it breaks rules? It coheres with the thrill-seeking element of being young, I think captured well in the refrain of Mungo Jerry’s ‘In The Summertime’ (one of my favourite songs): “we love everybody, but we do as we please”, shortly followed by “life’s for living, yeah, that’s our philosophy”.
This ‘so what?’ idea unsettles me, I think partly because there is a disturbing kernel of truth in it. In a world which presents no obviously defined meaning, egoism is, in a way, a rational response. But turning away from these troubling thoughts, I want to return to those saints of the Twitterverse I started with. There is a hint of ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’ to my critique. But I definitely don’t decry any and all rebuke of unethical behaviour. Just because we are not perfect does not mean we can’t try and encourage others to be better.
What I do want to take issue with, however, is their despair and their resentment. Covid rule-breaking is just another piece of evidence for something we already know – that when the moral harm of your actions isn’t clearly visible to you, when there is little to force you to hold back, when the sacrifice required is great, and when those around you are not willing to make the sacrifice either, many will choose self-interest over what they know is right. The people writing these tweets (making sure everyone knows how much they’ve given up on the world) may have done good in this instance but they all have been and will be appreciably selfish many times in their lives.
In the same way, Covid-transgressors have not tarred their character for eternity. I understand the impulse of people, especially those whose lives have been most affected by the spread of this horrible disease, to feel loathing towards flagrant rule-breakers. But I think this is the kind of selfishness where that form of response is regrettable. It’s in a similar vein that a vegetarian holding contempt towards meat-eaters is intuitively unseemly. It would be ideal for everyone to be greatly ethics-focussed in their lifestyle choice, but what is most important is that they are not assholes in the basic sense – they care for their friends and family, they try and be polite to those they meet, they try and have a positive influence on those around them.
Our feeling towards people and our society finds expression in our approach to friendship. The idea, popular among these tweets, that you should rescind your friendship from rule-breakers seems odd to me. They can manage their relationships as they wish but, at least in my eyes, friendship isn’t bestowed as a reward for moral behaviour. We’re friends with people who we share interests, character, and memories with, and who we enjoy the company of.
You may argue rule-breakers have now shown their ‘true’ character. But people don’t break social distancing because they hate old people. They do it because they enjoy meeting others. It comes from carelessness, maybe even thoughtlessness, but not malevolence. Breaking these rules may make us fit for admonishment, perhaps very harsh admonishment. But the tradeoff between right and wants is not new, and its expression in this case should not be cause to rethink our conception of those around us.