“Only individuals can suffer and only individuals have a place in tragedy.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.
I would like to express at the outset of this blog my sympathy for the loss of life, grief, and personal hardship everyone around the world is experiencing during this unprecedented pandemic. Nothing that follows is intended to diminish the terrible loss others have suffered. Rather my hope is to find a philosophical grounding from which to extract any lessons or meaning from this tragedy and identify some form of consolation.
It is a painful irony that the current epidemic is occurring just as I am working on the topic of suffering. It seems like stony detachment not to devote a few posts to some of the philosophical implications for the reader and humanity. It will be my goal in this and the next post to generate from the ongoing course of this site some relevant philosophical points to be drawn from the world situation.
Starting with its origin: the pandemic seen scientifically appears to be the result of natural laws.1 Whether viruses meet the standard definition of life still perplexes me as a physician, but at a minimum they are opportunistic ‘organisms’ which penetrate suitable hosts. The most successful are highly infectious requiring limited contact between potential hosts, but cause limited mortality to enhance the chance of spread. Whatever our particular revulsion, they do not benefit from host death which limits their ability to proliferate. In this regard they are analogous to humans in that, however unwittingly, we continue to maximize our numbers while working to avoid making the planet inhospitable for our species.
But evolution is a blind force, the survival of each species is generally indifferent to the destiny of others. COVID-19 is no different; our human ancestors desire to survive did not mean they wished to cause the extinction of the woolly mammoth. In short, COVID-19 is the result of forces in a universe that atheist existentialists taught us is indifferent and perhaps hostile to humanity – this is the simple, stark reality of our plight.
Next is the calibration of good versus evil: bracketing the guttural answer – where does COVID-19 fall ? In an earlier post, I defined good as that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others or at least does not diminish these for others; or which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe. Evil is defined as its opposite.2 Clearly the pandemic and its results are evils for humans by this definition. In addition, while viral spread may be nature’s indifferent promotion of a form of non-human reality, I believe we can say, with no fear of anthropocentrism, that the value of humanity and its works is far greater than the that of any virus on the scale of the universe.3 In short, COVID-19 is – both by common appraisal and philosophical analysis – a categorical evil.
Next time we will look at a philosophical analysis of ethics as applied to the pandemic.
1I am discounting the possibility of the epidemic being man-made by intention as expressed by some conspiracy theorists.
2See post titled Good and Evil, dated 1/16/19 on this site.
3Note that the same cannot be said with the same level of confidence when referring to polar bears, elephants, tigers, and other endangered species.