Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A Darwinian Reflects on the Coronavirus Pandemic

Michael Ruse

I am seventy-nine years old and I have Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. It is a pretty severe lung disease and, until recently, if you developed it, make sure your will is in order and you might think about pre-arranging your funeral. It was fatal in a couple of years or so. Now, thanks to a very powerful new drug (OFEV), IPF can be controlled. It is not cured, and there are side effects, but generally you can relax and get on with things. Although, obviously, at seventy-nine, getting on with things is more a stroll in the park than running a marathon.

I do not tell you this to complain. The very opposite. I don’t have dementia and I don’t have Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I have a good quality of life. A loving wife, kids in interesting and worthwhile jobs, grandchildren in growing numbers. I am just finishing fifty-five years as a philosophy professor, it has been a great job, and I doubt being retired will make so much difference. My pension is in really good shape. My wife and I will be able to travel. The pandemic stopped this spring’s visit to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, but there will be more chances. And we can go on spoiling the grandchildren in the usual way.

A dilemma. On the one hand, the coronavirus is a real threat to someone like me. The old-age homes in Florida are death camps. I am not in one, but like the inhabitants, if I get it, it is curtains. On the other hand, I don’t want to die, at least not yet. I really don’t. So, it all seems straightforward. Our leaders should enact policies to make it less and less probable that people – and this includes me – get the virus and die. And in the absence of a vaccine or any reasonable antidote, that means social isolation. People must not pass it on to others, and that means staying away from others.

A lot of businesses must close – restaurants for a start, but many other places like factories where workers are necessarily in close contact. People will lose their jobs. A lot of people will have no money and must do without. Even to the point – almost at once to the point – of having insufficient food for themselves and their children. The Smithfield processing plant in South Dakota is a prime case in point. It employs over two thousand people. Three hundred employees have tested positive for the virus, so the plant has been shuttered. Think of the knock-on effect. Two thousand plus people out of work. Ten thousand family members without money coming into their home. Pig farmers with nowhere to send and sell their animals. Supermarkets getting less and less produce to sell. And more.

My question is how do you strike a balance, my well-being against the well-being of so many of my fellow citizens? Obviously, no one wants to reopen the processing plant right now. But suppose present distancing measures are effective and, if the plant were reopened, the prospect is that only three people would get the virus, or thirty people. The numbers of sick are down but not vanished entirely. Would it be right to start things up again, even though people like me would be under more threat than if all stayed closed indefinitely?

We philosophers are supposed to be able to answer these questions. After all, morality is our subject matter! I am not sure that things are quite that easy. Moral decisions demand knowing the facts. Is this operation necessary? But suppose we are all agreed that getting things going again will carry risks, but not super-risks. However, clearly the risks are still going to be a lot more for me than for a healthy thirty-year old. When do we say that it is right to worry about the well-being of people generally, even though we know there are going to be costs for a certain group – the old and sick?

Philosophers have ways of answering questions like these. The Kantian will say that you should treat people as ends and so you have a moral obligation to help the old and sick. The utilitarian to the contrary will say that overall happiness is all important, and if a few geriatric philosophers must head for the crematorium, so be it. There is a general feeling that there must be a way out of this dilemma. There must be a unique right answer. Think of the analogous Trolley Problem and the time and paper and energy devoted to solving that one – time and paper and energy that only make sense if you think there is a unique end point, the right answer.

However, as a Darwinian evolutionary ethicist, thinking morality is no more than (no less than) emotions put in place by natural selection to help us get through this world, and thus a moral non-realist, increasingly I wonder if there are solutions to problems like these. Morality works just fine for everyday issues – taking a casserole over for my sick neighbor – but when we have unexpected or extreme cases, morality simply breaks down and doesn’t work. Natural selection doesn’t usually fine-tune adaptations, and this is a case in point. There is no disinterested right solution – God’s will, Platonic Forms, non-natural properties. We just have to muddle through and hope that we don’t make too much of a mess of it.

So, if and when constraints start to be lifted, as a utilitarian I will be all in favor. Until I catch the virus, at which point I will be very Kantian in condemning those who made these decisions. I will be inconsistent. I am not sure I will be so very wrong, because right and wrong are simply out of their depth at times like these. I do know that, as an animal fashioned by natural selection, I will be human, so very human.

Can a Darwinian be a Christian? by Michael Ruse
Can a Darwinian be a Christian? by Michael Ruse

About The Author

Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse is Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. His publications include Can a Darwinian be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion (Cambrid...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!