Featured image: Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the supposed epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic. If we can identify where it started, can we identify who's to blame? (China News Service)
Scientists investigating the causal origins of the COVID-19 pandemic are working on the assumption that humans caught SARS-CoV-2 from animals. The World Health Organization (WHO) is now searching across Asia for the source, with strong evidence pointing to horseshoe bats. However, the mode of transmission—direct contact, respiratory, oral-faecal, via pangolins?—remains a mystery.
Whatever we determine the answer to be, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, is being treated as the pandemic’s epicentre.
It didn’t take long to conceive of how the pandemic began; in many ways it was predictable. Before Huanan market closed in January 2020 customers were able to purchase raw meats and live reptiles amongst wet garbage in poorly ventilated, unsanitary, and cramped conditions. In terms of the grave consequences that followed, it’s not the case that people weren’t warned well in advance about the threat of pandemics to civilization.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to irreparable damage on a global scale, destroying economies, wrecking communities, and testing our mental health. Many will therefore wish to hold certain groups of people to account (e.g. by challenging their right to maintain current cultural practices).
So who’s to blame and what are we blaming them for?
Blame is an outlet of the will for justice. From people’s ways of living havoc has ensued in the form of a deadly, transmissible disease. So it might seem right to ask guilty parties to recognise their actions as the enzymes if not the causal origins of the COVID-19 pandemic: to bear moral responsibility for their ill-conceived actions and the unquantifiable levels of damage caused.
Moreover, perhaps blame will act as a deterrent to those who selfishly want to return to normality as quickly as possible. For how else will we motivate people to alter their behaviour? Else they’ll carry on living as if nothing this bad will happen again.
However, is it even plausible that we can fairly level blame towards sections of society, let alone particular individuals, for this whole mess?
We are so used to blaming people. We are reactive and we are quick with judgement. We are also frequently lucky ourselves. Fortune and misfortunate are underestimated determinants of our livelihoods, allowing us to get away with potentially harmful actions for no reason other than uncontrollable randomness. Where is the justice in that?
So let’s attempt to formalise a notion of moral responsibility that we can fairly apply to the actions of guilty people—ideally, with a welcome sense of realism, whereby everyday luck is integrated into its definition.
'The punishment must fit the crime'. But what role did someone freely play in choosing to commit that crime? (Chris Ryan/Getty Images)
To treat someone as morally responsible is to hold them to account for their behaviour. It’s a familiar process: we praise or blame them when they say or do something we deem morally right or wrong, be that for helping a blind man cross the road or for stealing from a shop.
Moral responsibility is tied to free will since the amount of praise or blame we apportion to someone’s actions usually depends on how free we think they were in governing their actions—what their role was in shaping the outcome.
But while it may feel good to deliver moral judgements by ‘holding people to account’ with moral responsibility—say, through cathartic revenge or by seeking severe legal punishment—it goes without saying that we have to be as sure as we can be before actualising those judgements. Else where is the justice?
I've used examples concerning the COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate how we blame-search under some guise of justice, not just to criticise people's actions in Wuhan but to criticise how different governments and populations around the world are handling the challenges they face, too. Donald Trump (pictured) chose to lace the name of the virus with an unwelcome taste of xenophobia. Through language, Trump probably aimed to politicise the pandemic in his favour by directing attention away from the US and by antagonising Chinese officials. (Source)
And, by God, do humans believe in there being justice.
Assuming justice is a substantive concept, we can probably agree that it includes praise and blame as proper responses to morally decent and wrong actions. For, without moral judgement, how will we motivate the people to do the right thing?
Yet so often in life there is no one to blame: no outlet for our sadness and anger; no reasons for the pandemic happening, no sufficient reparations, no moral becoming. We can’t bring people back, nor can we salvage our livelihoods to how they were before. Sometimes there is only utter devastation and we can only try to survive and, going forwards, attempt to prevent future pandemics.
Still, it would be fair to deliver moral judgements to those who are, indeed, responsible—that is, if we can identify them. But what makes this task so difficult is that many uncontrollable factors are at play: sheer chance intricately woven into each person’s story. We should account for it first before we commit to our judgements. Chance is one of them.
We downplay chance when we do well; it was our skill and fortitude that pulled us through. We blame our environments when we don't do well; our circumstances were wrought with misfortune. Even so, it would be thoughtless to deny the role of luck in many encounters in life, a great deal of which is down to throws of the dice. (Source)
Immanuel Kant argued that moral judgement should be unaffected by luck, emphasising the importance of duty, good will, and intentions, no matter the outcome.
In contrast, I believe it makes total sense to account for luck in our moral assessments of people in moral judgement. Not least, it’s incongruous with all intuition to praise or blame someone if we don’t account for factors beyond their control. God’s dice may lead them to a different place to the one they intended, put them into a scenario we cannot imagine, or restrict the moral capacities they had to begin with.
It was Thomas Nagel who helpfully distinguished the three kinds of moral luck alluded to above:
- Consequential luck: Luck influences our actions' outcomes.
- Circumstantial luck: Luck influences the environments we are in.
- Constitutive luck: The moral dispositions—who we are—is largely down to luck.
Firstly, on consequential luck, we might feel it’s right to blame someone who was buying poorly kept meats and live animals from an unhygienic market for catching COVID-19 and then acting as a vector for the disease, thus leading us to a pandemic. However, there’s a sense in which this search for retribution would be wrongheaded or, at least, rash. Such conditions aren’t that uncommon amongst many other communities all around the world which harbour unsanitary environments and which avoid detection only because chance dictated it. Are these other communities receiving the same amount of criticism?
Equally to blame, it follows that we shouldn't inordinately praise someone for events whose consequences they couldn't have predicted. For instance, a businessman might feel proud for buying property and then earning riches from an unexpected upsurge in its value. However, his pride would be misplaced. For what capacity did he really have to predict the consequences of his actions? (Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij)
Secondly, on circumstantial luck, consider someone who grew up in abject poverty with bad influences all around them. Isn’t it right to morally assess their actions according to their dire circumstances? And isn’t it too idealistic to assume they have a morally autonomous will that commands their duty to legalisms?
Similarly, in another example, we may be tempted into lenience of someone’s ugly fascist views because they grew up under a totalitarian regime which smothered their sources of information. They didn’t choose their circumstances and they should be judged accordingly.
Chance already has a place in law. If I turn to violence for whatever reason and punch someone in the head in the heat of a moment, causing them to die, I may be charged with involuntary manslaughter, not assault, based on the consequences of that action. (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Thirdly, there’s constitutive luck, what we’re born with. This, for me, is a particularly difficult one to arrive at a conclusion for. Does an ideal notion of justice involve praising and blaming people for genes endowed to them in conception? Well, no; that seems wild. But while justice may not involve punishing those who are quicker, taller, smarter, more attractive, and so forth, we might want to install societies in which we recognise people’s abilities with respect to their fortunate relations with the values we’ve constructed. For we set the expectations: we choose to value assets such as speed and endurance in sport, we design buildings for people of certain sizes, we have a role in defining beauty standards . . .
Thus we should recognise that people are always born with genetic head starts in life and we construct the societies they benefit from with those features. As such, we should monitor the fairness of our social structures—for example, by recognising that certain groups (white people, able-bodied people, male workers) are fortunate enough to benefit from external factors they themselves contributed nothing towards (e.g. living in neighbourhoods containing good schools and expansive green spaces, physical accessibility on public transport and food at reachable heights in grocery stores, and largely unaffected by childcare routines in the workplace). But how far we go for the sake of equity is a philosophical inquiry I don’t have the space or the expertise to explore.
I do know, however, that luck is everywhere, distorting and accentuating our perceptions of people’s actions and who they are fundamentally. It’s written into the sheer uncontrollability of consequences, how society is built, and what we happen to biologically inherit from our parents.
Contagion (2011), which features a star-studded cast, follows the global spread of a virus which is transmitted by respiratory droplets—an eery prediction. As viewers, we witness the mistakes people made which led to a pandemic. In real life it may be tempting to conclude that particular individuals ought to bear our negative moral judgements. However, will we also judge countless other people around the world who continue to act with similar negligence but whose actions, by chance, lead to no grave consequences? Will we consider the circumstances they are born into, the food they eat, the cultures they absorb from, and the norms they happen to hold? Will we account for how they are mentally constituted? (Warner Bros. Pictures)
However we view the edifice of justice, what’s almost certain is that moral luck is all around us. Luck—good or bad—influences our perceptions of moral responsibility, depending on chance beyond our control. I argue that the moral responsibility we ascribe to others should be moderated accordingly.
We like to think with simplicity for the most part: look for easy solutions to complex problems and create narratives. I see this tendency creeping into people’s moral judgements, too. We usually find the following analysis alluring: ‘X did Y even though they could have done Z’, in a hurry to dish out moral assessments without respect to consequential, circumstantial, and constitutive luck.
Robert Kane actually integrated luck into his theory of free will, claiming people were morally responsible for the decisions randomly 'selected' by the Universe for them. How is that fair? Well, someone is morally responsible for all potential outcomes in a given scenario, Kane says, so long as they have sufficient reasons for their occurrence. In this particular scenario (above) Alex wants to deal retribution to a school student who has been bullying his younger brother, a). However, Alex also wants to pursue a formal solution because Alex is concerned with his currently positive reputation at the school and how his grades will be affected if he is suspended b). Alex, it transpires, is actuated into a) by virtue of the randomness of the Universe. Still, Alex is ultimately responsible because he held sufficient reasons for doing either a) or b). Alex, therefore, was the source of the action: the decision might not seem like his but a long chain of his self-forming actions shaped who he became, from past to future. And so the chain continues. He is a continual product of his own prior choices, according to which his agential control is split across multiple options but not diminished in total.
It is also worth considered that we may want to leave room for ignorance as well. How capable were any of the people in Huanan market of doing anything differently prior to the COVID-19 pandemic? Did we expect them to risk-assess every situation, be diligently hygienic despite the hurried frenzy of marketplaces and their need for money, and be in tune with scientific evidence to evade negative moral judgment?
Furthermore, were the people working and shopping in Huanan market even doing anything illegal? Is their government to blame on the basis of their law-making and their lack of provision?
Then again, we shouldn’t wait for tragedy to happen to change our ways; prevention is as key as learning from our mistakes. And many will feel that the people at Huanan market did many things wrong and should have heeded the dangers and foreseen the consequences.
Banning the consumption of wild animals came too late in Wuhan. Arguably, moral issues should weigh on people's consciences, encouraging them to care about widescale issues before outcomes affect them and others irreparably. But, culturally, how will we tackle issues such as the culinary standards of hygiene and associated immoral practices in a fair, sensitive, and pragmatic way? Morally, will we judge other communities who got lucky in the same contemptuous tone we used for the people of China? (South China Morning Post)
Underneath the clouds of our easy narratives are the minute details of untold stories in any one life—emotions and experiences of unfathomable depth and complexity, circulating in the decision-making process of one person. Luck lurks there, too; and if we push it to one side with lazy moral examination, injustice will be committed in the precipitation of our conceited judgements. Randomness is usually always associated with our decisions we’re making and their outcomes; our views ought to reflect that.
Amongst the debris of our judgements and in our ignorance we lose sight of how things could have been if a person’s milieu had been arranged another way—if chance spontaneously leaped to a different conclusion or if they were born into a different time.
These questions often make me wonder about my own life: if some event in my life had played out even slightly differently, who would I have become? The answer holds the potential to be terrifying.
How much extra effort do we expect from other people in the moral domain?
Be careful. Time is a sly thief of innocence. It will expose you, too.
A butterfly’s wing flutters this way or that. Given the ungentle sway of moral luck, I dread to think who I could have become and what I will be seen as one day as moral luck continues to mutilate the face of morality.