Any one of us could be carrying the coronavirus. By going out for coffee or meeting up with friends, we might unwittingly be infecting people who, a few short weeks from now, will find themselves in a hospital bed, gasping for air.
The collective consequences of the actions we take at the moment are even more momentous. If we fail to flatten the curve—if the coronavirus continues to spread at such great speed that the number of patients requiring medical care overwhelms the capacity of our health-care systems—doctors and nurses will need to make unfathomable decisions about who lives and who dies.
And yet, a lot of people around the world are simply refusing to change their behavior. They go to get a haircut, head to the beach, or organize house parties. In some cases, this irresponsibility even amounts to flouting explicit orders. In Berlin, the police had to shut down 63 bars and clubs that were operating in contravention of the local quarantine rules. And in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted on getting in one last workout at his favorite gym.
In the early 20th century, a single asymptomatic carrier of a deadly disease became known as Typhoid Mary because of the number of people she had infected. Today, thousands upon thousands of Corona Chads and COVID Catherines are roaming America’s streets doing their best to spike the curve.
Why are so many people finding it so difficult to act in accordance with the minimal demands morality makes of them in this extraordinary emergency?
There are at least three straightforward explanations.
The first has to do with simple ignorance. For those of us who have spent the past weeks obsessing about every last headline regarding the evolution of the crisis, it can be easy to forget that many of our fellow citizens simply don’t follow the news with the same regularity—or that they tune into radio shows and television networks that have, shamefully, been downplaying the extent of the public-health emergency. People crowding into restaurants or hanging out in big groups, then, may simply fail to realize the severity of the pandemic. Their sin is honest ignorance.
The second explanation has to do with selfishness. Going out for trivial reasons imposes a real risk on those who will likely die if they contract the disease. Though the coronavirus does kill some young people, preliminary data from China and Italy suggest that they are, on average, less strongly affected by it. For those who are far more likely to survive, it is—from a purely selfish perspective—less obviously irrational to chance such social encounters.
The third explanation has to do with the human tendency to make sacrifices for the suffering that is right in front of our eyes, but not the suffering that is distant or difficult to see.
The philosopher Peter Singer presented a simple thought experiment in a famous paper. If you went for a walk in a park, and saw a little girl drowning in a pond, you would likely feel that you should help her, even if you might ruin your fancy shirt. Most people recognize a moral obligation to help another at relatively little cost to themselves.
Then Singer imagined a different scenario. What if a girl was in mortal danger halfway across the world, and you could save her by donating the same amount of money it would take to buy that fancy shirt? The moral obligation to help, he argued, would be the same: The life of the distant girl is just as important, and the cost to you just as small. And yet, most people would not feel the same obligation to intervene.
The same might apply in the time of COVID-19. Those refusing to stay home may not know the victims of their actions, even if they are geographically proximate, and might never find out about the terrible consequences of what they did. Distance makes them unjustifiably callous.
These three explanations are all plausible so far as they go. But I don’t think that they altogether capture what is going on. The students at Princeton who spent their last days on campus staging giant parties didn’t lack the means or the education to understand what was at stake. The many older people continuing their daily life as though nothing has changed aren’t motivated by the belief that they themselves have nothing to fear. And it really shouldn’t be too difficult for the revelers in bars to imagine that they might, if they fall ill, put their own loved ones at risk.
So here’s a fourth explanation. Unlike the first three, this one is not about what people know or what kind of moral sacrifices they are willing to make; instead, it focuses on what kind of actions we are accustomed to evaluating from a moral point of view.
Everyone knows that guns are dangerous, lethal weapons. If I asked you to raise a gun and point it at a stranger’s face, your heart would probably start to race in protest. But most of us have grown up in a world in which the decision to grab a coffee from Starbucks, or to meet a friend for a chat, was not freighted with deep moral significance. No matter how dangerous such actions might be right now, they feel completely benign.
Our moral instincts have not been honed to guide us well in this extraordinary crisis. All of us are having trouble adjusting to a world in which leaving our own house for frivolous reasons carries the risk of manslaughter.
This helps to explain why so many people have been ignoring public-health advice. But an explanation is not an excuse. And right now, seemingly innocuous activities are the equivalent of raising a revolver—and then pulling the trigger.
So yes, it might feel perfectly normal to flout the call for social distancing every now and then. But by following your instincts rather than your reason, you are putting yourself, your friends, and your neighbors at risk. And that is simply unforgivable.