What Ethics after Covid-19? (Stefano Biancu)


“What can I know?” “What must I do?” “What may I hope?” are the three questions that, since Kant’s time, are recognized as essential in every attempt to think about human existence and reality. Three questions to which the experience of the pandemic has taken away any simple answer.


  1. What is in our control and what is not.


Many times, during the pandemic, the situation appeared out of control. The Kantian question on what we can know could be translated as follows: what is in our control and what is not? You control what you know, what you do not know controls you.

The virus has forced us to grieve over the illusion that we can have everything under our control. It has also unfolded right before our eyes the necessity to do all the possible good things that are in our power. The virus – in other words – has made evident to us our condition of both vulnerable and responsible beings.

We are vulnerable: something we do not control can, at any time, hurt and even destroy us. No life insurance can protect us from that. On the other hand, the vain attempt to immunize ourselves from any risk brings more disadvantages than the expected benefits. If you avoid every risk in order to protect life, you end up destroying the life you want to protect and preserve.

An accepted vulnerability is also what gives us access to the greatest experiences of our humanity. Investing your energy in a project that – despite everything – may fail; expressing your convictions freely, even if they may not be accepted and later you will have to pay for them; declaring your love to a person who may not return it; choosing to share your life with a person who may one day hurt you; trusting a friend who may not understand you or even betray you; being generous with someone who may take advantage of it. These are all experiences of an accepted vulnerability that exposes us to the risk of suffering and failure, but which also opens up the only gateway to our humanity, making us truly alive. At the end of our existence, we will know that we have lived inasmuch as we have accepted our vulnerability. Missed opportunities are as many sacrifices on the altar of the pretension of not exposing us to the risk of suffering and failure.

If the fact that we cannot control everything makes us vulnerable, the fact that we can control something makes us responsible to ourselves and to others. We are not almighty and yet, for our part, we are responsible.

The choice to quarantine entire countries around the world, putting at risks the world economy, was a choice of responsibility for the benefit of all, and in particular the most vulnerable. In the near future, we will have to be as much responsible towards those made vulnerable by the economic crisis.

From here, ethics will have to start again: from accepting that not everything is under our control and that the pretension of protecting ourselves against all risks kills life. But also from accepting the responsibility of doing all the good which is in our power to do: in favour of all and in particular the most vulnerable.


  1. What we must do.


We have called them heroes – doctors, nurses and healthcare workers who, in the dark days of the pandemic, have put their lives at risk to save others’. Proportionally, similar risks were taken by many other workers. None of that was included in their employment contracts and yet none of these heroes have ever claimed – and presumably ever even thought – that they did something beyond the call of duty.

What we have experienced will urge us to radically change our understanding of duty. We need to recognise that duty is broader than what is required by a rule or by the rights of a third party. Up to now we have considered solidarity, fraternity, love as supererogatory attitudes: i.e. good, but not strictly due. The experience of the pandemic has shown us that, beside the “minimum necessary” of what is due (what someone can demand from me), there is also a “maximum” that is just as necessary. No one – individual or institution – can demand it from me and yet I know that it is somehow due. I must do it.

No one can demand love from me, but if I do not love – and do not act accordingly – I do not respond adequately to the appeal that comes to me from the other. Nor do I live. It is not only for believers that love is a commandment – it is to live as humans. It is from here, from a broader understanding of duty, that ethics should restart after the Covid-19.


  1. What we may hope.


“It’s gonna be okay”, we have repeated ourselves like a mantra. But we have ended up repeating it with less and less conviction. A column of military trucks taking away the coffins of the dead ones has also taken away our illusions. By the end, not everything will have gone well, at least not for everyone.

Yet the experience of the virus, which has left a huge pile of human rubble, has shown us that – despite everything – we can hope, and therefore we must do so. At the condition that we do not understand “it’s gonna be okay” as “nothing bad will happen to us”. Hope is not the illusion of not being vulnerable, i.e. immune from evil and pain. Rather, it means hoping that all this immense pain will have a meaning – that bad things do not happen in vain. A meaning, perhaps not immediately evident, must be there. And it is up to us to act so that it will be there.

For this hope, which does not illusorily remove vulnerability but accepts it, we are all responsible. It will depend largely on us if all this will make sense – if from this rubble we will be able to rebuild a different and better human world. In the name of a love which is certainly a “maximum”, but a “necessary” one.


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