Christian Dior exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, 2017. Photo credit: Joe deSousa.
At a Christian Dior factory outside Paris, machines that once filled ornate vials with luxury fragrances are filling plastic bottles with hand sanitizer destined for public hospitals. Men and women who were dossing down on London’s streets have begun sleeping in rooms of the InterContinental Hotels Group after the city’s mayor negotiated a way for them to shelter there. The fiscal taps are open: Governments in the UK, Germany, and elsewhere are subsidizing workers’ salaries. In the US, Congress has passed an economic stimulus package that is unprecedented in size and scope. Shortages of critical supplies like ventilators, protective equipment, and hospital space are making the war economy metaphor all too real. The notion of a basic income, or something like it, seems increasingly likely in some places. Cleaners, teachers, and nurses, among others, are gaining some of the social respect they always deserved. And the game is up on the faux security of precarious work, even as online delivery drivers become saviors for the self-isolating. The long-tolerated social and economic neglect of the disabled, the sick, the poor, and the elderly borne from a fetishization of individualism in many industrial societies is coming sharply into focus. The realities of material interconnectedness and its demand for solidarity are being made plain, even as some double down on strategies of divisiveness. The shallowness of a paradigm that values status and the restless pursuit of advantage above all else is giving way to the necessities of life. What happens to a culture — a social order — and the beliefs that sustain it, in the face of a microscopic enemy that has little regard for borders, power, class, or celebrity?
A way of life is teetering on the brink. We can’t say yet what the extent of the transformation will be but it will reach into every aspect of human relations: care, parenting, work, schooling, production, consumption. No social context is exempt: neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, the public sphere, cities, countries, geopolitics. As the crisis spreads to low-income countries with less capacity to respond either on the health or economic front, the global dimensions will become more salient.
When a collective culture is threatened with collapse, so are the reference points for defining a good — or morally excellent — life. Though harder to discern than the material losses, the present upheaval will imprint itself on the life of the mind and that of the soul. It is not just that some acts will cease to be possible during this interregnum but that their meaning for us might radically change even once it is over.
In his book Radical Hope, the philosopher Jonathan Lear asks how we ought to live with the potential collapse of a way of life, not knowing what’s on the other side. Lear’s inquiry responds to the predicament of the Crow tribe in the Plains of the United States but it resonates more widely, illuminating the situation we now face. Lear thinks humans inhabit a way of life inside a given culture and since a way of life is vulnerable, so is the human condition. He is interested in how we live with the shared vulnerability of a civilization’s risks and cope with its possible end — an idea that any culture will tend to find unfathomable.
Lear was grappling with the death of a vibrant culture in the face of settler colonialism. He shows how the Crow creatively found a way to live on in a new form, without surrendering, despite the loss of their way of life. The present crisis, of course, has notable differences. Unusually in historical terms, the threat to a way of life is global at a level of consciousness, not just materially. From the slums of New Delhi to the skyscrapers of New York, from Syrian refugee camps to Nordic retreats, there is a shared, visceral sense of vulnerability. Its speed also marks it out. And while Lear wants a culture to find ways to sustain itself, to discover something salvageable from the wreckage, our moment calls for consciously new directions rooted in renderings of justice, solidarity, and sacrifice that lie beyond the disappearing culture. Despite these differences, the current transition requires the same kind of courage Lear describes, one that seriously grapples with losing a way of life even when we cannot understand what this really entails.
The losses of the present crisis — death, decimated livelihoods, trauma — have the potential to destabilize the concepts by which we construct collective narratives about other domains of life: family, community, economics, politics. The yardsticks we have been using to measure flourishing — economic growth, for instance — will come under greater pressure. As a way of life disappears, Lear suggests, characteristic activities that constitute the prevailing conception of the good life may no longer be available to sustain meaning as they once did. The actions and outcomes that dominant patterns of education or habituation have come to value could be shown up as unfit for the new reality.
If social pathologies like the restive pursuit of wealth begin to lose their grip at this juncture some ideas and practices could simply become unintelligible while others become possible. Ignoring one’s neighbors could start to feel absurd. Failing to recognize the equal worth of the disabled, the sick, or the unemployed may now seem abhorrent. Denying the interconnectedness of our health will be deemed out of step with reality. Our common humanity could become the starting point for a politics of justice, rather than an extension of altruism. In sum, the parameters for virtue and shame could be refashioned, and the prospects for internalizing new standards for both will be heightened. We are confronting the transformation of a culture that was already fragile and, in some senses, broken; the virtues attached to social roles, already under strain, are being scrambled. What it means to be an excellent citizen, parent, teacher, employer, banker, journalist, politician or intellectual was perhaps never certain but now even the pretense of solidity is giving way.
Suddenly, it seems, teachers, nurses, cleaners, and carers matter more. The needs of the elderly, the disabled, and the destitute are somehow clearer — and less stigmatized — than before. Hostility towards the unemployed doesn’t make sense. Those without access to healthcare, in the United States and in many low-income countries, are now victims of a collective (not individual) failure. As a result, being civic-minded matters more. Looking out for the isolated and the vulnerable might become normalized in the culture as the most praiseworthy thing one can do, dethroning more self-aggrandizing pursuits. Attitudes and gestures that seemed quaint or saintly in an atomistic age might rapidly become viewed as central to the mainstream conception of a flourishing life. Other attitudes could fall away, or at least be drastically diminished in their cultural force: selfishness, arrogance, complacency, hierarchy. An obsession with interests that has triumphed under capitalism might make room again for what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum describes as public emotions rooted in love, engendering what she calls a “strong commitment to worthy projects that require effort and sacrifice” despite the fact people “can easily become immured in narcissistic projects and forget about the needs of those outside their narrow circle.” A soulcraft of integrity might make a play in the new equilibrium. In short, moral excellence might replace crass self-worship — better to be an everyday Socrates in the new culture than to trade one’s integrity for the successes of the old one.
Those who excelled in the collapsing way of life may be the least prepared to cope with the new one. As the standards of courage, honor, integrity, and esteem are recast, those who have clung to fraternity, compassion, and justice may find themselves ascendant. For most of us, the challenge will be to respond humbly enough to discover abandoned virtues. Different cultures and communities will have a stock of values from which to draw, though these may be dormant or marginalized, or unfit for the demands of the contemporary world. For the Crow, the necessary extension of practical reason was spurred by enigmatic dreams and oracles. As Lear writes, “Precisely because they are about to endure a historical rupture, the detailed texture of life on the other side has to be beyond their ken. In the face of such a cultural challenge, dreaming provides an unusual resource. It enables the dreamers to imagine a radically new future without becoming too detailed about what this future will be.” The point is that the source has to transcend the crumbling context because the latter no longer offers suitable answers. Lacking a concrete conception of the future good life, we need “a commitment to the idea that the goodness of the world transcends one’s limited and vulnerable attempts to understand it.”
The virtue of courage in the face of cultural collapse is thus crucial to Lear’s account. At such a moment, the demands on the courageous person go beyond traditional training — they require significant psychological adjustments, including unprecedented flexibility. Such courage is grounded in the needs of the world. “Part of what it is to be courageous,” Lear writes, “is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it.” But from where can such courage come? To act well is typically judged by a framework. Amid cultural collapse, though, the courageous person must act in such a way as to “take a risk on the framework itself.” This is an apt response to catastrophe. It does not try to play it down.
This is where Lear’s idea of radical hope comes in. “What makes this hope radical,” he explains, “is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” It is a hope in something that can’t be adequately described: “Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.” It is hope that clings on to the prospect of flourishing again.
There is no inevitable trajectory here of course. Life can appear to go on as before. Humans can easily fail to grasp the meaning of transformation and act blindly to cultural collapse. We can continue to look for explanations within the old paradigm like scientists might before a scientific revolution but in this case in all aspects of life. The fortification or revitalization of virtue — individual and collective — lies in human hands. We may not invent or control the forces which shape it, but our way of life is made by us. And even where there is progress, vestiges of a morally vanquished world will no doubt persist. Political leaders will try to cut deals to prioritize vaccines for their own citizens at the exclusion of others. The rich will hunker down in ways the masses cannot. Companies will resist pressure to become aligned with social, rather than purely private, purposes. Radical hope is different to “mere optimism” though, even as it makes room for what Lear calls “imaginative excellence” in the ethical life. Where the traditional bases of courage and virtue are found wanting, radical hope and the imaginative capacity it calls for are intensely responsive to despair.
Ultimately, there are two kinds of moral work to be done. One is to identify the excellences of the new, post-crisis world, and the second is to urgently make these real, to give them not only a conceptual meaning but practical ones. Neither task can be left to an elite cadre of moral visionaries, public leaders, and the like, but must spring from ordinary people, in their everyday lives and commitments. A moment of collective crisis calls on each of us to become moral visionaries: to create a world we do not yet know and cannot describe.
Vafa Ghazavi is a doctoral candidate and John Monash Scholar at Balliol College and lecturer in politics at Pembroke College, University of Oxford.
This essay was first published at the Hedgehog Review on April 8, 2020.