What’s Responsibility Got To Do With Anything Anyway?

Amidst the challenges of translating more than 25 years of University teaching experience into the task of ‘homeschooling’ a nine year-old and a thirteen year-old (or, just making sure they have something to do), as well as wondering whether Higher Education institutions which are not configured to deliver coherent blended learning at the best of times should really be trying to transfer all teaching and all assessment online in a moment of intense, rapidly changing global emergency, I’ve been thinking about the range of ethical postures generated by the Coronavirus crisis. That’s sad, I know. It helps me cope, though. It’s no sadder, perhaps, than lots of other forms of self-indulgent bias-confirming commentary flying around right now.

I have been processing in my head, quite consciously, since about March 11th, a bunch of thoughts about what sense to make of different forms of official messaging, health advice, as well as various forms of new coverage, twitter-commentary [now switched off for the most part], and shared conversations with real people. I’m trying to make sense of how and why I have responded in the ways I have, and why it’s been easy to respond in certain ways, and not in others.

In the UK right now, and for a week or more, there has been a lot of discussion about whether  and why people are acting selfishly, by buying too much loo paper or going to the park. Between right-wing journalists demanding that the Prime Minister condemn ‘immoral’ behaviour, Twitter-led outrage about ‘irresponsibility’ and Guardian-esque think-pieces confirming that this is all an effect of decades of ‘neoliberalism’, there is an awful lot of self-congratulatory rationalism flying about right now which is, if truth be told, almost certainly not very helpful.

The forms of behaviour at the core of these worries, the patterns of observance and non-observance, are no doubt more or less predictable outcomes of the strategy, such as it is, pursued by the UK government, of seeking to re-shape the conduct of conduct (by closing things down) while also trying to morally encourage ‘voluntary’ social distancing. They are also somewhat overdetermined by the accreted associations of deceit associated with the lead persona charged with leading this subtle communication strategy.

I’m actually struck by how effective the main message does seem to have been communicated, as a general national discourse. It stands in contrast, most obviously to the case in the USA, which does not have a central cultural institution (like the NHS) around which to mobilise forms of solidarity, but does have a governing political movement actively seeking to undermine elementary public health initiatives.

Public health information, in normal times, tends to revolve around messages addressed to what is good for individuals, or immediate family members. Getting a flu jab is something one is meant to do so one doesn’t get the flu, oneself. Getting your kids vaccinated is something you do so they don’t get ill, but you’re supposed to worry about their health in ways not expected of you towards other people’s kids. Making lifestyle changes to reduce cholesterol or sugar levels or blood pressure is something you do to minimise your own risks of heart disease, stroke, and so on. Of course, we know that these initiatives all have a wider, systematic relationship to provision of public health care, and indeed to collective health outcomes (as made visible, for example, by the effects of anti-vaccination campaigns). But the address made to the subjects of public health campaigns is resolutely self-centred, in a non-pejorative way, and necessarily so.

In contrast, the Coronavirus crisis turns on a very different mode of communication, a different form of ethical imperative. The effort to make people social distance voluntarily, beyond the macro-level scale of closing things down and subsidising economic demobilisation, are difficult precisely because they ask people to take responsibility simply by virtue of being mere agents – that is, by virtue of their actions having effects in much the same way as Bruno Latour’s key fob or Michel Callon’s scallops can be described as agents simply because one can place them under a description in which they have traceable effects on wider patterns of action. But remember children, an ‘actant‘ is just a character in a story. On their own, lots of the defamiliarising, revelatory stories that academics tell about the links between action, consequences, and ‘responsibility’ provide rather thin accounts of what it is to be human. Rarely do those stories attain the level of having any motivational force at all. 

The crisis of social distancing strategy, right now, revolves around a very different kind of ethical address from ordinary public health initiatives – it involves asking people (or directing them, or forcing them) to act in certain ways in order to prevent or minimise or delay other people getting ill, so that other people don’t suffer. And it asks us to do this in two distinct, though related ways: by seeking to avoid directly infecting other people, particularly vulnerable people; and by thereby seeking to minimise unbearable strain on stretched infrastructures of health care. If you slow down for a moment, it’s worth considering just how complex that message is. It is, no doubt, difficult enough to convey. One could argue about how well it is being delivered. It might, also, be a really difficult message to take on board by its addressees, in ways that the much denigrated behavioural scientists probably appreciate better than they are given credit for.

I’m being asked to think of myself as acting responsibly by virtue of a capacity to see myself as a passive vector for a virus, and then to act accordingly. I am also being asked to think of myself as being responsible for a whole series of unintended consequences of that passively exercised status by virtue of being one small element in a very complex technological, social and organisational system. Oh, and to act in response to all of this primarily by NOT doing  lots of things. That’s really weird, if you think about it.

People like me – academics, certainly; Guardian-reading folk; geographers, especially geographers – are quite good at being able to place other people’s actions into these chains of consequences, from the outside. It’s what people like me are meant to do. It might even be what counts as our ‘science’. People like me are rather less good at recognising just how alienating that view of other people is, to those other people, when it is projected as a set of recommended virtues, as it often is (see, for example: ‘Brexit’, ‘Climate Change’, ‘Corbynism’). To borrow a line or two from W.H. Auden, it is easy enough to attribute responsibility for certain outcomes or even potential consequences; it is a different thing entirely to accept responsibility, to take on responsibility for such extended patterns of consequences, to ask or expect this of oneself, much less others. As ever, Iris Marion Young is the best guide to this general theme.

The standard way of trying to align the two perspectives is to find ways of getting those other people to recognise what’s really good for them and act in accordance with an externally derived idea of what they should really do. There is remarkably little reflection on the degree to which large swathes of academic work, belonging to broader cultures of rationalistic liberal good sense, have come to see themselves as engineers of acceptance.

There are various philosophical avatars for these ethical postures. I’m struck, for example, by how far the challenge of acting responsibly in this current public health crisis requires a kind of Spinozan ability to picture all the determinisms into which one’s own self is enchained, and then to find therein, from the acknowledgement of the very abjection of one’s own dependence, some power to act wilfully for the good of others. Or, perhaps it’s a version of embodied Kantian deontology. Or an other-regarding utilitarian consequentialism. These are really not very good ways of thinking about how people ordinarily do act, or how they should. An agent-centred narrative of the extended causal consequences of intended actions and their more or less unintended consequences lies at the heart of lots of analysis, whether of environmental change, global justice activism, and now, at least some of the more popular discourses around a public health crisis. These causal stories presume an ability of their addressees to reason about issues of actions, intentions, consequences. But on that assumption, it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that the same stories that are thought, by some, to obviously have a motivating effect on getting people to act in one preferred way, will be interpreted in other ways, indeed, reasonably interpreted as demonstrating that anything I do won’t make much difference at all (that’s before one starts to think about the rationalities of ‘implicatory denial‘. As a vector for thinking about these sorts of issues, I suspect disease, viruses, will end up having a different ethical shape, shall we say, than that most often associated with ideas about the politics of commodity cultures or climate change activism.

Perish the thought, today of all days, but it might be amazing that current strategies, whether of lock-down or ‘advice’ to stay at home varieties, are working as effectively as they are. I’m not being complacent, or flippant. I’m channelling my anxieties and fears. Who knows how all this will play out. But rather than add to the rapidly consolidating genres of ‘I told you so’ or ‘Let’s take this as an opportunity’, maybe the most responsible thing to do right now is to take care over the sorts of intellectual frames being promulgated in the midst of rapidly moving events, frames which are likely to resonate far and wide beyond them.