When Coronavirus and Moral Relativism Collide
COMMENTARY: Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no moral relativists in the emergency room.
No, I don’t have any special insight into the origins or likely outcome of the coronavirus pandemic. No, I don’t have special knowledge about what you must do or not do. And I am certainly not going to condemn anyone for not taking the matter seriously enough or for taking it too seriously. No, my emphasis is on the “truth” part of the statement. The global shutdown occasioned by this new virus illustrates there is such a thing as “truth” that exists outside of our personal beliefs. And we all know it.
Lives depend on determining the truth. Is the virus highly contagious and deadly? Or are the mass quarantines and shutdowns the result of a politically motivated hoax? If we do not take the medical risks seriously enough, innocent and vulnerable people will die needlessly. On the other hand, if we overestimate the medical risks, innocent and vulnerable people will lose their livelihoods. Lost livelihoods can ultimately amount to lost lives.
No one has time for the armchair and professional philosophers who try to convince us that there is no truth, only “truth” in scare quotes. You know the sort of philosophy I mean. Everything that appears to be true is only provisionally “true.” Truth claims are intrinsically power grabs. The person who makes truth claims is really out to control you and is not to be trusted.
Certain intellectuals have spent decades trying to convince us that a belief in “truth” places unnecessary and harmful restrictions on our happiness. There is “your truth” and “my truth” and possibly “our truth.” But truth without modifiers? Nope. No self-respecting modern person believes that.
Until now. Our experience with COVID-19 is showing us that the opposite is closer to the truth. (There is that “t-word” word, again.) Today, we all want to know the full truth about the virus and the best way to combat it. We don’t want to die, and we don’t want to see our friends and neighbors die.
But we also do not want to see our friends and neighbors go bankrupt in the process. Most of us know people who are living paycheck to paycheck. The economic impact of shutting down the economy, even temporarily, is no small matter. The standard “people before profits” chant doesn’t help the low-income family dependent on “nonessential” service jobs. We really need to get this right, as a society. The risks are huge with either type of mistake.
By saying truth exists, I am not claiming that I personally know what it is. All I claim is that the truth exists, and it can be discovered. In fact, I plan not to share my opinions about the virus, which are no better than anyone else’s. My internet search is no match for the lifetime of study and experience that our technical professionals possess. I intend to respect the truth, as it comes to be known. (For the record, I am following all directives of lawfully constituted authorities, both civil and ecclesial.)
We’d like to trust the institutions of our society charged with making decisions during this crisis. But part of our current struggle is that many of us no longer trust many of our authority structures. We feel we have been lied to by politicians, scientists, academics and the media. We have seen scientists falsify climate data to further an agenda. Because we have doctors who can’t bring themselves to say that male and female are real and not social constructs, and we have seen powerful people in virtually every sector of society perpetrate massive deceptions to cover up their own sexual misconduct, why should we automatically believe everyone in a white coat or with letters behind their name? And what about the people who have been making a living in universities convincing us that there is no such thing as truth? These are the last people on earth we are ever going to trust.
It is sometimes said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Soldiers in dire situations instinctively cry out in prayer. Likewise, there are no moral relativists in an emergency room. Absolutely everyone in the emergency room believes that truth is real. The doctors, the nurses, the orderlies, the cop who brought the shot-up guy in to the emergency room, the guy’s friends and the guy himself: All of them believe there is a truth of things and are desperate to discover what it is. Everyone knows that the closer we come to knowing the truth, the better off we will all be. Honest mistakes cost lives and livelihoods. Deliberate falsehoods are unforgivable. Those who would deliberately evade, distort or hide the truth are not sophisticated armchair philosophers. They are a menace to society.
Perhaps I’m being reckless in predicting the long-term results of an event as significant as this coronavirus and its aftermath. But I will go out on a limb with this forecast: This experience will inoculate us against the poisonous belief that truth is a socially constructed myth. We now know, deep in our bones, that the truth is real and that we need it.
The evidence is right in front of us. Trying to build a whole society around the idea that truth is an illusion never made any sense. It is time to toss moral relativism on the dustbin of history, where it belongs.