Oh, the (un)humanity!
We were told that in order to create a more tolerant and inclusive society, we must exchange our traditional Judeo-Christian values for a modern secularism. The problem is that secularism, like all other philosophies, is not value-neutral, nor is it universally tolerant. To be clear, I am vehemently opposed to any theocracy, even one with my beliefs at its center. There is a danger, however, when society goes beyond being accepting of all religious and non-religious creeds and eradicates the belief in a common set of transcendent principles and values.
Removing Judeo-Christian values from most of the American public square has not resulted in a judgment-free, liberated society. Quite the contrary. Our moral proclamations have just changed. For instance, instead of shaming single pregnant mothers, we shame parents who won’t let their transgender kids transition. And without a stable set of tenets (something religious traditions have), secular values change on a dime, and then we go back to the past to punish people who tweeted the wrong thing under the new paradigm.
And while it may not be a direct result from the secularization of our values, the moralizing of political issues is certainly related. When a society gets to make up its principles as it goes, some people will exploit that for political gain. As a result, we worship at the altar of virtue signaling lest our deviance be used as a moralized weapon against us. This is capable of just as much intolerance and oppression as any religious system.
Unfortunately, the COVID crisis has become the next site for this political moralization, as if massive lockdowns, mask mandates, social distancing, unemployment, economic uncertainty, and waves of personal COVID tragedies weren’t enough. Some people, including health care professionals, think that those who don’t get vaccinated and contract COVID deserve to die. Not only does that sentiment undermine my faith in those health care workers’ commitment to their Hippocratic oath, it also strikes me as cruel and dehumanizing.
Life is a series of choices, all of which include some kind of risk. Making a choice does not mean that a person deserves all of the consequences that come from that choice. A thief deserves to be imprisoned for his or her crime but does not deserve to be abused while behind bars. Everyone who speeds does not deserve to crash. Anyone who didn’t wear sunscreen as a young adult doesn’t deserve skin cancer. And people who sleep around don’t deserve to die from AIDS.
And if we aren’t willing to say that people who died after getting a COVID vaccine had it coming because they voluntarily got an experimental drug before the FDA approved it, we shouldn’t say that the unvaccinated deserve to die from COVID. Honestly, where is our humanity? Millions of Americans are against the death penalty for those convicted of heinous crimes, but some of them can really believe that the unvaccinated deserve to die from a genetically modified super-flu?!
We’re all responsible for our own choices and their consequences, and I’m sure we have all had our fair share of bad outcomes for solid decisions and vice versa. Sometimes the odds are in our favor, and other times we lose even when our chances were good that we wouldn’t. When we ignore all this and condemn the choices that others make without considering what they knew at the time, all the factors that went into their decision making, and how bad the alternative could have been, we deserve to be called out for that.
What is more, there are some choices that reflect our character, but many choices do not. Wearing a mask outside doesn’t make you immoral even though the New England Journal of Medicine said masks make little to no difference in May 2020, and it’s nearly impossible to contract COVID outside. Sanitizing surfaces as much as you want doesn’t make you a bad person even though the COVID virus does not have a notable shelf life on those surfaces. And not getting vaccinated for a super-flu that has over a 98% survival rate, especially if you either already had it or have no co-morbidities, does not make you a terrorist.
The horrendous consequences of moralizing issues like COVID vaccinations and mask wearing is twofold. First, it shuts down any meaningful debate on things that are based on scientific research and tangible evidence when all the facts aren’t in yet. In fact, in empirical fields like virology, the data will always be coming in as we encounter new organism variants and develop new technology (see Can We Handle the Truth? linked below)
Silencing dissent through moralizing inherently amoral issues will come at a great cost to the individual and, by extension, our continued collective development. Check out John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty for more on that.
Secondly, we cannot find the answers to moral issues by relying on science or any other empirical field. What lab experiment could tell us when it’s permissible to lie? A core ethical dilemma scientists face is whether or not their ability to do something like clone humans is justified. Obviously, they can’t come up with a solution to that dilemma through experimentation or testing.
And yes, I believe that genuine scientific endeavors are a critical way for us to realize what is true. I am just as sure that there are some things like ethics that we cannot derive from the scientific method, and that does not make ethical claims any less real or true.
Furthermore, there are some things that we should be able to study with the scientific method that we don’t have definitive answers on because the real world is messy, which makes things hard to control and quantify (two things necessary for empirical research). For example, political scientists have not been able to prove definitely that money in politics is the cause of electoral outcomes despite decades of research. Just something to consider as more of us look to science as our higher power.
In short, we need to bring the right toolbox to the jobsite. A carpenter isn’t going to bring a make-up artist’s case to the construction site, so let’s not apply moral shame to those who make different health choices when scientists and doctors disagree on these issues. Let’s not forget that all the test tubes and lab equipment in the world won’t be able to create a moral code to tell us how to live.
If we can’t figure out how to stop moralizing issues that have nothing to do with our character in a hyper-polarized, hyper-partisan climate, we are going to tear each other apart. That should be wrong in any code of ethics worth its salt.
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