Virtue and ease

Suppose that it was agreed that masks do no good in preventing the spread of infection. We don’t have to consider whether they do harm in terms of health, but suppose further that masks perpetuate the fear of an illness and that that illness is not as harmful as generally thought. Then suppose that the lockdowns that are supported by that fear, as expressed by the public to the politicians, is generally agreed to be causing more harm than good to society as a whole: in wealth and therefore future health, in education and in happiness.

On the one hand is virtue, and people are encouraged to certain courses of action by the attraction of virtuousness. On the other hand is ease, and people will naturally follow the easiest way.

When virtue is the only game in town, then the easiest way jumps over to the other side. It becomes easier to do whatever is indistinguishable from the virtuous action. We could say that it becomes easier to do the virtuous action, but if we do it for the purpose of showing that we are virtuous or even just to avoid the disapproval of those who monitor virtue, then we are not being virtuous.

We could not go on to say that those who wear masks to avoid disapproval are simulating virtue; perhaps that they are simulating the actions of someone who is being virtuous. We cannot say either that they are mocking virtue, because in fact to wear a mask to avoid disapproval is to make no comment on virtue but instead on the value of ease. They seek an easy life. But virtue is nevertheless being mocked, undermined as an idea to live by, if some who wear masks are doing it for virtuous reasons and others for expediency.

Who then is doing the undermining? It could be those who wear masks in pursuit of virtue, knowing as we all do that many do not want to wear them. The result is a larger incidence of mask wearing but also that no-one knows the true proportions of the underlying motivations. No-one knows how much virtue is being practiced and how much ease. This result of greater mask wearing, despite its undermining of the idea of virtue, is the goal of government and so we conclude that government is happy for virtue to be used for expedience, even at the cost of the idea of virtue itself.

If we return to the switching of the easiest route, from ease itself to following those who are virtuous for fear of the cost of being admonished, then we can ask whether ease will ever trump virtue. It will not, in this case; it would take something collective in order to challenge the idea that the virtuous path is the right one (and remember we mean virtuousness in terms only of what the virtuous think). We are locked in, pending a complete revision.

Therefore if ease will not outdo virtue then the conception of virtue in this instance has to be changed, if we are following the analysis of our first paragraph above and we wish to discourage lockdowns. What is truly virtuous in this case, for starters? Let’s look, because if it happened to be the case that the virtuous was also the good (in terms of human happiness as measured in a way like numbers of lives saved) then we would be delighted and we would have our answer.

We come full circle: what is virtuous is to promote human life. If more people would die from cancer and other causes than will be saved from covid then the virtue is in throwing away our masks, being open to other people’s germs, making money with which to pay taxes, and generally advancing society. With this step the mask becomes selfish and the open approach to fellow humans becomes virtuous as well as easy.

Author: Simon Stevens

Simon Stevens is an independent researcher. He is a founder and Director of the travel company Alpine Exploratory based in Edinburgh in the UK. Simon studied philosophy and economics at Bristol University and economics at Oxford University.