Love, Duty, and Indifference in the Time of COVID

I suffer a vexing disconnect between my intellectual convictions and my emotional reactions. Ethically, I believe that each person is worth a whole universe; my politics are determined by my urge to avert the squandering of human potential. But I feel numb when I confront the immense death toll of COVID and the many large-scale tragedies I regularly bemoan, all the more so when—in the US at least—the delta variant is reserving the brunt of its brutality for those who have chosen to remain unvaccinated. Even speaking of these tragedies—poverty, economic inequality, racial injustice—I often feel hypocritical: my outrage feels feigned, my words uttered from an empty virtue-signaling reflex, not some wellspring of profound feeling. Am I a moral monster, a hypocrite of the first order? Or am I far from alone in grappling with this disquieting contradiction?

Numbness can be a protective mechanism, a defense against situations that create too much pain for one consciousness to safely absorb. It’s one thing to register a tragedy intellectually; it’s another thing altogether to assimilate its emotional impact. Life is tough enough when we suffer personal calamities. If we multiplied personal misfortunes a millionfold and experienced a loss in its totality—the horrific COVID statistics, the anxiety and agony that poverty and inequality force billions worldwide to endure, the wreckage of the Sixth Great Extinction and climate change—it would annihilate us entirely.

But it’s difficult to distinguish between the numbness that accompanies intense repression of trauma and the blankness of a simple, ignoble incapacity to react. Rather than an escape from unfathomable pain, emotional imperturbability during a crisis might just be a manifestation of a failure of imagination, an empathetic defect. I’d like to think my numbness is a defense mechanism: that would be nobler. But what if it isn’t?


Within most of us lurks a solipsist. We were supposed to have outgrown that stage of development long ago, in early toddlerhood. If asked point-blank, we’d pay lip service to the fact that others genuinely exist. Nobody besides a clinically ill person suffering “solipsism syndrome” would treat the reality of others as up for debate. Nonetheless, the problem of other minds remains questionable, unsettled. We simply don’t experience others’ existence viscerally, in our bones and blood, except on rare occasions where we truly commune with other people, usually friends, family, or lovers. Perhaps some saints or particularly sensitive people are capable of attaining this bodhisattva-like ideal regularly. But if feeling others’ pain as intensely as your own was a necessary condition for behaving ethically, then we would be in trouble.

The humanistic response to this conundrum is culture: a mechanism for cultivating one’s feelings and reactions to ethical fruition. Confucianism speaks of the importance of nourishing the sprouts of benevolence latent in us all, awaiting germination. Part of the challenge of being human is pushing yourself to take account of each person’s multidimensionality, the beautiful, complicated tangle of hopes, fears, dreams, desires, and memories that each person’s deceptively tranquil surface conceals from view. Art, theater, literature, and movies are consciousness-altering devices, the best mechanisms we have at entering another person’s point of view barring a Vulcan-style “mind meld.” Franz Kafka once wrote that, “What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” A novelistic triumph topples the walls that separate us from other people.

We want a society that’s composed of highly empathetic human beings, people who feel keenly the ways their lives intertwine with others and act accordingly. The humanistic insight is that we should use nurture to create such empathetically gifted citizens. But we should also be realistic about the modern world. Ethics and politics shouldn’t demand the maximum from everyone. It may be true that the opposite of love is indifference, but people shouldn’t have to love one another intensely—or feel another person’s pain as their own—to help and protect each other.

Although social media traffic in public acknowledgments of one’s privilege and proclamations of solidarity, feeling bad doesn’t fix anything. Guilt about the state of the world isn’t a mode of atonement—nor, for that matter, are performative tweets or Facebook posts. Self-flagellation can be self-indulgent. From the perspective of victims of injustice, the only thing that matters is material acts—actions which concretely improve the reality they endure daily. The rest is idle chatter. If feelings of unease and guilt motivate people to act, then they are useful tools. Otherwise, they are literally inconsequential.


We live in a world that largely permits us to treat others as objects. If we wanted to, given the way modern society is structured, we could live out our days dealing with people transactionally and superficially, engaging only in inane pleasantries in the public realm. Such a world loses something important: the warmth of community and friendship, the emotional valences that underpin ethics and politics. As the 2007-2008 crash and subsequent revelations of Wall Street malfeasance reminded us, the greater the emotional distance actors have from the consequences of their actions, the more likely they are to break rules, with disastrous results for everyone. Global supply chains’ bewildering complexity also obfuscates cause and effect, spawning a moral licensing effect whereby corporations feel protected from accountability for their actions. The fact that the modern world allows us to objectify the environment and other people thus enables exploitation.

Yet despite what we may think, an alienated world stripped of interpersonal emotional connections isn’t automatically unethical. A misanthrope who minimized her social ties but discharged all her duties to society—paying taxes, obeying laws, and avoiding harm to others—might live a perfectly acceptable life. If she donated to charity, we might even judge her life to be praiseworthy, her lack of deep friendships and romances notwithstanding. Duty can replace sentiment as the bedrock of ethics—and to some ethicists, acting out of a sense of duty is more praiseworthy than responding to surges of emotion. In Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant argued that acting from goodwill isn’t inherently moral, since the pleasure many people take in doing good is somewhat selfish. People might perform good deeds for the dopamine rush we get: a self-congratulatory glow and a reputation boost. Flying in the face of popular morality, Kant thought only a misanthrope who has lost their love of humankind yet still helps others without seeking external rewards is truly moral. In Kant’s contrarian view, the true practitioner of moral virtue is temperamentally cold-blooded: she behaves well purely from a stubborn sense of duty.

Though he predated Kant by many centuries, the Spanish-Jewish philosopher Maimonides agreed. He formulated a “Ladder of Charitable Giving,” an ethical ranking of forms of charity. The ladder ranks giving charity when you don’t know the recipient’s identity but the recipient knows who you are as fourth best; giving charity when you do know the recipient’s identity but the recipient doesn’t know who you are as third best; and double-blind giving—where neither donor nor recipient knows the other’s identity—as second best. Why did Maimonides grant double-blind giving pride of place? Double-blind giving eliminates many of the external motivations to be charitable. It subtracts the potential reputation boost from the equation: you can’t boast about having given, since you don’t know the recipient. Since the recipient of your largesse doesn’t know who you are, they won’t thank you, and you won’t witness your donation’s positive consequences. Someone who gives double-blind won’t receive an external reward. This lack of external validation means that they’re most likely to be acting out of pure duty.

In large-scale societies where it’s impossible to know everyone, where you can’t see the fruits of your actions in real time and where even knowing your neighbor isn’t guaranteed, duty-based, impersonal ethics make sense. Rather than relying on interpersonal neighborly ties to motivate people to “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” you can appeal to an abstract, anonymous, universal sense, one which doesn’t depend on the contingency of whether you’ve met your neighbor or fellow citizen or on whether you’re engaging in direct action that produces immediate, visible results. But like prosocial emotions and feelings, the sense of duty must be inculcated and reinforced, primarily through religion, politics, and education. Duty requires willpower and repeated practice. Aristotle famously said that we are what we repeatedly do. (The central role of habit in ethics is suggested by the very name we assign it: ēthos meant habit in ancient Greek.)


The downside of deontology is that it feels bloodless, devoid of the fierce emotional urgency that compassion and sympathy give us. The detriment of a sentimental approach to ethics is that sentiment isn’t entirely a product of willpower. You can expand your circle of empathy; you can train yourself to be more compassionate. But there is a limit. In the final analysis, you can’t compel yourself to feel something. From a consequentialist perspective, both duty-based and emotion-based ethics get the job done—if people’s emotions are sufficiently attuned to others’ suffering and if people’s sense of duty is robust enough, then both modes of ethics may be excellent motivators. But neither exists in a vacuum: both are subject to politics.

Political developments can erode one’s sense of empathy and one’s sense of duty. Sympathy and empathy rely on a sense of equality and interconnectedness. We empathize with people who we feel resemble us, at least in certain respects. If we can easily see ourselves in the Other, we are more motivated to be concerned for their wellbeing. Our sense of duty towards others is tied to our civic identity and our perception of shared humanity. It is also highly sensitive to defection—if most people follow the rules, breaking the rules is fraught, charged with danger and the potential of social ostracism or legal punishment. Conversely, if many people cut corners, we need to expend extra effort to remain steadfast in our convictions. The moral licensing effect takes hold: “anything goes” becomes the order of the day, and rule-abiding people become exceptions. Situations where we’re reminded of our mortality and fragility can have the same effect: people are often less likely to act selflessly when they feel themselves under threat.

In societies where corruption, mistrust, inequality, political decay, declining education, and weakening community ties afflict the body politic, the sense of common purpose which undergirds ethical life is increasingly difficult to maintain. We see this in the United States and parts of Europe: anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers flagrantly disregard others’ health and safety, spreading incivility and disease. But despite our distrust-ridden society, many people have protected one another throughout the pandemic by wearing masks and staying home, practicing self-denial for the greater good. This is a cheering fact. It underscores the possibility that deontological ethics can succeed against all odds, even in conditions of near anonymity. A society of relative strangers need not be a society of enemies.

This piece is a dangerous thing to write in a time like this: an asterisk hangs over it. If one of my family members were to fall ill or die from COVID, my numbness would dissipate posthaste. But I don’t think that negates my overall point: that feelings defy the will, that we don’t always react emotionally the way we feel we should, and that we can achieve ethics nonetheless.

Scott Remer has published in venues such as In These Times, Africa Is a Country, Common Dreams, OpenDemocracy, Philosophy Now, Philosophical Salon, and International Affairs.