Over the past few weeks, we have seen something quite extraordinary. Without too much legal threat, we have voluntarily submitted to severe abstinence, denying ourselves the rights to mix freely, to go to pubs and restaurants, to watch live sport, to shake hands, to travel to work. As we go through this period of collective self-abnegation, the suppression of our personal ambitions and desires, we are learning how to redirect our personal longings for a greater good, to sacrifice what we would normally like to do for the good of the whole.
We are learning that for a society to work, and to stave off the threats that confront it, the prioritisation of individual choice on its own is not enough. A society cannot survive if each one of us pursues our own self-chosen goals independent of everyone else. We have to exercise restraint, the Queen’s “self-discipline and resolve,” to learn the capacity to sacrifice our own desires for the sake of the wider community.
To address the potentially even more serious challenges of climate change, or the elimination of global poverty, for example, will require an even greater and longer exercise in self-restraint. The question is, when this is all over, whether we will go back to what we have been used to in the recent past, or whether we will restore something of an equilibrium between the demands of individual ambition and the common good.
Saint Paul once wrote that the Christian idea of grace, the notion that we are recipients of goodness that we didn’t create, “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” It may sound quaint and Victorian. But unless we can learn to live self-controlled, disciplined lives, a little more like the ones we’re having to lead right now, there will be little future for our planet or the people who live on it. Maybe coronavirus is giving us a crash course in a different moral universe—one that might just be the saving of us.
Some thoughts on the moral implications of Coronavirus and lockdown.
— Graham Tomlin (@gtomlin) April 17, 2020