black and white photograph of old and young hands touching
"asian kids little boy hand ..." by rattapum2 (via depositphotos)

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads around the globe, the prospect of more communities, cities, whole regions and countries going into lockdown is becoming a reality.

As I write this, in Australia mass gatherings are banned, travel restrictions are being introduced and a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone entering from overseas is being instituted. Yet even several weeks ago, before the mass cancellation of events and activities, one of a myriad of ‘effects’ of the epidemic in Australia has been a massive toilet paper shortage.

In many places around the country, especially the major cities, large supermarkets and grocery store shelves have been emptied. It is unclear exactly how this started; but once a view, and a concern, had formed in the community that there would be shortages of toilet paper people began to panic-buy and stockpile it. In so doing those people have created shortages which have in turn led to further panic and rushes on stocks as soon as they are replenished. This kind of panic-buying (a problem encountered also in other countries) has also affected many other grocery items and medical supplies, and concerns have been raised about whether some of the most vulnerable members of the community are missing out on essentials as panic buying and stockpiling continues. In response, as of yesterday, Australian supermarkets have now introduced purchase limits on certain items to prevent stockpiling at the expense of others.

It is often said, and often seen, that times of tragedy and trouble, bring us together, and bring out the best in us. We have witnessed many times (for example in the recent bushfire crisis in Australia) people coming together, cooperating, and helping one another in times of disaster sometimes at great personal risk.

These moments are often thought of as a kind of moral test. Though we do encounter the best of ourselves, and the best – most virtuous – moral reflection of human behaviour in such moments, the opposite can also be true.

A video which appeared on social media and then on mainstream news outlets last week of people fighting in a shopping centre over toilet paper illustrates what it can look like when people think of their struggle as competitive rather than cooperative – when people believe they must struggle against, rather than with, others.

In the video, one person has a large shopping cart piled high with packets of toilet paper and can be seen driving her cart away from an isle whose shelves are completely empty. A second person approaches, asks for one packet from the full trolley, and upon being refused, a physical fight ensues, in which two other parties promptly intervene.

The point of the example is not to show these particular people up, but to point out that this moment, and others like it not filmed and disseminated, represents the antithesis to the virtues of generosity and cooperation that are the markers of our ‘better natures’ and traits that we, as a community and a society, rely upon in times of crisis or trouble.

When we say something like “these are testing times” we mean that we may be tested in all sorts of ways – physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, morally. Perhaps there is a sense here also of that test being able to tell us something about what we, as humans, are really like.

Many of the questions we unpack and debate in moral philosophy concern, at bottom, views about what human nature, essentially, is like: whether, for instance, we are more naturally altruistic or self-interested by nature.

It is clear even to a casual observer of the human condition there is a spectrum – of people, of actions, and contexts – between self-interest and altruism. We also know there are psychologically complex reasons for people to behave in certain ways in particular situations. It is a difficult question to answer – how separate should we should think of moral reasons as being from other sorts of reasons? Even so, the moral test presented by times of crisis and trouble is doubly significant as a test of our societal ethical values and those of our personal character.

Aristotle, in his treatise on ethics, made the cultivation of personal virtues central to the question of what constitutes an ethical life. The virtues are traits that belong to and are exercised by individuals. Importantly, they are acquired by practice in a process Aristotle called ‘habituation’ by which one learns to be virtuous by practicing virtue in a similar way to the learning of a musical instrument by playing it. He thought of the ethical life as a craft: learned and perfected through practice, rather than issuing from a set of rules.

Hoarding and scrapping, as captured on the film, is clearly not the kind of virtuous behavior that will help us to get through times of trouble and help us to emerge as a strong community. Behavior that issues from the self-interested, individualistic realms of human nature has its place in dystopian apocalyptic fiction, but such fiction foreshadows for us a possible reality.

As things currently stand, the public has been notified that essential supplies are not going to run out, therefore stockpiling toilet paper, and other grocery items, is irrational. Yet people are driven by panic and mistrust to continue to hoard. The appropriate moral response requires us to strengthen our character and that of our society against such impulsive behavior and to foster trust and listen to reason. We are rational creatures, and we are better when we use our reason – which suggests that our morality is related in important ways to our capacity for reason.

But there is something else – by which I do not mean something different from reason but something in addition to it – which we need for the moral life. Compassion. We need to cultivate, through a kind of ‘moral imagination’ the ability to see ourselves in the situation of another. We need to not make exceptions of ourselves, but to see in our own plight, that of the other. These capacities are fostered in the practical virtues of generosity and cooperation. Now is a good time to be practicing these virtues. We will need them for what lies ahead.

Dr Desmonda Lawrence received her PhD in philosophy from The University of Melbourne in 2017, with a dissertation on the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. She currently works as a freelance researcher and writer, as well as a sessional tutor in philosophy and ethics. She is a member of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy where she teaches short courses. Her research and teaching specialties include moral philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of literature, criticism and poetics.