The Ambiguous Death of Ethics

Covid-19 is yet to loosen its grip on the world, and even if it does the after-effects will be everlasting on the people that have lived through it. Many people whose relatives have died will not grieve as they normally could in other circumstances. We, as a society, may also have a delayed reaction to this tragedy because of how we used quarantine measures to manage this pandemic, and because of how our society is structured. While many of us remained confined to our homes working, sleeping, and eating in seclusion or with loved ones, we often thought about what we could do instead. We questioned the rationale behind the lockdown (even if we agreed with it), longed for holidays that we never went on, pried over and mocked celebrities and dehumanised politicians. Despite all the death, people remained at a distance from it. There appears to have been a passivity, if somewhat absent show of grief for those that have died and their families. I think this was not intentional, but more of a side effect of something else.

In the wider community there has been an ever-growing risk to the elderly, vulnerable and some healthy adults. We assume they will be protected, and many people have gone out their way to care for them. The UK showed this with over half a million volunteers signing up to help within weeks of the scheme launching. All over the world there has been evidence of communities helping each other, mutual aid schemes being set up, and efforts to help promote smaller businesses. The cynic could say that this is minute when compared to the bigger picture, however it still matters. It shows there is a sense of community in some parts of the world. On the other hand, billionaires tried to keep us at work and even complained from their private yachts that people needed to get back to the office, all this as nurses were getting bruises around their eyes from wearing goggles for 12 hours straight and people at home began to envision, for the first time since seeing the Jetsons, a world beyond the office. One centered around our personal lives rather than work.

When we negotiate between our rational and emotional minds, many of us conclude that there isn’t much to worry about for us as an individual person (if we are young and healthy that is) when it comes to the disease specifically, not including the economic and societal pressures. All this whilst we hope that the virus won’t harm anyone we know. But as most of us had been isolated, we have had less contact with acquaintances. As a result, we have heard fewer human stories of loss. This lack of exposure to sudden loss or tales of grief can give us a false sense of security and could colour our emotions.  We saw the daily death tolls in our notifications, yet these figures remained

that to us: just numbers.

Are we becoming cold in the face of human loss of life?

David Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, said that we need to see human emotion, not data, to connect with something. This brings to mind the recent refugee crisis. To some the lack of humanity and benevolence in society is infuriating. We could blame our materialistic and competitive society, and it surely plays a part. Maybe the lack of exposure to reality is causing this coldness, or is it overexposure via the internet? Everything appears hyper real. That’s one route of enquiry. It was the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washing up on a Turkish beach that made the world take notice of the Syrian refugee crisis. Even after that, not enough was done.

They are the numbers of dead human beings, not lottery numbers. Every single figure in the daily death count was someone’s mother, sister, father, friend, or partner. Obviously, there are several factors to consider why people may react in this way to death during the pandemic. Restrictive lockdown measures, loss of agency, money, stress, family, inflexibility, and job losses are all contributing factors and are a source of frustration and anger. A good deal may feel that the pandemic could have been managed better, and some will even argue that the long term damage to the economy will have wider effects than a small proportion of the country dying, even going as far to say that the elderly would have died anyway. Are we measured in terms of our ability to produce material or reproduce our world. If so then why all the fuss when billionaires die, but not when someone who cleans the streets does.

I think it is no coincidence that we care less for our elderly at home, instead choosing to put them in institutions, and that people seem to give less emotional attention to death figures. A society pushed to work and produce does not have enough time to care. Or as someone pointed out to me, maybe we just switch off as the numbers become too much… too real.

The bigger and smaller numbers play with our emotions. They gave us hope that the quarantine would be lifted sooner or made us dread that it might have lasted longer. Even now they plague our minds like a doomsday clock that quarantine may return. This is when some people will live life online rather than have interactions with people. This has caused problems in the past with fake news and echo chambers, people forget that there are a variety of opinions and have their own reinforced. When challenged some will get nasty, and others will avoid confrontation all together.

The separate reality of echo chambers is dangerous. Wannabe epidemiologists and never-to-be future presidents argue over the internet about how things should be done. Then there are a lot of people that just read. Some people follow the guidelines, others write their own. People take offence at other people’s opinions or perceived stupidity. Eventually we all question reality and curse our collective rotten luck. This dystopian hyper-charged reality that exists online, and in our minds, is not real. It removes us from our actual world where we have responsibilities to others, it also distorts any empirical reality that we need in a time of pandemic. It is the constructed reality of newspapers, clickbait, newspapers and people who spend too much time online or in front of the TV (guilty as charged). But why do we spend time there? To be informed! That said there are also those that know the full reality of the situation but remain too individualistic, too self absorbed, to care about others.

Since this pandemic started, it shows us how clear this bubbled reality is in our society and how unreal it all is. I have been following events in the UK from Spain for the past four years via the prism of social media and the opinions I see on Twitter and Facebook. I honestly thought the UK would struggle with the lockdown. From Madrid it seemed like there would be riots and a huge crisis. I was right about the huge death toll, but wrong about the reaction to the quarantine. The measures were not as strict as in Spain and according to some people just carried on as normal. Despite this, I was shocked by reports that it may be difficult to get people out of lockdown. We can all fall victim to misjudgements, and we have to be open to changing our minds (again) if needed.

Who really suffers?

The dead and their immediate relatives are the biggest victims of this disease. Their personal worlds will be devastated by their loss. Relatives may be drawn into a world of depression and anxiety, which will be prolonged by the quarantine rules. The daily reminders of the disease and watching a world moving on could make a person think that no one cares. All this while they damn the virus for not being allowed to hold the hand of their loved one as they died. Not forgetting the prolonged time they have to wait to bury them.

Then there are the health care workers who filled in for relatives. They experienced death hourly and did so knowing that their family were at home and may catch the virus too. The people that survive the illness will also have to continue with their life. Some may experience mental health issues and could suffer from prolonged physical complications. Facing your own mortality can place a lot of stress on a person. Boundaries will change and relationships between people will become strained. Society needs to be there for these people. Then there are the rest of us. Some people will walk straight back into a job and a slightly altered reality, others won’t. There will be various degrees of damage done by this pandemic and they will extend beyond economic issues; governments spending cash will not be enough. People will have to take responsibility and rebuild their lives, but this cannot be done alone.

I have had a fair amount of experience with death in my life. Working in healthcare for 10 years, I washed bodies to prepare them for the morgue, and ate takeaway with exhausted families whilst they were by the side of their dying relative. Later, as a mental health nurse, I saw the importance of closure and conversation for the people left behind. I personally experienced this as I was unfortunate enough to have people close to me die within a few years of each other. Some I got to say goodbye to and with others I never got the opportunity.

Death comes up in daily conversation in veiled forms, yet it is difficult to talk about directly. With those close to us, often the ones with a wicked sense of humour, we joke about how we want to be buried and what sort of party we would want. According to Freud, this is to help ease any anxiety that we have around death, or gallows humour as it was called back in medieval times. With most other people we talk about things we want to do and places we want to go. When we do this, we mean in this lifetime, but death isn’t mentioned specifically. Whilst we should never be completely relaxed talking about death, as it could desensitise us, we should not be afraid of it either. We spend our childhood years innocently exploring ideas about what happens to us after we die. Do we go to heaven or hell?  maybe come back as a rabbit? The interesting thing about this topic is that a five-year-old’s concept of the afterlife has as much validity as the Pope’s. No one can be sure. As we get older, we talk about it less and it becomes taboo.

When someone close to us dies, we are distraught, and we experience a mix of complex emotions. This is reflected in the popular conception of the stages of grief. But how about how the rest of us feel? This is an issue that many will have to deal with upon returning to work and seeing family and friends again, even seeing distant friends in years to come. These moments are unnerving. That moment we are told someone has died, or when we find out in advance and get nervous about seeing the relative again. These moments catch us off guard, such as asking how a person’s weekend was, and then finding out they were clearing out a flat. We tell ourselves we have no right to feel bad as it is the other person suffering. We start to feel awkward. We think of avoiding the person, or the opposite of jumping in fully to support them. No matter what route you choose, you should say something, right? Avoiding the issue is unkind and not nice for anyone. But then there may also be people who don’t want to talk about it. Acknowledging death is the hard bit.

Personally, I felt more at ease talking about death after I had experienced it in the hospital, but we don’t all have to go through that to appreciate the need to talk about death in a heartfelt way. I think exploring death and finding out what we think about it can help us. In the past religion taught us what to think, and to a degree we accepted it. But if you’re not religious, then what?

The fundamental question many have tried to answer is if life after death exists. Whilst for many this may be an easy yes or no, for others they are not sure. Philosophers have asked questions to explore the concept of death for centuries. Much of what they argue about includes religion, but this is not the deciding factor. Dualism and the concept of consciousness or soul are what they have been debating. If we define our consciousness as the state of being and the awareness of our surroundings, then where is it? Is it part of our brain or something floating about inside us? Is it our soul (what I would call the pure concept of consciousness) I am not a philosopher or a neuroscientist, but neither has been able to prove this. By answering for ourselves, if our consciousness is separate or part of our body, we can work out what we believe.

Do you think your soul will continue to exist in some form after your body ceases to function? If not, then there must be nothing after death. (unless you believe the soul is separate or in reincarnation) If there is no afterlife, then what is there?  Nothing.

As Greek philosopher Epicurus said, “The most terrible evil, death, is nothing for us, since when we exist, death does not exist, and when death exists, we do not exist.” He claims that the fear of death is conceived by the thought that we will be aware of it and that it is a bad thing. The act of dying may be painful, but afterwards we will not be in pain or exist to be aware. Whilst this is a simple thing to accept when you are not confronted by death, it is much more difficult when talking to a grieving friend. 

Nothing has no good or bad entities to it, as what ceases to be has no qualities. Therefore, it is the loss of life that we are mourning, it is the absence of that person. We mourn the fact they will not share meals with us anymore, and we want them to be there to share our moments of joy. If we don’t believe that there is anything after death, then that has the ability to change how we see life. From what we spend our time doing to who we spend it with, there are many important things to consider.

Heidegger went even further to talk about being-in-death. He said that only when our Being is confronted by the reality that it will end (Nothingness), do we then open up the possibility of living. The realisation that death is real and definite, gives us our freedom and stops us being inauthentic should we choose to be. Others have claimed, against Heidegger, that we cannot fully comprehend not being here. All this questions the way we react to the pandemic and how we manage the collective trauma afterwards, the trauma of losing so many to this virus. If we do not grieve as a society, how are we to move on from this pandemic? How will we acknowledge the levels of pain and suffering of the relatives and the survivors that have had their ability to grieve as they normally would have taken away from them. We may move on in reality but for many reality will be altered by this episode in human history.

How our society looks after the workers after this pandemic will show our system’s priorities. Facing our own mortality and questioning what we want from society can help to change the world, posting pictures on Instagram won’t.                                                      

Whilst religious followers claim the person has gone to a better place, and others may preach reincarnation, some are left shrugging their shoulders. Which is why we should concentrate on how they will live on in this reality. My experiences and thoughts have led me to think about how a person lives on in our world, the one they once lived in. I cannot remember where I first heard this belief, but it is the simple and comforting idea that people live on in our memories. Obviously, I do not take credit for it, but here is a further explanation.

Whilst it may sound like a message from a thinking of you greeting card, with me it resonates as I can see it happening. The memory of our loved ones becomes their essence, which goes on in the stories we tell and the memorials we erect in their honour. We make our essence by the life we lead and the people we touch on the way. Whilst this thought is consoling, it also puts more emphasis on how we remember those that we have lost. Our memories of them are their essence. We should cherish their legacy and make more of an effort to create more memories whilst others are still here. For me, the best memorial you can give a person is to live well and try to build a better world in their honour. This is more than any modernist sculpture or expensive headstone can achieve.

Zizek shares a similar idea saying that we have two deaths. The first the physical death, and later a symbolic death. This is when all trace of our existence is gone. When there’s no one left to remember us. Maybe that explains why in these individualistic times we are so concerned with what we will leave behind or why some are more concerned with what they are doing now. But whilst some only look to themselves the real world carries on spinning. Death continues to happen, and people’s individual worlds are changing. But is our world changing?

If it’s the things we do in life that form our essence, or as the existentialists say existence before essence, then how, or what, can we do with our lives. I’ve already reflected on this quite a bit. Simone de Beauvoir thinks that we should live like a passionate adventurer. In her book the Ethics of Ambiguity she works through her understanding of freedom, ethics and the balance between the individual and society. Here she synthesizes various views including those of Hegel, Sartre and Heidegger. She asserts like those before her that man is free. This freedom is offset by nothingness. It is through our own nothingness that we are self aware beings, something Lacan would later take to a whole other level.

Our self consciousness is dialectically formed from both our interior and exterior worlds, but de Beauvoir would also do something that it took a while for her partner Sartre to accept. She claimed that we are part of our facticity. Our race, gender, sexual orientation, class and disabilities; these things put conditions on our freedom. They also make us an object in the world; something that both Sartre and later Lacan would acknowledge. As subjective beings in the world we are also objects for others, thus making us split subjects. De Beauvoir pointed towards these contradictions; between us as an object in-itself and us as a subjective being for-itself, it’s the tension between the two that causes ambiguity. Does this explain humanity’s ambiguity towards the numbers of the dead from Covid? The difference between it being a loved one and them being productive objects that no longer respire? We are caught in the tension. A contradiction expanded by capital.

Something later echoed by Zizek, that de Beauvoir explores is the issue of behaviour and freedom. They both say, but Zizek specifically in relation to ideology, that our behaviour conditions what we become. Existence precedes our essence. It’s not a matter of values or the ‘essence of humanity’, it’s a matter of what we do that builds our world. If we keep reproducing our system, then we have no one else to blame but ourselves. It’s our actions from the past that make our future, why do we make these decisions? As Heidegger claimed, we are projecting ourselves into the future. We have to make decisions in the present which will form our essence in time, even if we are unsure of the outcomes.

This is where the extreme claims of Sartre come alive. We are individually responsible for the freedom of all men. We are condemned to be free. Or as de Beauvoir put it “to will oneself free is also to will others free.” It’s only when we acknowledge and accept that others are subjects like us, and not objects, that need freedom the same as we do, that we can truly transcend towards freedom for all. But here she acknowledged there are two forms of freedom: ontological and moral, and it is only by engaging in the moral that we can achieve ontological and this is done by accepting that others are subjective beings to and that we must fight with them to gain freedom for ourselves and all of humanity.

Moral freedom is the choice whether to struggle for our freedom or not. It’s only by accepting our freedom, and not by living in bad faith, that we can achieve the objective of class and individual struggle: to be free.

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