Thursday, 30 April 2020

The Corona Virus: What are We to Learn? Post 4

Please see
The Corona Virus: What are We to Learn?  Post 1

The Corona Virus: What are We to Learn?  Post 2

The Corona Virus: What are We to Learn?  Post 3

It would seem to be that the basic concern of ethics is how we should properly balance consideration for the other with consideration for the self.  It is thus within these axioms that many people wish to evaluate the present call for social distancing in response to the dangers from Covid-19. Of course, social distancing will necessarily affect the balance of the self and the other. The connection to the other is obviously affected.  The call for social distancing may, however, be initiated from either consideration. The call to wear a mask, for example, does not necessarily indicate a greater concern for self for this call may equally arise from a concern for the other. One person may wear a mask because of concern for self -- he/she does not wish to catch the virus -- while another may be motivated because of concern for the other -- he/she does not want to harm the other. But regardless of the reason, the very wearing of a mask still reflects a barrier between one person and another. To express this more bluntly, we may practice social distancing because we are concerned for self or because we are concerned for the other. Nevertheless, there is still an effect on how we thereby interact and this does impact our modern ethics.

As ethical interest and discussion further developed within society over history, this endeavour to find the best and most proper balance between the self and the other actually became more challenging. The interaction of individuals became more and more intense. The nature of the collective groupings within societies and of societies became more and more multi-dimensional. The spectrum of ideas expanded. The demand of proper balance, as such, became much more complex. There was also a further recognition of the mutual co-dependence of individuals within the societal unit. This led, often, to a perspective that the optimum conclusion for the one would also be the most beneficial option for the other. As society developed in certain ways, the demands of the self and the demands of the other were not necessarily deemed to be completely at odds with each other. While there could, of course, still be conflict between the self and the other, the determination of what was best for the unit as a whole, for the grouping itself, became a powerful factor in the determination of the proper ethic. The group itself became a substantial focus and the focus of choice included what was best for the group as a whole.

This had a major impact on the very nature of society. Of course, the factors of concern for self and concern for the other still demanded balancing.  A further consideration, however, was what form of grouping would be best for the group as a whole. For example, the Capitalist argument against Communism was no longer solely that the latter option was an ethically improper method by which to balance concern for self and concern for the other. It was further contended that the Communist model would not be a good alternative, over time, for the group, and its members, as a whole. The dynamics of the group would flounder. As we are all connected, we will all suffer. The recognition and even promotion of the connections and the interrelationship of the factors of the group became significant considerations in our ethical determinations.

It is in this regard that the call for social distancing can be seen as significant. Social distancing, by definition, promotes the separation of individuals. This is especially significant in modern times for, while we basically do respect the needs of individuals for space and privacy, there is also a strong ethical call for interaction. This flows naturally from a recognition of our inherent connection within the setting of the group. As such, significant value is given to  individuality which exists specifically within the context of the overall group. Our societies actually do take steps to ensure that individuality and the call of individuality do not necessarily challenge our social base. We may wonder, though, if the value of the individual and individuality, including the treasured importance of our distinctions in self, are being somewhat overlooked in the advancement of social interaction. 

It is within this context that one who recognizes God may, perhaps, find an important message in the call of social distancing connected to this pandemic. The reality today as a result of the pandemic is clearly not the ideal. As individuals we are to socially interact and connect together as communal units (including within the overall grouping of one humanity). We, though, within our motivation to connect, can often overlook the nature of the distinctiveness of the individual. Our differences as individuals can greatly impact on our drive and ability to connect. Our social bonding is easier when everyone is seen as  basically similar and/or distinctions can be easily discounted or ignored. While we may accept some level of individuality, we may also wish to limit its impact. What is lost, though, is what we may gain from the uniqueness of the distinctive individuality. To truly reach the highest ideals of the group, we must purposefully call upon the true individuality of the members albeit that the challenge of forming the proper, correct grouping would thus be more difficult.

Within Torah thought, there is the constant demand to thus find the proper connection of the individual to the group and the group to the individual. Individuality is important and the collective is important -- and we are called upon within Torah to highlight both. We thus see, within Torah, strong, almost contradictory statements, regarding the value of both. We must embrace both. We must, as such, be careful that, within society, the call of individuality does not impede the advancement of the value of the collective. Our society has actually been careful in this regard. In the same way, though, we must be careful that the call of the collective should not impede the advancement of the value of the individual. In certain ways, our society has been weaker in this regard as indicated in its weakness in dealing responsibly with divergent and even problematic ideas. Recognizing individuality calls upon us to truly see the other distinctively as we thoughtfully determine each person's proper place within the group.

Social distancing can thus serve as a reminder of this challenge of seeing each individual properly as we connect within society. All individuals are not the same and, while there is some value, in certain ways, in seeing everyone as the same and treating everyone the same, this can also be a problem. Individuals are different and distinct and we must also sometimes step back to see the other apart from ourselves. When we come together as a group and in our connection with Hashem, our individuality is a treasure we must also bring to the relationship as appropriate. This demands of us to see our distinctiveness. This demands of us also to evaluate these distinctions and determine the proper application. This may make our connecting as a unit more challenging and difficult but it is also most valuable and will necessarily improve our connection as a society. It may be that, in a certain way, what we are to learn from this pandemic and the call of social distancing is the necessity of confronting and thereby integrating into our beings the significance of individuality and individual distinctiveness..

Rabbi Ben Hecht

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