An excerpt from my upcoming book, COVID-19 and Ethics in Canada, to be published in March or April of this year. In the introductory chapter of the book, I spend a few pages describing ethical action and the ethical subject, and do so by first comparing that ethical subjectivity with two forms of nihilism that have been prevalent throughout the pandemic.
My own conception of the ethical subject as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic draws from the work of Simon Critchley and in particular the ethics of commitment that he formulated in Infinitely Demanding. A good way to understand Critchley’s ethical subject and the ethics of commitment is by juxtaposing it with two types of nihilistic subjectivity, namely passive nihilism and active nihilism.
Passive nihilism describes a subjectivity that perceives the world around them in chaos, and in response makes the decision to turn inwards and to focus on themselves. The passive nihilist does not attempt to change what is wrong in the world, either because it seems too daunting or dangerous to confront, and may instead chooses hedonism or whatever will make them the most happy in the moment. In the context of the pandemic, the passive nihilist wants their creature comforts. They miss most of all their haircuts and going out to brunch. They want to go on holidays in the midst of suffering and disease.
The second type of nihilistic subjectivity that can be juxtaposed with the ethics of commitment is active nihilism. Whereas passive nihilism indicates a turning inward, active nihilism is about lashing out. It describes a subjectivity that sees the world around them in chaos, and in response makes the decision to make that world more chaotic still. They do not attempt to change the world as such, because they see that to change things is too daunting task. Out of frustration with their inability to do anything about the problems around them, they instead choose to burn the world to the ground. In the context of the pandemic, active nihilism is the person who fights against any reasonable attempts to contain the virus. They are against lockdowns, against masks, against vaccines, and against anyone who tries to keep others safe. They insist on breaking any rules put in place and do so in a way that is always brash. They protest at hospitals and grocery stores, and generally attempt to sabotage any formal or informal organizations that try to help.
These two nihilistic subjectivities are of course something of a caricature, though I am sure that many people will be able to identify a few people who perfectly fit the descriptions. But even as they are generalizations, they do describe broad trends and attitudes that have been easy to see throughout the pandemic. What these two nihilisms have in common is that they both rightly perceive the world around them in chaos, and they both recognize, rightly again I would add, that there is little anyone can do to fix the situation.
The ethical subject is different from both passive and active nihilism but recognizes the same things. They perceive the world in chaos, and know that there is no adequate response that will fix the situation. But whereas the passive and active nihilists are resigned to that fate, and fall into patterns of either hedonism or lashing out, the ethical subjectivity recognizes its inability to fix things but tries anyway. The ethical subject is a subjectivity that is formed in relation to a demand that is unfulfillable – thus Critchley’s “infinitely demanding.” In the context of the pandemic, they understand it is an unfair situation, and they know it is not in their power to actually make the virus go away, they all the same commit to doing whatever they can to minimize the suffering of others. As opposed to the nihilistic subjectivities, they are not entirely focused on themselves as individuals, but try to think about what is best for the collective wellbeing of their community. The ethical subject makes a commitment to social solidarity even while recognizing there is some absurdity to it, in the sense that they know their actions will make no noticeable difference in the face of such tragedy. They simply cannot help but try.