In the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, a philosophy professor posted in the social media a cry of despair: he was having trouble ‘working from home,’ knowing that almost any work he might do would be less important than anything he could do that would help others. A friend quipped, ‘It took the pandemic to make you see that?’
I have no doubt that the philosopher had at hand all the familiar replies: (a) we have a contractual obligation to do our work, but not to help a frail neighbour get groceries; (b) we have our own lives to lead and are already set on them; we are not resources for the use of others; (c) we refuse to be taken for suckers, and our colleagues are getting on with their work; (d) our work may not be helping others, but at least it isn’t hurting anyone.
Those are, in ordinary circumstances, good reasons for not conscripting us to help those to whom we owe no special obligations. But in our actual circumstances, they are pretty weak reasons for deciding to do nothing to help anyone outside our households.
As terrible as this pandemic is, we have not yet reached the point where general conscription is justified. But any of us can now change the balance between getting on with our research (or scholarship, or whatever) and attending to someone else. Most of us could do so without coming close to breach of contract, abandoning our lives, becoming doormats, or hurting more than we help. The most senior and best paid among us can do so at no significant cost to ourselves or even our careers. So why don’t we?
An easy answer is selfishness. But I have come to think that explanation is too easy. It isn’t merely that when we are dependent on reciprocity selfishness can be self-defeating. I think it isn’t as easy to be selfish as some assume. It takes discipline and effort to bring yourself to care mostly about your profession, your recondite passions, trivial marks of distinction, or purely positional goods. We were taught the necessary skills as students. Many of us then adopted principles that reinforced those skills. For some, keeping faith with those principles became an end in itself. It was hard work, and did not come naturally.
To think a narrow selfishness is the academic’s default is as wrong as thinking that bias is the default disposition of a judge. Left to themselves, many judges would be decent. It takes a deep commitment to the rule of law to be willing to apply, consistently and without exception, any and all existing laws, no matter what they are or how they affect people. That disposition is not impartiality: it is a willingness to give full effect to the biases encoded in the law. Without discipline, an ordinary (human) judge is liable to veer off into justice, humanity, or common sense. Solomon’s wisdom did not lie in his skill at applying rules.
My guess is that academics (in my own fields, anyway) are less selfish than we are embarrassed to help. Admittedly, a few seem without shame in explaining to epidemiologists how the pandemic will progress, or to all of us how we should value human lives against the stock markets. But they are outliers. Many of us feel ashamed at now having so little to contribute to the public good, especially if we were educated (as I was) entirely at the public expense.
One remedy is to remember how much we can do that is non-specific. Any of us can help someone (the housekeeper, the gig worker, the laid-off server) fill in the forms that stand between them and the benefits our ravaged welfare states still provide. Before heading to the grocery store, any of us can ask someone what we can pick up for them—and not, by the way, by saying ‘Let me know if you ever need help.’ We know, or can easily find, people who always need help. Don’t expect them to supplicate. We also probably have phones, as well as the numbers of people who just need to talk. (And not, unless you are under 25, by texting.)
We omit these small services, not because we are selfish, because it is hard to admit that these are the only sorts of things that many of us in good jobs, ‘working from home,’ can do for others. We feel embarrassed that we have little more to offer. We wish for something grander, something that would display our expertise, perhaps leading to acknowledgment of how smart and important we really are. That is not selfishness. But it does exhibit, shall we say, an unhealthy relationship with one’s self.