Our post-pandemic future: What basics should be its basis?
By Marcia Pally
What is needed to effect a change in our socio-economic and environmental practices? By what principles should we proceed after the pandemic, and toward which ends?
When the telephone was first introduced into general use, there was significant concern that the device would allow young women to talk to young men to whom their fathers had not introduced them. People outraged by the prospect found themselves in a long line of those who find novelty to be either saviour or Satan. Whatever-gizmo-it-is will either ravage civilization or save it. The same was thought of moving pictures, comics, television and that indecent technology, the novel.
And so, today, the internet is either destroying the brains of the young and abetting extremism, or it is promoting global understanding and, with connectivity from Brisbane to Boston, elevating worldwide education and reducing poverty.
Talk of the post-COVID-19 future has something of the same character. On one hand, it bodes a dystopic future of increased online everything, school and work reduced to information transfer, psychological dysfunction and increasing unemployment. On the other hand, it offers a chance to rework our capitalist economies, boom/bust cycles, rust-belt regions and, best of all, green the planet.
In this frenzy between last rites and resurrection, we might want to ask: what exactly is needed to effect a change in our socio-economic and environmental practices? By what principles should we proceed, and toward which ends?
I ask this as I look in dismay at my country, the United States, where the pandemic has been handled not on new principles, but on the “usual” ones of competition and class and race divisions. COVID-19 infection and death rates are far higher in low-income and minority neighbourhoods, owing to poor health care, crowding, unprotected and unsanitary working conditions – all of which are aggravated by systemic, increasing inequality. The production and distribution of medical equipment and food, rather than running through national programs for equitable allocation, were left to the open market, leading to massive milk dumping, the destruction of crops and price gouging on medical supplies, all while aid programs scrape for food and hospitals lack masks.
So, if we’re going to rework our modus operandi, by what principles?
Neurobiologist Darcia Narvaez suggests that we start with what kind of creature we are: “To approach eudaimonia or human flourishing, one must have a concept of human nature, a realization of what constitutes a normal baseline.” To create societal structures for human thriving, we should understand what makes humans thrive. Aristotle had a similar proposal: “The nature of a thing is its end.” If one understands the nature of a thing, one understands its end, its specific form of flourishing.
Narvaez accordingly holds that our “baseline” is relational: Whom a person becomes is a co-construction of genes, gene expression from environmental effects … There is no being without shared social relations.
Science, it seems, is finally catching up to three thousand years of religious tradition.
Theologically in the Abrahamic traditions, relationality begins with the idea that Being, existence, results from the source of all that is. There could be nothing, but there’s something. The source of all “something” is what some people call God. Each worldly thing is radically different from God —differences in materiality/immateriality and finitude/infinitude. Yet, each partakes of the structuring cause to exist at all.
This difference yet partaking/relation is the way anything comes to be.The grammar of existence, the baseline, is difference-amid-relation. As Aquinas put it, “in all things God works intimately.”
As difference-amid-relation is the structure of every existing thing, not only are persons distinct from God yet in intimate relation with him, we are also distinct from each other yet in necessary relation. Each of us is of unique talents and value. And yet, as Martin Buber wrote, “the individual is a fact of existence insofar as he steps into a living relation with other individuals.” Kirk Wegter-McNelly summarisesthe point by saying the cosmos is “a place in which entangled independence-through-relationship is the fundamental characteristic of being.”
Importantly, relationality is not a binary between distinction and relation. It is reciprocal constitution: each becomes the singular person she is through networks of relations, those near and those that extend out in our paths of global connectedness. The opportunities, stresses and harms we come to are not determined only by those close by.
Trinity is a wonderful teacher of this idea. Each Trinitarian person is distinct, each with “its own particular distinguishing notes,” as Gregory of Nyssa wrote in a letter to Basil the Great. Yet the identity of each is given by the other Trinitarian persons. Edith Stein, the German Jewish philosopher who became a Carmelite sister, notes that for the persons of the Trinity, “I am” is identical with “I am one with you” and with “we are.”
As humanity partakes of this triune God to exist at all, we partake of this distinct-persons-in-community. The imago is triune. Each person, in the “image” of this giving God, becomes who she distinctly is through giving and being given to.
Another way to understand distinction-amid-relation is through covenant, a bond between distinct parties where each gives for the flourishing of the other. It is the understanding of a shared fate and future that distinguishes covenant from other human transactions. Unlike contract, which protects interests, covenant protects relationship.
Covenant begins dyadically — God-Adam, God-Noah — yet does not remain so. Persons give to God also by giving to others: the crucial Hebrew term is hekdesh, “made holy” or “made a gift to God.” These relations-of-giving too are mutually constitutive: covenantal commitment to others constitutes covenant with God, and covenant with God sustains us in covenantal commitments to others. The entwinedness of covenant is the foundation of the Ten Commandments, the first three of which pertain to person and God, the rest, seamlessly, to relations among persons.
Covenant thus extends from dyad to larger associations, where gift from God to person generates gift from person to person through the giving loop, thus sustaining it.
Who’s in the loop? All the nations. In covenanting with Adam and Noah, God covenants with all humanity. God’s covenant with the patriarchs is “for the blessing of all the nations” (Genesis 12:3; 26:4; 28:14). Covenant is among the precepts undergirding the biblical and rabbinic obligations not only to the domestic poor but to the enemy and stranger.
A cooperative species
Distinction-amid-relation, Trinity and covenant — these are Narvaez’s relational “baseline” in a theological voice. Evolutionary biology and psychology also hold that H. sapiens are a “cooperative” species, as primatologist Frans de Waal writes. Cooperativity is behaviours “associated with a disadvantage or cost for the actor and a benefit for the recipient.” While evolutionary pressures yielded episodic aggression and opportunistic raiding where advantageous, cooperativity and egalitarianism — including communal property and childcare — along with robust fairness and sharing norms were the hunter gatherer modus vivendi for 250,000 or so years.
Cooperativity was also the basis for human cognitive and emotional development, which begin in the playful exchange of facial expression between human infants and their kin and non-kin caretakers. This exchange yields a “unified common intersubjective space” with others that even infants know are different from themselves. It grounds what anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy calls “emotional modernity”: the capacities to grasp and coordinate with the attention, intention and emotions of others in order to sustain relationships and learn about the world.
Psychologist Michael Tomasello adds that joint attention and intention allow for role reversal and recursive thinking (“I know that you want me to know …”), which together allow for complex, collaborative endeavours. “The key novelties in human evolution,” he writes, were “adaptations for an especially cooperative, indeed hypercooperative, way of life.” Benefits of cooperativity included improved food gathering and protection from animal predators as well as more equitable food distribution yielding greater longevity for more people and thus greater chances at reproduction.
“Overall,” anthropologist Richard Wrangham notes, “physical aggression in humans happens at less than 1 per cent of the frequency among either of our closest ape relatives.” Thus, “we really are a dramatically peaceful species.”
Archaeological and fossil evidence show that violence between hunter gatherer groups, where less cooperativity is needed and thus the bar to aggression possibly lower, was also episodic. Indeed, archaeologists have found “no conclusive evidence for intergroup fighting in the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic” (10,000–8,800 BCE) and they warn of the “‘bellicosification’ of prehistory.” Matthew Zefferman and Sarah Mathew concur that the archaeological record “does not provide much evidence of warfare in Pleistocene forager societies.”
In addition to archaeology, little in the fossil findings evinces systemic — rather than episodic — aggression. “Such signatures alone,” anthropologists Marc Kissel and Nam Kim note, “are insufficient to indicate violence” rather than accident, friendly fire during hunts and so on. As for Steven Pinker’s (in)famous claims of prehistoric aggression, Kissel and Kim warn that “this represents only a tiny portion of the human evolutionary record.” They conclude that periods of the Holocene show “virtually no signs of violent conflict” intergroup.
Why systemic violence?
Around 8,000 BCE, the archaeological record shows substantial increases in systemic practices of severe aggression, including endemic raiding and warfare, torture, capital punishment, imprisonment, impoverishment and enslavement between and within groups. What change in conditions prodded the shift? Most proximately, agriculture, which brought to humanity something new: surpluses, one’s neighbour’s goods, ever-present temptations to grab by force. Sociologist Robert Bellah explains the emergence of inequalities and hierarchy:
A tiny ruling group that used coercive powers to augment its authority was sustained by agricultural surpluses and labor systematically appropriated from a much larger number of agricultural producers.
Consistent with Bellah’s work, Douglas Fry’s study of present-day foragers finds that hierarchical societies engage in war while egalitarian foragers don’t. In short, with monopolisable surpluses, substantial inequalities and hierarchy, the human capacities for what had been episodic aggression became systemic occurrences of severe aggression inter and intra-group.
If the development of human cognition and emotion is grounded in “hypercooperativity,” and oppression and violence increase with severe inequality and hierarchy — if the human condition is distinction-amid-relation — this “baseline” must be taken into account in discussions of a post-pandemic future.
We could attempt withdrawal into nationalistic, class and racial bunkers, or we can recognise that in a relational world, viruses, like people and ideas, have a way of getting around. Should we ignore that after SARS, MERS, Ebola and COVID-19, we are channelling the pharaoh of Exodus, who was to slow to learn the lessons nature was teaching. Or, to express the same lesson in the words of Rita Mae Brown, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Professor Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and Fordham University. She is a guest Professor in the Theology Faculty at Humboldt University, Berlin, and a Fellow at the Center for Theological Inquiry, Princeton. She is the author of Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality.