The Covid pandemic has upended the free world’s moral framework, laying time-honoured norms of personal agency, social responsibility, and risk tolerance to waste. Consider what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had to say about pandemic management in 2008: “The notion that we need to ‘trade liberty for security’ is misguided and dangerous. Public health concerns cannot be addressed with law enforcement or national security tools.” 13 years later, in a guest essay in The New York Times, the ACLU proclaimed that “the real threat to civil liberties comes from states banning vaccine and mask mandates”. The shift in the Overton window is real.
It isn’t clear, at this juncture, whether society will snap back to its pre-Covid morality or reshape itself around this new “moral matrix”. If the matrix solidifies, life will become more secure, more predictable- and to some of us, a lot less interesting.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with moral shifts. The gradual shift in society’s view of homosexuality- from an inherently immoral condition to a morally neutral variant of biology- has enabled gay individuals and communities to flourish. A similar sea change has rocked our perceptions of physical and intellectual disability, lifting a burden of shame from millions of shoulders. We used to think animals exist solely for human sustenance and pleasure, but now regard them as sentient beings in their own right (and with their own rights). If cats and dogs and whales could speak, surely they would thank us.