[At the time of this writing], we are in the midst of a global viral outbreak (a pandemic) known as COVID-19 (the “coronavirus”). The majority of us are being confined to our homes in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the disease (“shelter in place”), the goal of which being to save human lives, and protect the most vulnerable in our communities such as the elderly or immunocompromised people.
Commenting on this situation, the New York Times featured an article called: “Does the Pandemic Have a Purpose? Only if we give it one." ”The coronavirus is neither good nor bad. It wants only to reproduce.”
Yes, that is a lengthy title. This is an opinion piece by Mr. Stephen Asma, a professor of philosophy. Obviously an attempt to capture an uplifting tone in the midst of this crisis, Mr. Asma’s opening line is, “Nature doesn’t care about you” (Asma, S., ‘Does the Pandemic Have a Purpose? Only if we give it one. The coronavirus is neither good nor bad. It wants only to reproduce,” The New York Times, nytimes.com, 16 April 2020)
From his evolutionary perspective, this is probably the most accurate thing he has to say in this article. Within an evolutionary worldview, he is being consistent because human life is not intrinsically valuable, and it has no deeper meaning. His next line is:
“That may seem harsh, but strictly speaking, nature doesn’t care about anyone or anything, except passing genes into the next generation.”
Darwinism, hailed by Mr. Asma as a “great achievement”, is very clear on one central point: “survival of the fittest” (actually reproduction) is what drives evolution forward. Asma in his own words on this: “Disease and death are not bugs in the system, but features. In fact, the cold-bath truth is that natural selection works only because many more organisms are born than can survive to procreate.”
So how should people who really believe that react to a global viral pandemic? Certainly not by “sheltering in place” and caring for the sick! That notion spawns from Christian morality. Rather, if he were being consistent, he should suggest that nature (evolution) should take its course. Just carry on as normal and let people be exposed. Ideally, this would cause a great deal of death among the lesser-fit—but surely that would be a good thing that would benefit the human species by making us stronger and fitter. That is, after all, how evolution supposedly works. Yet, paradoxically, that is not what Mr. Asma is suggesting we do. Instead, he suggests we make believe we are at war.
Imagining that we are at war with an enemy will help us make the difficult personal sacrifices (like social distancing and sheltering in place) that go beyond our own egoistic hedonism.
Hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure above all else) would certainly not dictate that we expose ourselves to a virus. Hedonism, in this case, would be on the side of sheltering in place to avoid the virus for our own self benefit. But, shouldn’t some simply have to die in the struggle with nature? Isn’t that what Asma just got finished saying a few paragraphs earlier in this same article? If Mr. Asma wants to suggest a heroic sacrifice in the face of this virus, then from an evolutionary perspective he should be saying the opposite: that we should ‘sacrifice’ by going about our lives as if there is no virus. Which is it? One cannot have it both ways and still be consistent.