Eighteen months ago, in the midst of global anguish over Brexit and Donald Trump, the writer and actor Stephen Fry declared: "The last, best hope for humanity is that we are invaded by a species of aliens from Mars because it would unite us instantly. Suddenly we wouldn't say, 'But hang on, you're Islamic ugh, you're Jewish ugh, you're transgender, you're gay, you're this'. We'd just say, 'Come on! Everyone on the planet, we've got to fight!'"
The Martians never arrived. Instead, Earth got Covid-19 – a different sort of alien invasion. It hasn’t brought world unity but even a hardened cynic must acknowledge reasons to be hopeful. In particular, we have learned some useful lessons about ourselves:
1. Facts isolated from values leave us cold.
Contrary to doomsayers over Brexit, people never gave up on expertise. Leave voters continued to go to doctors for their ailments, and to mechanics for their car repairs. But facts – especially from the dismal science, economics – do not move people.
Behavioural scientists acknowledged this long ago. Hence, the fashion for “nudging” citizens into doing the right thing – a paternalistic approach to reform that bypasses the need to rationally persuade the public.
The coronavirus pandemic shows, however, that people are willing to change their behaviour – and change radically – if they can connect facts to values. People have listened to the science because it has meaning: it is telling us how to protect both our loved ones and society’s most vulnerable.
There is a moral here for climate activists. Simply creating more knowledge will not help the planet if that science cannot be connected to the things which people care about. Building bridges across the political spectrum – rooted in a common concern for the welfare of the next generation – has real potential.
2. A new religion is unnecessary.
Philosophers and theologians have agonised for centuries over what must fill the void left by God. Covid-19 reminds us the answer is: Nothing.
Human civilisation does not need a guiding religion or ideology to make moral progress or to overcome existential threats. There is enough common ground between Christians and Muslims, Conservatives and Marxists, and everyone in between, to unite on worthy projects – be it conquering a virus or creating a fairer society.
A new ideology is not required. Kindness can be enough to get us through.
3. Freedom means moral responsibility.
Humans only pretend to desire freedom, as any French existentialist philosopher will tell you. We grumble about not having enough free time, and claim to want more control over our lives. But then something like a pandemic comes along and it reminds us that real freedom is, in fact, terrifying.
The power to either save or kill is a burden we never asked for but we’re stuck with it nonetheless; it is part of being human. Long after the lockdown is lifted, you and I will be able to save lives by sharing our wealth with those who are worse off, and we will be able to kill by, for example, joining online mobs or consuming without concern for other life.
4. People are overwhelmingly good.
You didn’t need a global pandemic to tell you the media – traditional but especially social – gives you a distorted impression of your fellow beings. What evidence we have from evolutionary biology and psychology, and from going about our daily business, is that people are mainly good. The outpouring of neighbourliness, solidarity and self-sacrifice in recent weeks is just another marker of that fundamental truth.
Humans are, of course, capable of great evil but that usually happens through ignorance or duress. Actual psychopaths are very rare. Even Donald Trump, though narcissistic and power-hungry, probably thinks he is doing the right thing most of the time.
In his new book, Humankind, the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman expertly marshals the proof that our species errs on the side of being nice.
Stephen Fry has made the point more poetically: "I do believe, as PG Wodehouse put it, if you're in the middle of Leicester Square and you throw a pebble it's going to bounce off the skull of a decent person, a good person, a person with a good heart and a desire to love and be loved and to understand and be understood."
But don’t just take their word for it. Evaluate the evidence. Look around you.