Critical Lessons from the Corona Moment of Humanity

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Existentialists taught us that we are all thrown into the world. It means that we are not at home in the world but have to adapt and make ourselves at home. Martin Heidegger says that our thrown-ness does not close our fate but opens possibilities of being in the world. Religious language mellows or tones down these rather harsh articulations of our status in the world with a sense of given-ness. It teaches us that the world is a gift. The existentialists see facticity and not fatalism in the given-ness. The given-ness of the world does not limit us but on the other hand, opens ways of being human in the world. The disruption that we experience today because of the coronavirus pandemic is unhoming us in several ways. While it is dislocating us, it is also opening new ways of being human. It will be important to explore the new ways that will be open to us so that we may choose the emancipative and ethical ones.

As we come closer to the first quarter of the 21st century, we seem to have come full circle with the European post-world war II scenario. At that time, philosophers raised the question about why and how did humanity land into that form of barbarism in the post-Enlightenment period. It was in this context that Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote the Dialectic of Enlightenment to figure out ‘how humanity sunk into new forms of barbarism instead of shifting into a new state of the human condition.’ They indicated that the West got subjugated to a new myth of instrumental rationality that blossomed into the totalitarianism of fascism. They taught that Fascist totalitarianism is the most extreme conclusion of Western Enlightenment. They think of instrumental rationality as an attempt to understand the world in order to exercise mastery over it. This instrumentalization of nature in the power of reason, science, and technology also led to the instrumentalization of humanity. Violence to nature also led to violence to humanity.

Max Weber had already pointed out that humanity is trapped into the iron cage of bureaucracy because of over the rationalisation of our society. He had pioneered the theorisation of what came to be called instrumental reason. Adorno and Horkheimer depend on Weber’s notion of instrumental reason. Weber taught that instrumental rationality is a practice of matching means to ends which involves the subjugation of humans to its own needs for the purpose of utilising everything and anything. This means the instrumental reason is calculative, utilitarian and pragmatic. It is a world apart from and even opposed to what Adorno and Horkheimer call objective and autonomous rationality which is free and creative and is involved with the examination of values and ascertaining of goals. Unfortunately, instrumental rationality dominates objective and autonomous rationality and human growth becomes one dimensional. They teach that instrumental reason is central to not just fascism but also to capitalism.

The Dialectic of Reason of Adorno and Horkheimer does illuminate us about our condition even today. Following the second world war, instrumental rationality did not die. It flowered and grew alongside growing capitalism, science, and technology. Technology is nothing but the materialization of instrumental rationality. With the growth of instrumental rationality, a critical reason which is both objective and autonomous is exhibiting a slow death. Instrumental logic renders everything to its exchangeable value. This exchangeable value is calculated and quantified. Everything, thus, simply has the dignity and value of a number. Things, human beings and anything has value only in terms of its use-value that has its exchange value which is simply a number. This line of thinking diverts the sacred value of human life and reduces all humans to exchangeable things as their value is solely calculated on the basis of instrumental logic. Thus, we reached a moral slope that readily gives up the command ‘thou shalt not kill’ which is based on the singularity and sacredness of the individual human person. Thus, Adorno and Horkheimer forcefully teach that both fascism and capitalism reduces humans to mere numbers.

The instrumental logic of instrumental reason has reached its climax under the crises of the coronavirus. Covid-19 sees any human being as simply an instant/number that is next in the line to be a victim and vector of its infectious designs. A human being is just a number to Covid-19. Paradoxically as we calculate the persons that are infected, healed and dead because of corn viral infection, we too submit to this instrumental logic. An infected person whether dead or alive is becoming just a nameless number to us. All meaning and teleology/ destiny are abstracted from human victims. We empathize with the sheer number of victims that do not have any face for us. We have fully surrendered to instrumentalist logic. But there is a silver lining. The faceless humanity still calls us to an ethical response. We cannot totalize and render into numbers the infinity that is shining on the face of humanity. Thus, the truth taught by Emanuel Levinas in his book , Totality and Infinity calls us to ethical responsibility.

The ethical imperative that we feel about the staggering death and innocent victimization of humanity cannot be allowed to be dissolved into a moment of aesthetic sympathy. The imperative of the corona moment of humanity challenges us to bring about a transformative ethical response. This ethical response has to be both individual as well as collective. Above all , it has to restore the lost dignity of a human person. The corona moment of humanity can become truly emancipative and open new ways of being human in the world. It can open us to debunk capitalist realism that thinks that there is no other alternative to capitalism. Economic history has not come to an end with capitalism. We can indeed try and think of other possible economic structures. Capitalism had a beginning. It has run its course. Maybe we need a new economic structure. We cannot step into a post-Covid-19 without at least editing the reigning economic structures. But above all, we need to give up our slavery to instrumental reason. Maybe we will have to give up the legacy of European enlightenment. Thinkers like Joergen Habermas will not agree with us. We cannot simply give up on reason and enter into anarchy. What we need is to adopt critical reason that will put instrumental reason in its place.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao