The question we received is the following:

Do you think that in times of chaos, like the pandemic we are all experiencing now, all of our values and morals fall out the window, and we kind of revert back to Hobbes' idea of the state of nature? People hoarding toilet papers, emptying out grocery stores and even going as far as protesting and risking public health, truly reminds me of the idea that we are selfishly driven.

Silvia Panizza responds, giving three reasons for thinking that human nature is not only motivated by self-interest, not even in crisis conditions like we are now, and perhaps especially not in crisis conditions.

I think many of us have been dismayed at the news of people buying large quantities of supplies, leaving the supermarket shelves empty, regardless of the fact that others could be left without. That is worrying enough when it comes to toilet paper, but it is particularly sad, or infuriating, if we think of the shortage of hand sanitizer and face masks. In these cases we can think of a sort of exaggerated survival instinct kicking in, whether it’s based on good reasons or not. ‘I want to make sure I will be fine, even if that means others will be worse off’. We would be right to call this thought or motivation selfish. So we wonder, is this what we are really like? Is it true, as you say, ‘that we are selfishly driven’? And are generosity, courage, kindness more superficial qualities, in which we can only indulge when everything is fine for us, or which we try to manifest only because of rules that are imposed on us?

This would indeed be a bleak picture. But I would like to offer three reflections to suggest that we don’t have to reach this conclusion.

The first is a simple observation. Alongside the toilet paper hoarders, there are stories of courage and generosity under pressure. Here’s one: a team of AE medics in Italy was recently assigned to a desk based contact tracing job. It would have been a lot safer for them, and the opportunity was offered. But they refused and protested: they asked to remain in the AE department, and risk their own health, because they thought it was a better use of their skills in the current emergency. Or, in Ireland, we can think of the medical doctors who returned from living abroad to help with the crisis, and the ones who went back to work despite having retired. 

The second reflection has the form of a question: Should we take an extraordinary situation as revealing what we are really like? Or is our behaviour under stress only one manifestation of our selves, no more revealing of our own nature than our behaviour on any ordinary day? Perhaps both courage and selfishness in times of danger are expressions of what we can be like, one of many aspects of a composite identity.

Third, is a thought about how we do good. (according to various moral theories). Sometimes we do good spontaneously, without thinking. We see someone needs help, and we offer it immediately. Sometimes we need to train ourselves to be good. We cultivate virtues, such as patience, kindness, generosity. So when the time to help others comes, we will immediately respond in the right way through habit, but it required some previous work to reach that state. And sometimes  we help others because we know that it is right thing to do, even if we’re not immediately inclined to help. Reason and reflection correct our impulses. I believe that just like spontaneous goodness, the good we do because of training, or as a result of reflection, is related to a part of who we are. We have instincts, we have habits, and we have reason. 

Perhaps self-interest is indeed a deep and inescapable human feature. But it is not all that we are or have to be. 

Silvia Panizza

Silvia Panizza

Teaching Fellow in Philosophy