Seeking Orientation in the Pandemic: Uncertainties and Moral Orientation

Reinhard G. Mueller

14 April, 2020
Albert Camus writes in The Plague (1947): “pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away…” [Endnote 1] It has become clear that the Coronavirus outbreak took many countries by surprise and that many actions came too late. The pandemic affects vast parts of the globe: it deeply disrupts our everyday lives; millions lose their jobs, fearing for their existence; the health system runs the risk of collapse, which all other social systems try to alleviate; the uncertainty of economic prospects undermines the trust in the markets, and an unprecedented deflationary spiral seems imminent; the routines of our everyday orientations, both professionally and privately, have abruptly changed. Disorientation, fear, panic, depression, uncertainty spread around the world, impacting each individual and all societal orientation systems. The terminology of the philosophy of orientation, as developed by Werner Stegmaier, who already provided an initial essay on this topic, may be particularly suitable to understand the complex processes of disorientation and reorientation currently taking place in our world. The diverse needs for orientation and reorientation become especially obvious – and require philosophical reflection. In this essay, I’m focusing on two aspects: first, how the current pandemic foregrounds the needs and processes of orientation, and second, how the current emergency mode is accompanied by an overall shift to moral orientation.

1. Increased Demands for Orientation: Uncertainty and Time Pressure

The rapid reorientations currently taking place around the globe foreground that nothing can be taken for granted and that instead everything is always changing – whether we know it or not. The world has indeed largely appeared stable for many decades: everyday life has, in most countries, gradually improved; absolute poverty and relative starvation numbers have decreased; life expectancy has risen; the worldwide economy has overall grown extensively – most people’s lives have improved over the past generations. Capital markets, which flourish best with certainty, stability, and long-term economic trust, have strongly contributed to the permanent stabilization of our routines and the tacit expectation that everything will continue running as usual. In terms of the philosophy of orientation: When orientation routines, which have once developed, are running “as usual” for a long time, then they become “natural” to us and they create a certain kind of knowledge. If our routines have “proven reliable throughout changing situations,” “orientation knowledge” develops, i.e. “an implicit or a non-propositional knowledge about how to use or deal with things,” a “knowing-how” (84). [Endnote 2] And when routines have become natural in our lives, we grow unaware of them: our everyday routines become “a self-forgotten knowledge,” based on self-evident “plausibilities” (84) – and they may therefore appear as if they were certainties. And as long as everything runs and works as usual, we’re unaware of our needs for orientation: “the need for orientation only arises when orientation fails” (5f.). In the current pandemic, many orientation processes have stopped running as usual, and this creates unsettlement and disorientation. Now, it becomes clear that our orientation routines of the past decades were in fact not based on certainties, but only on temporary plausibilities. We’re constantly orienting ourselves, but our processes of orientation only become noticeable when they stop working, when we encounter disruptions such as those in the current crisis. Now, we can observe how we try to reorient ourselves to this new and challenging situation, how we grasp for footholds, how we tentatively hold on to some while letting go of others, without ever reaching certainties.

Most people are forced to reorient themselves and cope with the new situation. One can observe how each societal orientation system is facing an enormous pressure to find its way successfully under the new conditions: above all politics and economics, but also the law, mass media, art, education, and science. Despite the disruptions, political leaders are, however, not completely disoriented: on the one hand, they can rely on contingency plans for epidemics, based on similar events in the past (even if orienting oneself to these plans may pose new challenges); on the other hand, now each government can orient itself to other governments’ orientations (and possibly learn from their mistakes or success). Facing an immense pressure of time and a persistent uncertainty, political and economic decision-makers now rely especially on science. And scientists, above all virologists, now become political figures. However, even science – which is mostly exempt from having to make risky decisions and which can critically and calmly observe its objects from a theoretical or godlike viewpoint, without being directly pressed for time – now likewise faces the needs of orientation: of having to make decisions under the conditions of uncertainty and the pressure of time. While the “vantage point” of science is indeed true knowledge or even “truth” (191), it now becomes particularly obvious that even science does not provide us with final truths or certainties. Instead, scientists likewise have to operate under these conditions of orientation. As such, scientists don’t grasp “true facts” but only what we call “footholds” (Anhaltspunkte), which provide merely sufficient “hold” when they sufficiently fit into the patterns of established scientific knowledge. “Orientation can rely only on points of reference, clues, leads, and footholds” (59) when establishing any kind of knowledge. Especially the medical field is not interested in ultimate theoretical knowledge, but rather in the pragmatic means to their end of restoring health to a sick person. A sufficiently durable foothold is one that alleviates the needs: a remedy, a therapy, a cure. Almost every week, sometimes every day, new studies appear that in part expand and in part contradict prior knowledge about the Coronavirus and the pandemic’s socio-economic and political impact. Many footholds don’t hold very long, and the current state of research continues to change quickly: every time new surprising data or knowledge appears, new orientation decisions become necessary, and all are made under persistent uncertainty.

2. The Emergency Mode and Moral Orientation

Under the pressure to act quickly, most governments have oriented themselves in similar ways: fearing the collapse of the health system and high numbers of deaths due to insufficient medical aid, more and more countries decided to shut down most of their economy and social life. These societies have overall shifted to what Stegmaier calls an “emergency mode” of orientation: everyone, and every societal system of orientation, is forced to focus on the essentials of life and the nearest horizons. The emergency mode goes hand in hand with a widespread shift to moral orientation: “moral orientation” sets in when one feels the “inner coercion to help others who are, in immediate proximity, faced with an emergency situation they cannot master themselves” (206). The inner coercion to jump to the help of those in need is felt most strongly by the closest “neighbor,” the “next available” person: “The one who is temporally and spatially nearest to the suffering of another is the one who can no longer escape the coercion to offer immediate help by passing on his or her responsibility to others, but who must act him or herself” (211). The coercion is immediate; preceding any theoretical or analytic expositions, it urges you to act unconditionally: “if the situation requires it, you risk your life in the process without considering your own benefits or the potential costs” (210).

The current crisis is indeed an emergency situation in this sense, but the moral reactions are much more diverse depending on people’s “proximity” to the emergency: some are directly affected, others are far away; some strongly feel the inner coercion to help, others less. But in general, social media and digital news media reduce the perceived proximity and increase the inner moral coercion: videos and images of emergencies at New York’s hospitals and the calls for volunteers spread all over the country and urge many to do whatever they can to jump in and help. Through digital media, everyone more or less feels like being the “neighbor.”

The political containment measures affect all areas of society and urge everyone “to do one’s part” by staying home, refraining from social gatherings, and practicing “social distancing.” Our everyday behaviors change, and we expect the same from everyone else. The more people publicly comply with the restrictions, the greater the coercion for everyone to follow. To act differently or to just consider acting differently makes you feel guilty. This far-reaching change of (more or less) everyone’s behavior and thinking affects, in terms of the philosophy of orientation, a society’s “dominant morals.”

A society’s morals, i.e. its “ensemble of moral standards,” are, according to the philosophy of orientation, in effect not through explicit formulation or systematic justification, but prior to everything else by being “self-evident” to its members and thus immediately plausible (215). Some of a society’s values are more central than others – and moral taboos, for instance, protect values at the very core (216). Those violating or objecting to central values run the “risk of being excluded as ‘immoral’” (215). “Morals” are “dominant” as they immunize themselves against deviations and objections: “they render questions and inquiries not only unnecessary but also inappropriate or absurd” (216). As such, dominant morals permeate not only our behavior but also our thinking: you thus already feel guilty when you merely think about violating central values.

The current emergency situation, however, does not change the basic values of affected societies themselves: the values of human life, freedom, justice, well-being remain at the core despite temporary restrictions. But what happens in the current state of exception is that the central value of human life, of protecting it by all means, is expanded to the periphery of the moral standards guiding our behaviors. Individually greatly diverse ways of behavior, of entertainment, leisure, amusement, and sports, are sacrificed for more essential values. The (almost) unquestioned logic proceeds: 1. Every life must be protected equally. 2. To protect every life equally, the health system must remain intact. 3. The health system only remains intact, if the spread is limited. 4. The spread is only limited if economy and social life are restricted. 5. Therefore: We must restrict the economy and social life so that every life is protected equally. If moral orientation means that one unconditionally jumps to the help of those in need, then the same structure can now be observed on a socio-political level: the whole society (more or less unconditionally) jumps to the help of the emergency in the health system, which jumps to the help of those in an emergency.

Moral orientation furthermore involves that one focus on the emergency situation at the cost of other orientations: The moral coercion forces one to neglect all one’s “advantages and disadvantages – it shuts down the leeways of your orientation, without reservation.” Moral coercion “suspends all orientations but the moral one; it requires your full commitment” (208). This selective mode of orientation, of moral orientation accompanying the emergency mode, is furthermore amplified by the specific way the health system operates. The focal point of healthcare professionals is to equally take care of the sick, protect life by all means, alleviate the emergency and urgent needs – in the present, in the “here and now.” Just as in moral orientation, when one unconditionally jumps in to help in the immediate emergency situation, healthcare providers must likewise focus only on the present emergency, largely disregarding the future or other orientations.

Politicians, having to rely on the expertise of scientists and doctors, then also hand over responsibility for making decisions. In light of the current, immediately demanding needs of life, all future needs are put on hold. But political (and many economic) decision-makers must take into account not only the needs of the present – high numbers of deaths, the virus’ spread, maintaining the health system, providing food and drink, sustaining the economic and financial system, taking care of the unemployed – but also future needs: the long-term consequences of an economic shutdown, a deflationary spiral, the psychological toll of the unemployed and those whose needs have been neglected, etc. And whether specific politicians are responsible or not for the crisis, they will be made responsible for any aftermaths – they are always “the first address to which responsibility is assigned for everything that is perceived as unsatisfying in a society” (173). An emergency situation, big or small, coerces an orientation to prioritize present needs over future needs.

Niklas Luhmann likened the moral response in a society to a fever reaction. Having a fever indeed protects the essentials of life by increasing the body temperature, revving up the immune response, decreasing the body’s normal activities, inducing rest and sleep. However, a fever may in some cases also be harmful for one’s health by taking a heavy toll on the blood circulation and on any pre-damaged organs, especially the heart, the lungs, the kidneys, etc. In the current pandemic, every decision – and every non-decision – will come with immense costs and unbearable calamities. But the current emergency mode precludes that one considers any alternatives to the moral orientation. The greater the uncertainties, the higher the fever and the narrower one’s view. Only when we’re able to rely on more footholds will the emergency mode cease, our orientation calm down, and alternatives appear viable.


1 Albert Camus, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage, 1991), p. 37.

2 All quotes with page numbers refer to: Werner Stegmaier, What is Orientation? A Philosophical Investigation, translated by Reinhard G. Mueller (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2019).