This question has nagged at human consciousness for as long as we have known evil and suffering. David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment thinker attributes this phrasing of the question to the Greek philosopher Epicurus. If God is both able and willing to prevent evil, then why does evil exist? For some, it is a mystery of the transcendent. For others, the dissonance between a benevolent deity and human suffering is intolerable, and that which is less reasonable is abandoned.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, is evil. The virus’s abilities to survive for long periods on surfaces and to be transmitted before a person is symptomatic contribute to much of its malice. Its cruelty is nowhere more apparent than in its deadliness among the elderly and vulnerable—those without much of a fighting chance. In addition to its own intrinsic evil, the virus has exposed some of society’s communal evils, particularly the greed that has led some to prioritize wealth over human life. For certain, there are times in which resources have to be allocated to benefit the many over the few, but placing individual or corporate wealth over human life is never justifiable. Moreover, the virus has exposed the global reduction of reliable, accessible healthcare resources. The siphoning of healthcare dollars by governments, executives, and for-profit health plans has stripped hospitals of beds, ventilators, and essential personal protective equipment in favor of profits and dividends. Redundant equipment and open beds are unprofitable in a calculus that favors dollars over lives. Even on an individual level we have read about, and may have directly witnessed, our neighbors stockpiling limited resources: food, N95 respirators, germicidal agents, and even toilet paper. Some have hoarded goods to ensure that they or their family have an abundance of what they might need. Others, more heinously, did it to profit at the expense of others.
Time reveals all things. We know more than we did a century ago and less than we will a century from now. As such, scientists and physicians are morally obliged to advise on the basis of the best data and our own professional judgment, knowing that it may change as more information emerges. When public trust, transparency, and veracity are betrayed in favor of political gain, a great evil occurs that will inevitably result in needless human suffering.
How are we to make sense of our current suffering, however we may be experiencing it?
The task of understanding suffering has been taken up by some of the greatest minds and in some of the world’s finest literature. Known within the Abrahamic religions, Job suffers the death of his children, the loss of his property and the destruction of his own body. His friends are convinced that his suffering is a form of punishment for wrongdoing—one of the principal ways human suffering has historically been explained. Some may find that karma, the influence of past actions on future fate, is an accessible way of making sense of suffering. We suffer not only as a punishment for our evils, but as a way of learning from them and becoming better people. In Buddhism, suffering is the basis of The Four Truths, and one becomes free of suffering by losing attachment to desire. Similarly, the Roman philosopher Boethius believed that suffering was associated with attachment to things like riches, status, power, and sensual pleasure. The twentieth-century philosopher J.L. Mackie concluded that between an all-good God, an all-knowing God, and human evil, only two of the three can exist at any given time.
Maybe the answer to Epicurus’s question “Whence cometh evil?” is unknowable. Perhaps the crux is how we respond to evil and suffering, both our own and that of our community. It may be that through suffering we are paradoxically able to find good.
The good that can emerge from this pandemic is the practice of social reciprocity. In this, we do good not just for our own gain or protection, but also for that of our neighbor, and our neighbor does it for us, reciprocally. Nowhere is this more apparent than in social distancing. By suffering together the burden of distance, whether that be working from home, giving up our social lives, or virtually homeschooling, we benefit each other reciprocally. The value also extends to those who cannot socially distance because they are caring for us in the emergency department, making sure we can buy food at our grocery store, or providing one of any number of essential services. We also do good reciprocally through social distancing by not overwhelming the healthcare system; as so many social media posts proclaim, we stay in for them and they go to work for us.
The value of reciprocity also has to come to bear on the relationships among businesses, their employees, and their consumers. Each has a reciprocal relationship to the others, at both the macro and micro level, and our current situation only magnifies that interdependence. As consumers, we still have an obligation to do good by the businesses, and their employees, that we have depended on, in the best way that we can. Many of them need us now more than ever. They provided for us in the good times; we have to help them in the not so good times.
At times society devalues the most vulnerable. Those who are poor, elderly, sick, or disabled might seem to be a financial drain when their need is greater than their contribution. Our reciprocal relationships with these populations require that we recognize our own vulnerability and look out for them in the same way we would reasonably expect them (and others) to look out for us if the tables were turned. This may mean supporting their exclusive access to a recently restocked grocery store or checking in with them to see whether they need assistance.
Finally, regardless of our status, we all have a reciprocal responsibility to each other to be truthful, honest, and transparent. This currently has particular moral value and urgency. Misinformation and distrust are especially harmful right now and can erode fundamental relationships. It is essential that we judge the information that we are given based on its scientific and medical merit and practice social reciprocity on that basis. If we receive conflicting messages, we must trust those whose primary interest, as the Hippocratic Oath requires, is to do good and avoid harm. We trust them, and they protect us.
When this is over, we must hold accountable those who have failed to maintain their end of our reciprocal social relationships. Those that have hoarded food and supplies, those who saw their employees or customers as expendable commodities, those who have failed to protect the vulnerable, those who have lied to us and those who have placed profit over human life. What I am suggesting here is not revolutionary, but it has been neglected. If any good is to be found in this pandemic let it be that we remember our moral responsibility for social reciprocity. There is no place here for rugged individualism, for that may provide us the answer to the question, “Whence cometh evil?”