By William Erlbaum
COVID-19 will leave the world with massive damage in its wake. Economically, we could well face a global depression. With other problems added to the mix, including environmental catastrophes, mass starvation, wars, state failures, ignorance, hatred, and despair, the outcome becomes devastating.
For a part of humanity, there will be depression, a sense of impotence, paralysis, and nihilism and, at the extreme, living in the endless violence of Hobbesian war of “all against all”, with lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
On the other hand, would that it were that most of the 7.8 billion of our planetary neighbors will set out on a better path—that of working to rebuild society. Along what lines should it be constructed? What should be our starting axioms?
The Starting Assumptions
We are, empirically and normatively, part of a single global society. “In sociology, [a] social system is the patterned network of relationships constituting a coherent whole that exist between individuals, groups, and institutions.” (from Wikipedia, visited on 8/11/2020). We are also part of smaller social systems—including families, communities, corporations, and nations—but the largest society in which we participate is “the global village”. It embraces diverse activities and structures including the international use of the mails, telecommunications, the internet, shipping, international flight, epidemiology, the environment, the global economy, the movement of refugees, banking and finance, money laundering, narcoterrorism, the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, Interpol, the International Criminal Court, embassies and consulates, and such—all of which are addressed in international law.
Our work to rebuild will take place in one region or another, but it will impact upon global society, and global society will impact upon it.
From the existence of global society (consisting of structures, processes, and legal norms), we witness the materialization of government-like institutions that exist alongside the governments of nations. Nations have sovereignty, and to the extent that they willingly rely upon the structures, processes, and legal norms of global society (e.g., such as reliance upon the proper delivery of international mail and respect for maritime and aircraft rules), they freely share their national sovereignty. Accordingly, that national sovereignty has not been infringed upon by global society, inasmuch as it is volun’tarily shared sovereignty.
It is “we” upon whom the task of reconstruction falls and not just “me.” Whether it is the building of the Tower of Babel, the creation of the U.S. Constitution, or world post-pandemic reconstruction, the project is collective. That is not to say that persons working alone cannot pursue such projects, but complex projects ordinarily require collectivities for their completion.
To further the likelihood of success, collectivities, in turn, require communication among participants and adequate solidarity, morale, and empathy—the attitude that “we are all in ‘this together” and that every worker has skin in the game. Constrained participation, like
slavery, will lead to resentment, demoralization, and a desire to undermine the project of reconstruction.
We should believe in, and rely upon, science. Science as a principal route to knowledge of the world, the work-product of observation and experiment, is readily applied in many places. That is not to say that all claims made in the name of science are correct or accepted, or that there is absent, widespread belief that there are other routes to knowledge than science, such as religion, magic, or intuition.
Because some claims in the name of science may be erroneous, and because there is widespread belief in non-scientific routes to knowledge, the reliance upon science is most likely to be accorded legitimacy, where credible criteria for the evaluation of scientific claims are fulfilled. (See Principle “8″ below.)
Science will be indispensable for the post-pandemic reconstruction of the world.
We should be devoted to human equality by avoiding disrespect for any persons, notwithstanding our empirical differences from one another. One expression of this principle is set forth in Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
Devotion to human equality requires that, in our post-pandemic rebuilding, we aspire to erase the differences in wealth, status, and power between peoples and regions. It comes down to more than the needs of deprived peoples and regions. Notwithstanding that those “needs” may—or may not—amount to legally enforceable claims, given the interdependence of the component parts of the world, the stratification-differentials between peoples and regions operate empirically as claims. In ordinary human experience, the deprivation felt by one people or region, typically exacts consequences and costs upon other peoples and regions. Trouble spreads from one place to another like viruses spread.
In the diverse world today, secularism is to be preferred over sectarianism. As I wrote in my short essay, “The Clearing”, in August, 2015:
“Living in the forest, we find ourselves at a clearing.
“We see members of different tribes in the clearing, and we hear different languages.
“Do we want to enter the clearing? Who are these peoples, and what are they like?
“Maybe we should have turned back and returned to our place in the forest? We knew its ways. They were our ways. We were by ourselves. We were a sect and had our sectarianism. But it’s too late now.
“More and more, there’s only the clearing. The whole planet is the clearing, and living here is living in The City of the World, inhabited by our different tribes, speaking our different languages, possessing our different sectarianisms, and instantly connected electronically, in immediate touch with each other.
“What’s it like in The City of the World? It’s contentious.”
Unless one sect dominates all other worldviews but its own (with the consequences and costs of rebellion resulting from its perpetration of such domination), nothing short of secularism will provide the modus vivendi for peaceful life in a diverse world.
In addressing deviant behavior, a no-fault model should replace fault and punishment. Punishment, as a means of coping with deviant behavior is inescapably cruel. A no-fault approach would effectively work with less infliction of gratuitous pain. In dealing with deviant behavior, not only is the infliction of pain unnecessary, it carries consequences and costs to society that are undesirable. Cruelty only begets more cruelty, and innocent victims experience collateral damage.
Evidence is lacking that a no-fault approach to the management of deviance, coupled with the use of a rewards-based system employing reparations, would be any less effective than punishment. That is largely the system used on the civil side of court dockets.
There should be freedom of conscience and expression. Rebuilding the world need not require human obedience to an ideological catechism. Rebuilders should be prepared to encounter people as they are. Enforcement of orthodoxy is bound to engender rebellion and sabotage, which are inimical to the morale needed for constructive rebuilding.
Society should strive for truth and accuracy. This goal is furthered by scrupulous inculcation and examination at every level of society and throughout the life-cycle, of a number of considerations including: (a) the ethos of the author of a presentation, that is, the credentials, competence, reputation, character, and past performance of the writer of that presentation and of the medium publishing it, including the screening methodology employed by that medium, such as the use of fact-checking and peer review; (b) the awareness by the reader of the seductive danger of accepting a presentation because it is emotionally appealing to the reader (“confirmation bias”), and, conversely, the danger of rejecting a presentation because it runs counter to one’s cherished beliefs; and (c) the logic or illogic of that presentation.
As we get beyond the 2020 pandemic, there will be a window of opportunity within which to refashion significant aspects of the world. As past catastrophes have shown, that window will ultimately close, and if reform has not been embarked upon before then, it may never happen at all. With that in mind, these eight principles are offered as the foundation for undertaking rebuilding early in the post-pandemic era.
William M. Erlbaum, a retired justice of the New York State Supreme Court, is an adjunct professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and adjunct professor of behavioral science at York College/CUNY.