The Plague’s Practical Ethics
Have you ever paid so much attention to your hands? Since this pandemic began, I’ve found myself hyper-aware of mine, conscious of every surface they brush against, in a high stakes variation of the classic childhood game “the floor is lava.” I catch myself going in for a nose scratch and mentally tsk-tsk; I diligently work to master my once absent-minded glasses adjustments and idle hair flips.
These little self-trainings are based on the understanding that one stray motion could inadvertently injure or kill unknown numbers of others, including those closest to me. Perceiving the necessity of the shared struggle against virulent unlife, we must carefully reevaluate and regulate our actions, and the values enacted through them.
Albert Camus advocates a similar project of attentive self-mastery for the common health in his classic 1948 novel The Plague, which has become a COVID-era bestseller. For Camus, our shared resistance to disease (understood both literally and metaphorically) is developed through habitual practices based on an engaged understanding, a responding and responsible comprehension.
Putting aside the baggage of the Cartesian Absurdism for which Camus is best known, we can read The Plague as presenting practical models of socially beneficial behavior, seeing it as an example of what cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk calls the project of “co-immunity,” contributing to a “general immunology” based on developing “the good habits of shared survival in daily exercises.” What Sloterdijk considers co-immunal exercises and good habits are, for Camus, the manifestations of a disposition towards lucid awareness that is vital for determining appropriate action.
Camus considered The Plague a move away from the individualism of his earlier works “in the direction of solidarity and participation.” The Plague emphasizes that this participatory solidarity is a practice which grows from an actively concerned, attentive comprehension:
“…each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it… we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest, health, integrity, purity (if you like), is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous willpower, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses.”
Ethical behavior here comes from a dedicated practice of care: vigilance against careless actions. Elsewhere in The Plague, the character Tarrou, who aspires to be a “saint without God,” considers the possibility that “saintliness is an aggregate of habits.” And habits are aggregations of repeated practices which reflect an underlying disposition. Goodness here requires we attend to our behaviors in the interest of the common immunity, broadly understood. As the psychologist William James put it in an 1887 treatise on habit, we should guard against unhelpful habits “as we should guard against the plague.”
Camus’ focus on the ethical value of exercising awareness and control over one’s behaviors is not accidental: he was heavily influenced by classical Greek thought, and his ethical thought has been associated by scholars with the classical tradition of virtue ethics. In this tradition, dominant until recent centuries, ethics is based not on algorithmically following moral rules, but on acquiring and exercising admirable traits such as courage or honesty. Virtues were seen as beneficent dispositions to behave in certain ways, as enacted character. We still use the related term “virtuosity” for technical artistic excellence: like a virtuoso musician, the virtuous person develops the ability to actively listen to what is called for in order to improvise when required.
By definition, of course, there is no way to make a rule in advance about how precisely to improvise in a particular situation. This is why strict ethical rules tend to break down in the messiness of application. Hence the value of a responsive awareness or an engaged comprehension, similar to the approach to dialogue that literary critic Mikail Bakhtin called “actively responsive understanding.”
Comprehension of the ever-present requirement to improvise, of the primacy of lived ethical practice, leads us to continually develop our shared capacities for responsible understanding. In The Plague, the doctor Rieux examines virtue in terms of understanding, striking a Socratic note on the value of accepting one’s ignorance:
“The evil that is in the world always comes out of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding… it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”
Understanding thus plays a similar role for Camus as it does for many of his classical forebears, as a capacity required to discern what “true goodness” entails. But rather than advocating a Stoic detachment from passion and suffering, Camus sees this understanding as placing a demand upon us to participate in others’ suffering, to passionately engage on their behalf. To develop responsive understanding is to develop responsibility: a being answerable.
When asked for the basis of his ethics, Tarrou answers simply “comprehension.” This ethics of comprehension does not inspire Tarrou to some singular heroic act, but to repetitive, thankless work on behalf of the public health. Tarrou makes a habit of co-immunal exercises. Comprehension and clear-sightedness are essential to practical wisdom: we must understand our situation, as well as our own limits, in order to know what action is appropriate.
Tarrou’s comprehension demands of him a “vigilance” and a “never ending tension of the mind,” but such militancy is of a secondary value to Camus. Proper conduct in The Plague is not primarily a matter of popular existentialist concerns like fidelity or authenticity, but the result of responsible understanding.
Rieux declares that the dreary work of the sanitary squads “was the only thing to do, and the unthinkable thing would then have been not to have brought themselves to do it,” which is why he “declines to vaunt in over-glowing terms a courage and a devotion to which he attributes only a relative and reasonable importance.” For Rieux, actively fathoming the injustice of a world in which children suffer obliges him to participate in a tragic, noble fight “against creation.”
This expansive understanding of responsibility, of understanding AS responsibility, contradicts the common association of Camus with the monological existentialism of his frenemy Sartre, who emphasized radical individual autonomy. Camus’ notion of responsive comprehension resonates more closely with what posthumanist philosopher Donna Haraway calls “response-ability,” the “cultivation through which we render each other capable, that cultivation of the capacity to respond.”
The Plague itself can be seen as a response-able work, through which Camus inculcates a responsive capacity in the reader. It illustrates that developing a co-immunal disposition “in the direction of solidarity and participation” requires an engaged understanding of our particular situation, a commitment to unfolding the ramifications of the realization that plague is “the concern of all of us.” We are all tied together by our necessarily co-dependent attempts to stave off the ever-spreading oblivion: “No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.”
At the novel’s end, Camus reminds us that “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good” but would return to “enlighten” us once more. In struggling against COVID-19, we are all freshly re-enlightened. A pandemic forces us to reconsider our place in the universe, not in a navel gazing “we’re all stardust” way, but with the commanding comprehension that we must attend to our embodied activities, that we are called to steward our common capacities for participatory flourishing and collaborative meaning-making. This crisis corrodes our shared biological and cultural health, foreclosing forever unimagined possibilities of thought. It is already driving people to such depravity as to nihilistically demand human sacrifice. Understanding this situation as a common concern obliges us to reconsider not just daily behaviors like how we wash our hands or how we navigate public spaces, but also historical sedimentations of practice such as cultural norms, socio-political structures, and even interior design. Our enmeshed lives depend on attentively exercising our responsive understanding, on vigilantly cultivating healthy habits, on solidaristic participation in our co-immunity.