On Talking Morality in Modern Politics: The Coronavirus Crisis and Europe

Corona Diary

In Oscar Wilde’s well-known play, An Ideal Husband, one of the characters, Sir Robert Chiltern, a successful and highly respected politician, is being blackmailed by Mrs. Cheveley for selling a Cabinet secret in his youth. The distraught Sir Chiltern seeks advice from Lord Goring, his closest friend. Lord Goring, the dandy-philosopher, remarks: “If you did make a clean breast of the whole affair, you would never be able to talk morality again. And in England a man who can’t talk morality […] is quite over as a serious politician.”

If keeping a high moral tone was important in late Victorian politics, surely it is just as important, even more so, nowadays. Big law firms make sure to publicize that they do pro bono work, banks and big businesses advertise their involvement in charity projects, politicians, running for elections, kiss babies and demonstrate their concern with ethical issues. There may be a strong element of hypocrisy in all of this, but it does not change the fact that every successful and publicly prominent figure and institution is expected to be in a position that allows him/her to keep a high moral tone. Judging by the working conditions that Amazon has provided for its employees, Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, very likely doesn’t lose sleep over issues of social justice. But even Bezos takes it for granted that he should give away 100 million dollars for food banks during the coronavirus crisis (according to one calculation, this is his income for 11 days).

On the background of what Wilde’s Mrs Cheveley cynically called “our modern mania for morality,” the EU still manages to stand out. It is, indeed, difficult to think of another modern entity that depends so much on its survival in its current form on its ability of making what are, in essence, moral claims. The justification of the EU for its very existence is not only that it provides economic prosperity – though, there is that, of course. It is also that it is a guarantor of peace, democracy, and human rights and that it promotes among its members, but also around the world, values such as solidarity, unity, etc. These are very big claims indeed and one can understand that they cannot be always lived up to. Amazing though it may be, but even after imposing crippling austerity measures that caused much suffering in Greece, the EU could keep its tone of moral authority. Even the failure of coming up with a unified and coherent policy on the refugee crisis did not completely undermine the EU as a moral force. Now, with the coronavirus crisis, something new seems to be happening.

What comes across is not just political weakness expressed in the sense of confusion, erratic behaviour, and lack of initiative on part of the EU – all of which is bad enough. What comes across looks very much like moral callousness and what appears to be an almost stubborn refusal to care in the face of tragedy and death. It is disappointing, but probably forgivable in the long run that it took a whole two weeks for the EU to organize its first emergency meeting on the coronavirus crisis that eventually took place on 13 February. It is quite another matter and a failure of quite a different order for members of the EU, mostly Northern European countries, to offer no assistance whatsoever for weeks to their Southern neighbours and, in the meantime, to openly acknowledge their unwillingness to do much. What interests me here is not the practical steps that will be taken eventually, but rather the “straight talk” and “tell it as it is” attitude that, at least for a while, took the place of a high moral tone. It is revealing that this kind of “straight talk” could be considered by any country, no matter local cultural traditions of directness, as an appropriate response to Italy’s and Spain’s request for assistance. This is at a time when sick patients were lying directly on the floors in the corridors in Spanish hospitals for lack of beds and even mattresses, people of care-homes had been left to die on their own for lack of medical staff, and at least two nurses in Italy had committed suicide as a result of the huge pressure to which they had been subjected.

It may be worthwhile pondering over what would happen to a Europe that has undermined the position from which it can talk morality – or rather, if it does, it may no longer be taken seriously. It may not be quite over, but it would certainly look different from the “community of values” that many of us have hoped for.

Vienna, May 8, 2020.

Clemena Antonova is an art historian and Research Director of IWM’s program Eurasia in Global Dialogue.