‘Stupid is, as stupid does’ a phrase that many people will recall from that brilliant film Forrest Gump, although as I understand the phrase was originally coined in the 19th century. I will return to the phrase a little later but my starting point for this blog is my colleague @jesjames50’s self-declared blog rant and an ensuing WhatsApp (other media are available) conversation resulting in a declaration that ‘maybe we are becoming less tolerant’.
So, I ask myself this, what do we mean by tolerant or intolerant and more importantly what behaviours should we tolerate? To some extent my thoughts were driven by two excellent papers (Thomson, 1971, 1985) set as reading for assessment questions for our first-year criminology students. The papers describe ethical dilemmas and take us through a moral maze where the answers, which are so seemingly obvious, are inevitably not so.
As a starting point I would like you to imagine that you frequent a public house in the countryside at weekends (I know that its not possible at the moment, but remember that sense of normality). You frequently witness another regular John drinking two to three pints of beer and then leave, getting into his car and driving home. John does not think he is incapable of driving home safely. John may or may not be over the proscribed limit (drink driving), but probably is. Would you be able to make some excuse for him, would you tolerate the behaviour?
Let us imagine that John had a lot to drink on one night and being sensible had a friend drive him and his car home. The next morning, he wakes up and drives to work and is over the proscribed limit, but thinks he’s fine to drive. Would you be able to make some excuse for him, would you tolerate the behaviour?
Of course, the behaviour becomes absolutely intolerable if he has a collision and kills someone, I think we would all agree on that. Or even if he simply injures someone, I think we would say we cannot tolerate this behaviour. Of course, our intolerance becomes even greater if we know or are in somehow related to the person killed or injured. Were we to know that John was on the road and we or someone we know was also driving on the same road, would we not be fearful of the consequences of John’s actions? The chances of us coming across John are probably quite slim but nonetheless, the question still applies. Would we tolerate what he is doing and continue with our own journey regardless?
Now imagine that John’s wife Jane is driving a car (might as well keep the problems in one family) and Jane through a moment of inattention, speeds in a residential street and knocks over a child, killing them. Can we make excuses for Jane? How tolerant would you be if the child were related to you? Inattention, we’ve all been there, how many times have you driven along a road, suddenly aware of your speed but unsure as to what the speed limit is? How often have you driven that all familiar journey and at its end you are unable to recall the journey?
The law of course is very clear in both the case of John and Jane. Driving whilst over the proscribed limit is a serious offence and will lead to a ban from driving, penalty points and a fine or even imprisonment. Death by dangerous driving through drink or drugs will lead to a prison sentence. Driving without due care and attention will lead to a fine and penalty points, death by careless driving is likely to result in a prison sentence.
So I ask this, what is the difference between the above and people’s behaviours during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Just to be clear, contracting Covid-19 may or may not kill you, of course we know the risk factors go up dependant on age, ethnicity and general health but even the youngest, healthiest have been killed by this virus. Covid-19 can cause complications, known as long Covid. Only now are we starting to see its long-term impact on both young and old people alike.
Now imagine that Michael has been out to the pub the night before and through social contact has contracted Covid but is unaware that he has the disease. Is it acceptable him to ignore the rules in the morning on social distancing or the wearing of a mask? What is the difference between him and John driving to work. What makes this behaviour more acceptable than John’s?
Imagine Bethany has symptoms but thinks that she may or may not have Covid or maybe just a cold. Should you tolerate her going to work? What if she says she must work to feed her family, can John not use the same excuse? If John’s behaviour is intolerable why should we tolerate this?
If people forget to move out of the way or get too close, what makes this behaviour any different to Jane’s? Of course, we see the immediate impact of Jane’s inattention whereas the actions of our pedestrians on the street or in a supermarket are unseen except by those close to the person that dies resultant of the inattention. Should we tolerate this behaviour?
To my colleagues that debated whether they have become less tolerant I say, no you have not. There are behaviours that are acceptable and those that are not, just because this is a new phenomenon does not negate the need for people to adhere to what are acceptable behaviours to protect others.
To those of you that have thought it was a good idea to go to a party or a pub before lockdown or do not think the rules need apply to you. You are worse than John and Jane combined. It is akin to getting drunk, jumping in your cars and racing the wrong way down a busy motorway. ‘Stupid is as stupid does’ and oh boy, some people really are stupid.
Thomson, Judith Jarvis, (1971), ‘A Defense of Abortion,’ Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1, 1: 47-66
Thomson, Judith Jarvis, (1985), ‘The Trolley Problem,’ The Yale Law Journal, 94, 6 : 1395-1415,