Morality Plays

I think a lot of people have a need for human affairs to be a morality play which far exceeds the extent to which they really are. COVID has got me thinking about this, but so have a number of things.

As regards COVID, I think part of the screaming for permanent lockdown measures reflects morality-play thinking. I have already written that I think it’s partly denial of the fact that it is no longer February 2020 and can never be again. Realities which seem unjust are very hard to deal with (don’t I know it). People turn to denial, to conspiracy theories, and I think to morality-play interpretations.

I should explain here that by “morality play” I mean a belief that events have a moral, and often that this operates at an individual level; we tend to prefer a system in which cause and effect are just, and to prefer a system in which individual actions and their consequences are just. But reality is frequently not such a system in either regard.

With COVID, as with most things, there is a moral component. It just isn’t nearly as comprehensive as people would like. Individual “good” behavior certainly does not determine all or even most of health and safety here. Neither societal nor social leaders’ choices have nearly as much control over covid as a morality play would call for, either. I rolled my eyes yet again at The Morning email today, in response to its subject “Do Covid precautions work?” But while I think that’s a terrible headline, I get where it’s coming from. The connection between pandemic rules—as well as compliance with those rules—and pandemic trends is just not nearly as clean as the screamers seem convinced. Waves of the pandemic are not simply the product of irresponsibility, any more than the collapse of those waves is the product of “good” behavior.

By no means is it just COVID, though. My in-progress book touches on the desire, especially of progressives, to imagine electoral politics as a morality play. Spoiler: it really isn’t as far as I can determine. The popular conviction that our economy is a morality play, that prosperity or poverty are mostly earned, is one of the most intense instances of System Justification found today. Ultimately, the desire for not only human affairs but natural events to be part of a morality play contributed to superstition, and religions to which most of humanity still subscribe.

I am by no means a nihilist. On the nihilist to judgmental prig scale, I am probably way over towards judgmental prig. But part of that is trying to observe reality accurately and confront it honestly.

I think right and wrong definitely exist, and that we should make things much more fair than they are. I also think that we should be wary of the great temptation to imagine, in so many ways and so easily concealed from our conscious thinking, that events already are a morality play when they in fact aren’t.

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