A Perspective on Existentialism and Moral Responsibility in the Age of COVID-19*

Stephanie Prchal

Today, our society has found itself within a major global event: the COVID-19 pandemic.  In the midst of it now, a plethora of anxieties, questions, revelations, condemnations, and more have erupted from people seeking to make sense of their situation and purpose. The COVID-19 crisis—rife with death, isolation, and uncertainty—has forced the individual to confront her/his sense of moral responsibility in light of a changing world where inaction becomes less and less viable. As we are made aware of our world and fellow creatures (both human and animal) actively dying around us, we seek to find answers in the bedrock of social values that have supported us since the beginning of human civilization. The existentialist philosophy of existing within a reality alien to any greater meaning or purpose can help the individual understand just how accountable s/he is by finding humankind in such dire straits. To conceptualize this question and any possible “answers” to this uncertainty, it is important to understand the existentialist perspective of human agency and how that concept has been affected by the pandemic. Only then can a possible outlook on the state of humankind and its responsibility be understood.

To fully understand this social upheaval of values connected to agency and responsibility, it is important to get a grasp on how existentialism approaches them. The existentialist asserts that because there is no greater “meaning” in life, the value or essence of life is something uniquely created by the individual.  And each choice is a further attestation to humanity. As Jean-Paul Sartre puts it, “I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man” (350). Many philosophers (like Sartre and Jose Ortega y Gasset) affirm that humanity is always something being constructed by individuals (who, in turn, make up society). But what does it mean to have “agency”?  How do our choices construct society? 

Agency, in its most basic form, is being in the state to choose.  Morality is often tied to agency, that is, in how each potential to act can have a moral value assigned to it (i.e. murder is considered to be an immoral action). Take, for example, the author Fyodor Dostoevsky who is very famous for exploring this relationship between personal morality and everyday life. As seen in his novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, he explores the complexities of real, situational life which frequently challenge preconceived morals and one’s capacity for agency. One idea about this that Dostoevsky raises is this: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted” (Sartre 353). However, a conditional of this idea could also be understood as: if the conception of God (that is, any moral truth) did not exist, then humankind would be without justification. The individual cannot rely on any natural or inherent code of morals to validate or excuse her/his decisions. An individual could not say “I did this because it’s only natural.”  So then everything is permitted, and consequently, that “everything” rests solely upon the shoulders of the individual. The individual can, according to existentialism, choose anything s/he wants and has the agency to construct any moral system s/he chooses. This ability to create, follow and fulfill a moral code is a freedom in its purest sense, not the traditional (i.e. the sense of free will). But it is one we wholly create and choose to rise to. Thus, one interpretation of human responsibility is an isolated and inexcusable one. But if we do construct our capacity for responsibility and moral agency, how have they been affected by the pandemic?

COVID-19’s appearance marked an upheaval in the comfort and complacency of many people across the world. In the racially, religiously, and ethnically diverse United States, a large population presents a complex situation facing the need for unified action. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that seeks to study knowledge and how humans relate to it; epistemological psychologists consider this pandemic “a perfect epistemic storm. It presents these decision-makers with a challenge to which response is urgent, where an expert consensus is lacking but the different options can be expected to produce very large effects” (Levy and Savulescu 7-8). The dilemma of the pandemic is unique—on one side there is a lack of expert consensus. Because of the novel nature of the virus, health experts (like the CDC) appear to “change its mind” on guidelines almost constantly as new data rolls in (8).  Every day people are becoming wary as they realize the uncertainty of their situation, unsure which path is truly the best… and even what “the best” is for. Of course, we still possess a sense of moral direction, but an increasingly complex world means that we are finding ourselves unsure if our actions are ultimately “right” or justified. 

Charging against this apprehension has been the strong call among health officials like the World Health Organization (WHO) to maintain a sense of moral responsibility and activism. It emphasizes that civil authority must balance the pros and cons of its guidelines, such as instituting lockdowns (“Pandemic Influenza Preparedness” 17). On the micro-level, WHO advises that the individual should actively contribute in mitigating the negative effects (i.e. death, contraction) of the virus (18). Ultimately, the pandemic and increasing social dilemmas in the world have drawn humankind’s attention to the true source of how values and the idea of human agency are made and perpetuated. The world is becoming ever more complex, and coasting along in blindly-trusted ideals will no longer suffice. With this in mind, how might an existential perspective help understand the current crisis?

The pandemic was just the tip of the iceberg. Humankind is becoming aware that the world is hurtling closer and closer to its inevitable death. A death that is (contentiously) on the hands of humankind itself.  The existentialist thinkers of the past would condemn humankind’s current state. Philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche criticized the “herd mentality” of humanity.  Kierkegaard asserted that the crowd is “untruth,” and all liability becomes null and void once the individual can hide amongst that crowd (94). And now socially we have become increasingly forced together by situations… but simultaneously feel disconnected and divided with one another. We seek to deflect personal guilt against the backdrop of being “forced” into this situation. The pandemic restricted the freedom of the individual in its most traditional sense. Human agency itself remained unaffected, as there will always be the possibility to act. Likewise, we have always carried the responsibility to act. For if no one but humankind (and the individuals that comprise it) constructs values and determines what to do with existence, then it is humankind’s responsibility alone. There is no truth in hiding behind groups anymore, nor was there ever. To wear a mask, to social distance, to get a vaccine, etc. are all responsibilities defined by collective society. Especially as we measure ourselves (humankind) to be the most important in the end.

Does living in society mean that you are required to follow it? The existentialist would likely argue ‘no,’ for to be an individual is to construct one’s essence, through any means possible. But deeper than that, the individual is culpable for each action done that perpetuates society. The use of “individual” suggests a disconnect with others, but in reality, the individual is never truly isolated. Likewise, the connotation of “responsibility” seems to bear a heavy, negative burden. But the heart of existentialism is also a “self-consciously” optimistic one.  The individual possesses the agency to choose (or even create) actions that aid her/his fellow individuals, and creation as a whole. Humans are unique in that they possess the full consciousness of creation, capable of higher thought, empathy, and even great evil. To be an individual, even in the most traumatic situations… is, therefore, a sort of opportunity.  We can give life and form to something purely out of ourselves: going beyond nature, creating, and acting with purpose and morality.

Society (particularly the U.S.) has been effectively thrown off its pedestal of human advancement as the reality of an imperfect and ailed world closes in. We have spent years technologically progressing and reaching so far that we lost sight of the earth. As scientists warn of the irreversible damage of climate change, materialism, and overpopulation, we have tried to look around and find something or someone to blame. But existentialism offers the simplest, but perhaps the most startling answer, that we (humanity) are entirely to blame. In truth, it has always been ourselves who created the world, and it will be ourselves who face the choice to save it or abandon it.


* This paper received the 3rd Award at the 2021 Rockford University Undergraduate Student Humanities Conference “Words, Ideas, and Cultures” held by the Department of Languages, Philosophy, Religion, and Cultures on April 24, 2021.

Works Cited:

– Kierkegaard, Søren. “The First Existentialist.” Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufmann, Meridian Books, 1956, pp. 83-120.

– Levy, Neil, and Julian Savulescu. “Epistemic Responsibility in the Face of a Pandemic.” Journal of Law and the Biosciences, vol. 7, no. 1, 2020, doi:10.1093/jlb/lsaa033.

– “Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response: A WHO Guidance Document. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2009. 3, ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES IN PREPAREDNESS AND RESPONSE.” Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK143067/

– Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufmann, Meridian Books, 1956, pp. 345-369.

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