While sitting on the airport bus, driving from Barcelona to the Girona Airport, one warning sign, stamped behind the driver’s seat, caught my attention. The first line was written in English and said ‘It is forbidden to eat or drink on the bus’. The line under was written in Spanish and said ‘Está completamente, prohibido comer y beber en el autobus’. A single word of difference (completamente=completely) contained the great load of cultural distinctions between ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ societies. It has been some 8-9 years ago, that I saw it and this morning the memory reemerged. It was not a coincidence. Last night I saw Pepe Mujica, una vida suprema, the Emir Kusturica’s documentary following the last days of José Mujica’s presidency and this morning while walking with Diego, some of the phrases still resonated in my mind.
Among others, I was hearing him posing the following paradox: sometimes something bad can turn out to be good while others something good can lead to something bad. When/how can we know the difference? The corona pandemic has revealed some distinctions. These are mainly cultural.
Countries where the rules and instructions needed no further emphasizing have coped better with the pandemic. Countries where the rules had a loose interpretation have suffered severe consequences. The distinction is a result of a cultural inheritance. It refers to the notion of individual responsibility within the social context and goes back to the history of religious practice and dogmas. The way different countries have approached the management of this crisis show that actions are far more important than credos. This is manifested in the individual response to the social challenge.
One chapter in Conectar los puntos, Inventar lo posible is dedicated to this important cultural distinction, which keeps the behavioral north/south distances. I have referred to is as a process that led from the guilt to the co-responsibility. This is where:
“Everything is manifested through the interaction between each person, their environment and the responsibility that each one assumes for their acts. In exchange for this, in many aspects of coexistence, the relationship of victims and innocents is maintained with their corresponding guilt and punishment. It is the relationship of curse and blessing instead of challenges and opportunities. These are the patterns that distance individual responsibility.”
The numbers of coronavirus infected illustrate it. Very painfully. The infection and mortality rates that keep rising in Spain and Italy are the reflection of the gap that religious dogmas have left behind. Here, as well as in many other countries, the political leadership and the citizen response illustrated the difference between the long tradition of seeing people as victims needed of paternalist guidance and treating them as responsible individuals capable of making good choices.
Once the virus alert was issued the distinction between countries where there is no need for adding scales to ‘forbidden’ and those where there is, became clear. Deep down it is not a question of economic progress. In the end, it is a question of ethics and justice that solves Pepe’s paradox.
Understood as the set of moral norms that govern human conduct, ethics is above the law and it is a prerequisite to justice. Out of maximizing value, maximizing freedom and promoting virtue, as the three main ideas of justice (defined in philosophy of law), I believe in the last one. It is by answering Michael Sandel’s question: ‘Does the society seek to promote the virtue of its citizens?’, that the just societies are defined. Because, it is not in doing the things right but in doing the right thing for the right reason (Sandel, 2009) that the societies evolve from victims to co-responsible stakeholders.
In the case of Europe, the management of coronavirus pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of societies where the relationship between institutions and individuals is not transparent enough and power is understood as a top-down relation. On the other hand, those societies where institutions hold higher standards of transparency, leave little or nothing to (mis)interpretations and power is understood as a multidirectional process, have so far shown greater ability to weather the crisis. This is mainly due to the individual response to the instructions issued by the authorities and the social and cultural climate where being responsible is not considered a synonym for being boring.