‘Nietzsche, Rawls and Bezos Walk into a Bar: A Review of Pandemic Ethics’
Featuring Sreerupa Bhattacharya’s creative piece that developed as an original project over her term at the Young India Fellowship
By appropriating 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of “slave and master morality” on one hand, and 20th-century political philosopher John Rawls’s concept of the “veil of ignorance” on the other, Sreerupa argues that, even as we condemn the wealthy for not doing their due diligence, the pandemic ought to strip us off any sense of complacency about our own contribution towards mitigating the crisis at hand.
What happens when Nietzsche, Rawls, and Bezos walk into a bar? Nothing. Bars have not opened yet. Well, what’s new then?
2.6 million! No, that’s not the latest financial aid package announced for COVID relief by our Finance Minister. That is the number of views that a TikTok video, made by e-commerce freelancer Humphrey Yang, garnered on Twitter by reimagining Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos’ total wealth in terms of rice grains (Scher 2020). At the time, his $122 billion translated to 58 pounds of rice grain, at the rate of $1,00,000 per grain. The video went viral in late February 2020, long before the Dalgonas were brewing in the kitchen. However, before we could smell the coffee, the alarm rang, and we woke up to a strange new disease. In early March, WHO declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, and our world changed— Bezos got $24 billion richer. Yang’s video had already sparked outrage against the skewed concentration of wealth, but the mounting health and economic crisis, along with rising unemployment in the US (Cox 2020), exposed the fault lines of crony capitalism as a gaping, festering wound. “Eat the Rich!”1 became a common response to Yang’s video (Scher 2020), succinctly summing up the general resentment caused by the economic disparity that has become acutely evident since the pandemic.
Closer home, the situation was no different. In the end of March, thousands of migrant workers all over India found themselves deserted, bereft of shelter or livelihood overnight, owing to the sudden announcement of the nationwide lockdown, and the lack of foresight and contingency put in place by the Indian government to manage the imminent emergency (Ninan 2020). Amid all the chaos and confusion surrounding the unprecedented turn of events, there rose a similar uproar. Even as businessmen, actors, and sports personalities such as Gautam Adani, Amitabh Bachchan, and M S Dhoni made their contributions, they were berated for not doing enough (Meghani 2020). News reports and social media appeared to hold them ethically accountable for their financial contributions. This article, however, would make no attempt to add to the many incisive critiques available in this context (Bamzai 2020, Giorgis 2020). Instead, I wish to explore a few questions that remain for most of us, those who walk the middle line, jostling for space somewhere between the ultra-rich and the impoverished, to reckon with: What are our expectations from the Bezos and Bachchans of the world, and why? What does the pandemic teach us about individual responsibilities towards fostering an equitable world? How does the pandemic compel us, ordinary citizens, to reimagine our own role in bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots? In this context, by appropriating 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of ‘slave and master morality’ on one hand, and 20th-century political philosopher John Rawls’s concept of the ‘veil of ignorance’ on the other, I shall argue that, even as we condemn the wealthy for not doing their due diligence, the pandemic ought to strip us of any sense of complacency about our own contribution towards mitigating the crisis at hand.
Several reports have built the narrative of the pandemic crisis with a focus on the unfair concentration of wealth, asserting how the wealthy have managed to keep their distance from the grim social realities. Hannah Giorgis, in her article “The Problem with Celebrities Urging Fans to Donate During a Pandemic”, for The Atlantic, offers a scathing indictment of celebrities urging their fans to donate towards COVID relief efforts. She draws a comparison between the whopping net worth of Hollywood stars and the ‘average American’, who are being motivated by them towards charity auctions and merch sales, even as they face potential unemployment. The essay, in condemning the celebrities’ ‘stark disconnect from the realities’, draws attention to the egregious behaviour of the powerful almost to the detriment of those most affected by the crisis (Giorgis 2020). Such disparaging instances of celebrities ‘offloading responsibilities’ might bear traces symptomatic of what Nietzsche, in his 1882 book, Beyond Good and Evil, referred to as ‘master morality’.
Without going into the intricacies of the moral world in which Nietzsche bases his concept, it might suffice, for the present discussion, to understand the relation between the ‘Master’ and their other, ‘the Slave’. According to Nietzsche, the strong and wealthy Masters are the rulers of the world. They do as they wish, without any consideration or the approval of others. They are those who seem to hold the reins of the world we inhabit. We live as pawns in a world where they are kings. We resent them because they have so much wealth, and yet they continue to amass more, leading to an ever-widening inequality of power. For example, here is a tweet which summarises the situation in the context of the imminent recession caused by the pandemic: “If Jeff Bezos gave all 3.3 million people who’ve just applied for unemployment $10,000 he would still have 80 billion dollars” (@ Austra).2 In general, Bezos can be in gross violation of labour rights (Kantor and Streitfield 2015) or the Adanis can indiscriminately mine across the Western Ghats (Jamwal 2017), without any qualms, even as others bear the burden of their actions. Those suffering the consequences, according to Nietzsche, would represent the weak and meek ‘Slaves’ who are oppressed by the Masters and eventually grow indignant. Yet they remain subservient since the Masters, asserting their power, proclaim themselves to be morally good and noble while renouncing the Slaves to be ignoble owing to their weakness and vulnerability (Solomon and Martin 2009, 409-410). The apathy of the ‘Masters’ towards the reality of the ‘Slaves’, even as they recognise their power, echoes in Giorgis’s incisive observation that the pandemic has stripped celebrities of the excuse of ‘being unaware of how their fans live’ (Giorgis 2020); and yet they manage to keep themselves distanced from the society at large, sometimes even profiting off of their despair, such as through pay-per-view online concerts during the lockdown. Although the article, noting the ‘parasocial’, ‘one-sided’ artist-fan relation, delineates how jarring some celebrities’ lack of empathy can be, it does not go as far as to speculate on the effect it might have on the common people. It only suggests that the situation has taken “a financial, medical, and psychological toll on the very people who are viewing celebrities’ tweets or Instagram posts seeking donations (and who are taxed at much higher rates than the uber-wealthy, too” (Giorgis 2020).
However, the Master-Slave dynamic is in no way one of unquestioning compliance. Nietzsche suggests that the mounting tension gives way to a slave rebellion—an awakening whereby they reclaim their lives as morally superior and better than the depraved selfishness of their other, because they have chosen to sacrifice their own well-being for the greater good (Solomon and Martin 2009, 409-410). Nietzsche’s formulations have perhaps never been so glaringly evident as during the pandemic when every day we see blatant manifestations of these two kinds of moralities: one ‘noble’, the other ‘contemptible’. For those cooped up in their homes, braving financial loss or solitary despair, it is a voluntary sacrifice they are making in abidance by the law, symptomatic of the slave morality, while for those who derive pleasure by flouting these rules, or simply because they know better than believing how deadly the virus is, are perhaps in some sense exercising their master morality. The blaming and shaming of anti-maskers can thus be seen as an example of the ‘slave revolt’. Similarly, when a section of netizens revels in a ‘carnivorous id of class struggle’ (Lavin 2019) against Bezos or trolls Bachchan asking for receipts for his charitable work, it is the triumph of slave morality, calling out the unchecked structures of oppression. Curiously, the standards which are otherwise aspirational to most—who would not mind being a billionaire, after all, provided there are no adverse consequences to oneself and others— become the object of our contempt, during a crisis such as the present one. We see the power—especially in terms of economic stronghold—of the 1 per cent as dangerous and ‘evil’. The trolling and tirades on social media, à la ‘Eat the Rich’ could be seen as a fitting example of this sentiment. In contrast to this evil, we who do not own as much wealth, and are humble are ‘good’ (Solomon and Martin 2009, 409-410). But that is not all. Even as we assure ourselves of being righteous in our goodness and limited means and power, we are also always scornful towards those who do not subscribe to our ways. Hence, Slave morality thrives by undermining the Master morality. This relentless conflict between the two moralities, based on reciprocal domination, only serves to widen the social distance between the two factions. But is there a way out?
The average citizen is often justified in hurling tirades against the aura of economic privilege to confront the wealthy about their actions, or lack thereof. Scorning the value system of the powerful becomes a source of strength and legitimacy for them. The ethical force behind the class struggle is thus a demand for fairness and justice. A month into the lockdown, another social media post was widely shared—an amusing data visualisation of wealth, shown to scale. In the same vein as Yang’s TikTok, it illustrated the expenditure of a variety of things— from US veterans’ sustenance to the upkeep of an Amazon warehouse— in comparison to the net worth of, no points for guessing, Jeff Bezos. But it made other references as well, the most telling of which was how the 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 60 per cent of the population combined (Vincent 2020). And then it inferred what all of us have been screaming all along—why can’t they just give us some of that money! Or how, as several netizens suggested, a fraction of the income of these 400 individuals can provide free COVID tests for the whole of America for a start. In India, on the other hand, there emerged a different trend. Cricketers, who are otherwise exempted from public scrutiny as such, were put in the line of fire. While both Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly were criticised for having given less than some of their other colleagues, Virat Kohli’s undisclosed contribution was met with misgivings. The insinuation was that it was not enough. Otherwise, why would they keep this information a secret? Denouncing such conjectures, others sympathised with the players, claiming that such accusations only “shows the deep anxiety and anger that people have for the successful, and it is as if they need to donate because they have earned money and have the means to do so” (Majumdar 2020).
Such a position, otherwise tenable, becomes tenacious under the present circumstances. Detractors claim that it is only justified that we know to what extent have those with whom the bulk of wealth rests come forward to extend their support towards those less fortunate, especially under such unprecedented circumstances as a deadly pandemic. In essence, we have an objective sense of fairness which, we think, creates moral obligations on every individual to come together to foster a more equitable society, but perhaps with different standards of expectations. This underlying ethical assumption was most thoroughly put forward by political philosopher John Rawls in his 1971 work A Theory of Justice as the axiom ‘justice as fairness’. A society is fair when its free citizens, entitled to equal basic rights, cooperate within an egalitarian economic system for collective benefit. In his 1985 eponymous essay, he explains that ‘justice as fairness’ is premised upon the two principles of liberty and equality, whereby the latter entails “the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society (Rawls 1985, 227). It is our expectation that those with means abide by this cornerstone of justice. Instead, such demands often resign to apathy and neglect. This is why celebrities asking everyone, without distinction, to “step up (as) we all need to do our part”, as Giorgis remarks, comes across as tone-deaf because, “what does stepping up look like when you’ve lost your job?”
Hence, when we ask the wealthy to be generous, we are trying to restart the wheel under the Rawlsian principles, reminding the mighty and the powerful to contribute towards ensuring that their fellow citizens are not robbed of the same opportunities as them.
But what is it about Rawls’ understanding of justice that makes it especially relevant to pandemic ethics? It is his premise of deciding what justice is from behind the ‘veil of ignorance’. Rawls proposes a hypothesis: in a situation where everyone starts from the same original position, from behind the ‘veil of ignorance’, where they are unaware of their own social, economic or political status, there would be unanimous consent to build an unequivocally egalitarian world, since that would ensure that no matter who they turn out to be, they would be treated fairly (Rawls 2001, 86–87). The bliss of being ignorant of one’s social identity and reach is that it propels us to always strive for an equitable world. The current crisis, however, has pushed us to be acutely aware of our social capital, or the lack thereof. While an Amit Shah can be treated in intensive care at the first signs of affliction, a pregnant woman with COVID symptoms loses her life as eight hospitals refuse her admission (Salaria 2020). In brief, those with better access to health-care amenities are likely to be safer than those who perhaps cannot afford to even maintain physical distance or work from home, as is the case with the inhabitants of Dharavi or domestic workers put out of jobs (Ashar 2020).
Yet, the virus is fair in its ways that it can infect both a migrant labourer as well as a Tom Hanks. So for many of us, even when we are economically and socially privileged, it is perhaps the first time that we have been so acutely aware of the spectre of uncertainty that looms large: What happens if I get the disease? Will I be able to afford sustained medical care? How long would the lockdown continue? How long would our coffers sustain us? What happens once they have dried up? These anxieties reinforce in us the importance of a just society with a fairly equal distribution of wealth and accessibility. The veil of ignorance is thus no longer a thought experiment. It is an imperative. More importantly, the pandemic has made us confront a reality in which the veil of ignorance may be necessarily indispensable even without the imagined original position. Presently, it is precisely the acute awareness of our own status, as we go through the uncertainties of these unprecedented times, that should lead us to actively invest towards building an equitable society. Potentially, we stand on the brink of a greatly altered world, where we have to build the society anew, brick by brick. The underlying notion is that this is our opportunity to not return to our ‘old normal’ but reconfigure the mores of our world, where class struggles do not become the site of a conflict between life and death. Most of us are clueless as to what will become of us, socio-economically, on the other side of this. As a result, we are pushed towards envisioning what principles of justice we would choose to ensure that we do not get the short end of the bargain. This realisation, an acknowledgement of our moral duty for its own sake (deontology) as well as a commitment towards achieving the greater good for the greater number of people (utilitarianism), is perhaps what has moved us to partake in creating new networks of support. Perhaps, it is also this realisation that compels us to implore our public figures and heroes to do better, to give more.
However, despite our best intentions, would we be willing to hold ourselves to the same standards as we do our celebrities? M S Dhoni was heavily trolled on Twitter for having contributed Rs 1 lakh towards a private COVID relief fund because evidently, it is a measly sum coming from one of the richest cricketers in the world. As news outlets amplified the matter, his wife, Sakshi Dhoni, debunked the rumours, lashing out at journalists for propagating fake news (Hindustan Times 2020). She was naturally agitated, and for good reason. Would we take kindly to someone who dictates what we do with our personal wealth? Perhaps not. As Boria Majumdar remarks, “None of them has earned money at anyone else’s expense. They have done so at their own merit. What they give and when they give is an entirely personal decision and not one that social media police have any say in” (Majumdar 2020). This brings out an axiom fundamental to personal liberty: no one likes to be told where, how or to what extent one shall spend their money. This is why Robert Nozick, Rawls’ most prolific intellectual adversary, in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia critiques the ideal of equal and just distribution of wealth, as he argues, it cannot coexist with the commitment towards individual freedom.
So while our outrage over celebrities’ apparent apathy is not unwarranted, an honest self-reflection might betray our own inadequate responses in coming to the aid of the disadvantaged. We console ourselves about the migrant crisis by donating Rs 1,000 when perhaps the phone which we used to transfer that amount costs at least tenfold more. Thus, the charge of disproportionality in income and donation applies to us too, albeit on a different scale. Peter Singer makes a similar argument in his essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, where he illustrates that having less wealth than others does not necessarily free one from one’s moral obligation to contribute equally, or even more, say, in order to alleviate poverty. In fact, individuals should strive to give more than they are expected to, assuming that not everyone will put forward their own share in the first place (Singer 1972, 233–34). Yet, we congratulate ourselves on our generosity, think our moral duty is done once we have made a contribution, and continue condemning those above us for not doing more. In other words, we subscribe to the principle of “Thou shall not (be miserly)…but I shall…” This is, on the one hand, an exercise in double standards, and on the other, a recourse to mitigate our guilt of having at some point benefited from the same principles that further the unequal distribution of wealth, against which we now rally and seek to hold others accountable. This is in no way a defence of the Jeff Bezos of the world. Of course, they are to be held accountable for not sparing even a fraction of their earnings. The scales are not comparable, as Yang’s representation shows. Giorgis’s article and several others, as mentioned earlier, have already shed light on the issue. However, what is crucial here is to realise that the criticism against the thoughtlessness of the Bezos and Adanis should not be used as sanctions for our own charitable lethargy. Even as we hold them accountable for their ethical failures, those of us who are not the worst sufferers should be cognisant of our role in alleviating the crisis.
Neither Nietzsche nor Rawls could have possibly anticipated a calamity as the present one. Nonetheless, they note certain fundamental conditions about human existence that have proved to be all the more prescient during the pandemic. It appears we are eternally oscillating between a desire for Master morality and the recognition of our reality entrenched in Slave morality. On the one hand, we fantasise about having the power to resolve our sufferings, while on the other, the drudgery of the pandemic has reinforced in us “a pessimistic suspicion … perhaps a condemnation of humankind along with its condition” (Nietzsche 2007, 156). For Nietzsche, the only way out of this dilemma was to stop looking outwards to gratify or undermine ourselves through comparison, and instead introspect, to look inwards to discover our personal values, and act accordingly to excel in our own ways. But this impetus for personal excellence, as the pandemic attests, cannot be one of self-interest but needs to be pursued with an eye on collective well-being. The imperative for us is to assume the veil of ignorance, irrespective of where we stand. We are not Bezos and indeed, should not be expected to share the responsibility equally. But merely denouncing him does not exonerate us either. Instead, it exposes the urgency of defending our own idealism, exhorting our obligations, and educating future generations to do better than us.
So, what happens when Nietzsche, Rawls, and Bezos walk into a bar? Nothing. Bars have not opened yet in India. So they go to the local liquor vendor instead and get into a brawl with the rest of us waiting in line. In the end, Nietzsche changes his mind about drinking, Rawls buys a bottle for everyone, and Bezos convinces the owner to hand him over the keys to the shop. We still stand at the threshold. The question is, where do we go from here?
About the Author:
Sreerupa is a Young India Fellow from the batch of 2020 and a researcher in cultural studies. She likes taking long walks, adding new plants to her garden, and humming old songs. She has studied literature and refuses to make a list of ’10 favourite books of all time. She is a slow, talkative reader, a scribbler more than a writer, and a struggler in words. At YIF she realized the impossibility of a ‘final’ draft, the importance of knowing one’s audience, and her indebtedness to all those who help her find her voice. She has lived in Calcutta all her life and tries to see it through a stranger’s eyes.
About YIF CW Programme:
The YIF Critical Writing programme is a unique, one-of-a-kind opportunity for Fellows to hone their critical thinking and writing skills under the able supervision of trained experts in the field. The CW programme employs a constantly evolving pedagogy, making learning and knowledge production more collaborative and dialogic. Preceptors at the YIF CW programme teach writing through a range of topics including but not limited to ‘History, Philosophy, and Anthropology of Science’, ‘Politics of Language and Multilingualism’, and ‘Education, Literacy, and Justice’.
About Final Draft:
The Final Draft is the annual journal of the YIF Critical Writing programme. It showcases the range in topic and genre, as well as the strength of writing in the highly diverse YIF student body. These pieces of writing, submitted by Fellows from various classes of the YIF represent only a small fraction of the variety and range of writing done over the years.
About our campaign:
Through our ‘Final Draft 3’ campaign, we hope to give you a glimpse into some of the styles and voices that have evolved, the concerns and ideas that fellows have explored and the seriousness of their engagement with writing as drafts in motion; searching for meaning and connection, which makes this more of a pedagogic exercise book.
(The piece was first published in the Final Draft, A Journal of the YIF Critical Writing Programme.)