The countries that best withstood the pandemic are those countries that best understood the selfish interest of altruism and had put it in practice. The leading countries are South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Because these countries understood that it is by protecting others that we protect ourselves the best: that it is in our interest to wear a mask to protect others, as they also protect us by wearing one too; that it is in our interest not to infect our neighbour by keeping our distance so that we are not infected; that it is in our interest to know if our neighbour is infected so that we can keep our distance. In general, it is in our interest to do everything that we can so that others have the resources to avoid getting ill, and as a result, they will not infect us, or overwhelm our healthcare facilities, in case we need it for ourselves.
The concept that I just described is not new. It is found in Jewish law, whose core message, which is also in the Gospel, is as follows: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” which refers to one’s own self-interest in loving others. Spinoza, who liked nothing as much as flushing out the rationale behind religious matters, said that altruism was the most intelligent form of selfishness. A little later, Adam Smith praised it in his “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (which Smith considered to be his most important book), and then in his most famous book, “The Wealth of Nations,” where he reminds us that a baker has an interest in satisfying his customers.
The idea was then taken up by Auguste Comte, who some have even wrongly attributed as the inventor of the concept. For Comte, as for many others, there can be altruism, even if purely self-interested, only if there is empathy, i.e. the ability to understand the needs, sorrows and happiness of others.
It is easier to understand what is culturally similar to you. Empathy is easier to find in communities where people feel a sense of shared destiny.
We find this conclusion quite differently in the work of a great Italian economist, the late Harvard professor, Alberto Alesina, who passed away this week, who demonstrated that the lack of a sense of shared destiny in a nation hinders development. Current events in the United States are further proof of this.
In other words, a society can only be truly successful if its members show altruism; and altruism can only exist between people who are aware of a common destiny.
This awareness is not exclusive to culturally homogenous societies: a culturally homogenous society can be divided over its raison d’être; this is the case for Italy. And conversely, a society whose members have very different cultural foundations may be aware of their common destiny; this is the case for Switzerland.
The sense of a common destiny can be imposed by a totalitarian system that requires everyone to take care of each other. Altruism would then, as the Dutch philosopher Rutger Bregman argues, be the prerogative of slaves who have no other choice but to serve their masters, who themselves need their slaves to survive just enough to be able to serve them. This does not, however, last: slaves always rebel against the destiny imposed by their masters.
A common destiny can also be chosen and built consciously around a common project within a couple, family, or nation: there can only be lasting self-serving altruism between free individuals.
The pandemic has introduced a new component by demonstrating that a common destiny can be imposed not just by a dictator or a democratically-elected leader, but also by nature. And in such case, if we are to survive, it is our duty to submit ourselves to the imposed common destiny; in other words, we must freely choose to obey laws that are beyond our control. Altruism then takes on another, much higher dimension: it marks our voluntary submission to the interests of future generations. So that these future generations do not curse us. This is what the countries that lived through the pandemic in the best way possible did. On the other side of the equation, it is what some did not do, for example, the Europeans and Americans, who decided to follow the worst model, the Chinese model, which includes a denial of altruism. With the consequences that we know.
When it is all said and done, altruism, and all the practical consequences that we are experiencing today, would appear to be the condition for any society to survive, including the ideal model of an open and tolerant democracy, and rejecting all forms of racism, xenophobia and contempt for a particular class of people.
In this respect, the Chinese pandemic and the American riots refer to the same syndrome and will have the same consequences. And not just in China or the United States: Europe, in particular, also has issues related to systemic racism; it has also mishandled the pandemic, and it is up to Europe to see the link between these two evils. And to understand that each human being must discover his neighbour, for his or her own interest.
It is urgent to have a common project. If that is all that we learned from this pandemic, it would not be a waste of time.