Moral Vulnerability – The Paper

Moral Vulnerability By Todd G. May

Moral Vulnerability in a Time of Many Crises


I have been asked to discuss some philosophical aspect of our confrontation with the future.  Surely it will come as no surprise when I say that as we look toward the future we see a set of crises that confront us:  the climate crisis, the crisis of democratic institutions, crises over race and immigration, crises over how to confront the current pandemic, and so on.  So today I would like to focus on confronting crises, both politically and philosophically.  And I would like to center my part of the discussion on the concept of moral responsibility, for reasons that should be clear and I hope will become even more clear as I proceed.

We like to think of our moral responsibility as something over which we have control.  We are responsible for things we can do something about.  And if we can’t do something about our situation or we can’t help the consequences of our actions, we’re not responsible.  After all, how can I be held responsible for a situation that not only is not of my doing, but could not be of my doing?

This way of thinking has deep roots.  It reflects our sense of ourselves as having borders, not just bodily borders but also moral ones.  It is a way of thinking that reflects a certain kind of individualism, an individualism that parcels out moral obligations to each of us independent of one another and accords our responsibility to meet those obligations to each of independent of our situation.  But the borders of our moral responsibility are more porous than that.  We can be responsible for things over which we have no control.  Today I would like to focus on one area of that responsibility in order to ask what it tells us, both in regard to what we might do and in regard to who we are.

The idea that we can be responsible for things we cannot control is not a new one.  It receives perhaps its most forceful expression in a classic article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel entitled “Moral Luck.”  In that piece, Nagel argues that there are four kinds of moral luck, each of which gives us responsibilities for things that are not under our control.  The kind of moral luck I’m interested in today is the one he calls circumstantial luck.  It is the luck, for better or worse, of being responsible for things because of the situation one finds oneself in.  For example, in situations of crisis one might have greater moral responsibilities than in situations that are more pacific.  Nagel defines it this way:  “The things we are called upon to do, the moral tests we face, are importantly determined by factors beyond our control. It may be true of someone that in a dangerous situation he would behave in a cowardly or heroic fashion, but if the situation never arises, he will never have the chance to distinguish or disgrace himself in this way, and his moral record will be different.”

The example Nagel uses is that of Nazi Germany.  He writes, “Ordinary citizens of Nazi Germany had an opportunity to behave heroically by opposing the regime. They also had an opportunity to behave badly, and most of them are culpable for having failed this test. But it is a test to which the citizens of other countries were not subjected.”

This type of moral luck, of having responsibility within situations we cannot control, is a form of what I want to call “moral vulnerability.”  Initially, we can see that vulnerability as being vulnerable to moral responsibilities over which we have no control.  But the vulnerability itself runs deeper than that.  To see this, let’s look at an analogy with physical vulnerability.  People with physical vulnerabilities, at least those of any significance, have their lives shaped for them in ways they cannot control.  But more than that, they are forced to navigate the world with the awareness of that.  It may lend them a sense of who they are and what they are on about.  By this I don’t mean that people with physical vulnerabilities must view themselves as inferior.  That is something that society often does to them, and it needs to be overcome.  Rather, it is that they must see who they are in part reflected through their vulnerability.  It helps define them, not as inferior but instead as this person who can do X but not Y, and therefore can be what doing X allows them to be but not be what doing Y would allow them to be.  (Of course this is true of all of us to a certain degree, since we all have physical vulnerabilities and limitations, but it often appears more clearly in case of significant physical vulnerability.)

Similarly, being in a situation of greater moral responsibility than one has chosen makes one vulnerable in the sense, not that one can do X but not Y, but in the sense that if one does X rather than Y that says something deeply unfortunate about who one is.  It is not impossible to do X rather than Y; it is unacceptable to do so.  And inasmuch as our moral sense of ourselves runs deep for us—as I believe it does—we are then morally vulnerable in situations of circumstantial moral luck.

There is a reason I want to focus on this particular type of moral luck at this particular time:  considering it will help us understand our responsibility and even, as I will argue, ourselves, in this time of many crises.  One crisis, of course, is climate change.  We find ourselves in a situation in which, if we do not act to curb our carbon emissions, our children will face immensely more difficult lives.  We did not create this situation—most of us contributed to it negligibly—and in particular young people today did not create this situation.  And yet they, and we, are responsible for stopping it.  And if we fail to meet that responsibility, we are to be blamed for it.

We may return to the climate crisis during discussion, but the crisis I’m going to use as my central example is an American one.  This is for the obvious reason that I am most familiar with the American context.  Although I have spent a lot of time in Denmark, I don’t want to presume that I can speak more intelligently about that context than many Danes can.  And, fortunately, I have a colleague here, Jon Auring Grimm, who will offer his own views of issue from a Danish perspective.

The situation of political crisis I want to focus on, then, is that of a certain kind of political polarization, a polarization that, granted, is not unique to the U.S., even though it has recently begun to occupy center stage, alongside of course the pandemic.  The U.S. and Europe are being riven by a politics of divergence, where those who hold different views cannot even talk with one another, much less come to an agreement as to how to move forward.  However, there is more to this polarization than that.  It is not simply that there is disagreement about how to move forward.  There is that, but not only that.  If that were all, then the question would be one of how to get people talking to one another.  That might be difficult, but it the task facing us is more difficult than this.

Our situation in one in which one side of that polarization, or, more accurately, an important segment of one side of that polarization, is engaging in what can only be described as expressions of open and public discriminatory and even bigoted hate.  Racism, xenophobia, expressions of anti-LGBTQ sentiment, the denigration of women:  all of these are characteristic of one side of this polarization.  So the issue is not simply one of conversation.  It is also one of confrontation.

However, here is the dilemma of this crisis.  It would seem that confrontation will only lead to more polarization.  So, we ask ourselves, how can we confront this situation without contributing to the very polarization that is likely to make it worse?

I want to address that problem before stepping back and asking about what the existence of the circumstantial moral luck to which Nagel calls our attention tells us about ourselves.  But preliminary to that, I need to say two other things.  First, although the racism, homophobia, etc. that has helped shape this crisis stems largely from the right wing of the political spectrum in the U.S. and elsewhere, the left in the U.S. has contributed to polarization as well through the intolerance of some of its own segments.  Incidents such as the no-platforming of speakers—a tactic that has in some cases led to violence—the rise of what has come to be called cancel culture on certain college campuses, and the outbreaks of violence from various antifa groups:  all of these have contributed to the polarization of society as well as to the fragmentation of the left.   This fragmentation, in turn, makes it more difficult to unite against the racism and intolerance it purportedly seeks to confront and overcome.

Second, and more central for our purposes, the political crisis we’re focused on today is one that, while it is not of our making—or at least not of the making of most of us—it demands our response.  Many of us did not contribute to the polarization or the intolerance that has become the ethos of much of political culture.  However, we, both in the U.S. and to one extent or another elsewhere, are responsible for addressing it.  In less critical times it would be permissible to be less politically involved, perhaps even less politically aware.  However, we are not in less critical times.  Although we did not create these times, our silence would contribute to them.  We are not, to be sure, in Nazi Germany, as in Nagel’s example.  But we are in a period of deep hatred, hatred that is still encouraged by much of the political leadership in the U.S. and across leadership or would-be leadership parties in Europe and Asia.  To stand on the sidelines at this moment is not a morally acceptable option.  We are in a period of what Nagel would call circumstantial moral luck.

There might be those who would want to deny this.  They would not say that the crisis I’ve referred to is illusory.  That would be absurd.  But rather, they might say that this crisis or crises like it have been with us for a while, that what we have is a more public display of a long-standing historical phenomenon.  They might point to the fact, for instance, that in the U.S. police have been slaughtering African Americans for generations.  The difference now is not that more African Americans are the subject of police violence, but rather that the ubiquity of recording devices has brought this phenomenon to public awareness.  I am sympathetic to this line of thought, especially with regards to violence against African Americans as well as other marginalized communities.  However, I would like to make two responses to it.

One is that the phenomenon we are discussing here has changed in an important way.  Not only does the violence and marginalization expressed by this hatred continue to exist; it has been given public sanction by many of our current and recent elected political leaders.  Now it is not only okay to act like a bigot; it is okay to talk like a bigot, which in turn contributes to more bigotry and a cycle of hatred.  Furthermore, confronting this hatred, calling it by its name, often incites even greater defensiveness and then polarization in turn.  I don’t think we should underestimate the damage to political culture caused by the permission granted by various public leaders to expressions of hatred and intolerance.  Moreover, I fear that this damage threatens to continue to last well beyond the tenure of those leaders, many of whom remain in office in my country.

However, let us suppose, with those who want to deny that this is crisis is historically more significant or discontinuous from recent history, those who argue that we have long been in such a crisis, that this not a special moment.  This would not alter the point I am deriving from Nagel’s circumstantial luck.  Rather, it would expand it.  If the objection is right, then it is not that we are immune to circumstantial moral luck.  Instead, the point would be that we have long been in a crisis or crises that are not of our own making and therefore have long had responsibility for crises of circumstances.  The fundamental idea—that we can be morally responsible for acting more nearly heroically in situations we did not create—would stand.  And that is the framework for the reflections I want to share with you today.

I would like to proceed, then, in two stages, the first more specific to our situation and the second more reflective and philosophical.  We might see each stage as the attempt to address a question.  The first question is this:  what does our current situation of circumstantial moral luck call us to do?  How might we confront the situation of racism, and intolerance generally, without ourselves contributing to the polarization that seems to undermine political change?   The second question is broader and more speculative.  What might the fact of circumstantial moral luck—the fact of this particular type of moral vulnerability—tell us about who we are as people and particularly as moral beings?  What might we learn from reflecting on our circumstantial moral vulnerability?

Turning to the first question, let’s sharpen the dilemma so it appears clearly.  We are called to confront and struggle against hatred and intolerance during this period where it threatens to become the ethos of our political lives.  However, given the polarization that as also part of that ethos, it seems difficult to think of how to struggle against it without contributing to more polarization and thus to more hatred and intolerance.  What might be the path forward here?

It is tempting to say simply that we need to listen to our opposition more, to hear what they have to say and to engage in reasoned debate.  And indeed there is some truth to this idea.  However, there is truth to another idea, one that reveals that a single-minded embrace of the mantra “let’s listen and discuss more” to be a bit naïve.  For the fact is that the forces of hatred and intolerance in the world and in the U.S. in particular are not interested in debating the merits of an issue, and those forces are participating in practices that are destructive of our political system and indeed of our very ability to live among one another.  Racism, sexism, and intolerance are rampant, and under the current U.S. administration are often openly supported and promoted.  Moreover, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have recently argued in How Democracies Die, fundamental norms of mutual forbearance and self-restraint have been abandoned in favor of an ethic of pure victory.

So the challenge is not one of how to get along with those one disagrees with, but rather how to resist these egregious violations without promoting them ourselves.   How are we to engage in a conflict that is normatively asymmetrical—where the other side is not held to norms that those who oppose them must, on pain of becoming what one is struggling against, abjure?  How do we preserve important norms while resisting those for whom they are not constraining?

Fortunately, there are resources, and in fact an entire tradition, from which to draw in meeting this challenge.  In order to appropriate it, however, we must think creatively about and within those resources in order to apply them to the current context.

The tradition is that of nonviolent resistance.  It is a way of thinking about one’s relationship with others and acting out of that thought that emerged most fully in two contexts of vast asymmetrical power:  British rule in India and Jim Crow in the U.S.  Let us look briefly at that tradition and then ask about its relevance to our current situation.

Central to nonviolent resistance is the idea that everyone, including one’s adversary, has a life to live and that that fact must be respected.  What is it to have a life to live?  One way I have delineated it previously in my book Nonviolent Resistance (with respect to humans) is the capacity “to engage in projects and relationships that unfold over time; to be aware of one’s death in a way that affects how one sees the arc of one’s life; to have biological needs like food, shelter, and sleep; to have basic psychological needs like care and a sense of attachment to one’s surroundings.”  It is this that must be respected if (or to the degree that) our resistance is to be nonviolent.

Respecting an adversary’s having a life to live does not require us to acquiesce to the desires of the adversary.  In fact, and contrary to what Gandhi sometimes wrote, nonviolence can be coercive.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott was nothing if not economically coercive; the refusal to buy British salt during the Indian Independence Movement was both economically and morally coercive.  I would argue that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement opposing the Israeli Occupation is at once nonviolent and seeking to be coercive, even if it does have deleterious effects, for instance, on Israeli academics who oppose the Occupation.  After all, the sanctions against South African apartheid also had deleterious effects on those who opposed apartheid; however, it did not prevent them from living their lives, and doing so in a way that was meaningful to them.

There are those who object that nonviolence cannot work against the current fascistic tendencies of today’s right wing.  These are folks, like many of those involved with antifa, who seek to justify violence against hatred and intolerance.  While this may be true at the margins, where self-defense is necessary, it is a profound historical error to think that the current conditions in the U.S. are worse than they were in India under the British or in the American South during Jim Crow.  The willingness of the British and of many white Southerners to engage in brutal violence has been too extensively documented for anyone willing to canvas the facts to believe that we are currently living under a more violent or more fascistic regime in the U.S.

But how can nonviolence be coercive against those whose actions we oppose while preserving important political norms like mutual forbearance and self-restraint?  First, in acting nonviolently, there are certain things one cannot do to the other.  The righteousness of one’s cause is not entirely permissive; resistance must respect the adversary’s person, if not his or her views or activities.  Self-restraint is necessary.  Mutual forbearance is also built into nonviolence.  It emerges in Gandhi’s idea that nobody has possession of the entire truth.  This, in fact, is why nonviolence is in his view a requirements of struggle.  “Ahimsa [roughly, nonviolence] and Truth,” Gandhi wrote, “are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them.  They are like two sides of a coin, or rather of a smooth unstamped metallic disc.  Who can say, which is the obverse, and which is the reverse?  Nevertheless, ahimsa is always the means; Truth is the end…If we take care of the means, we are bound to reach the end sooner or later.” Even in the midst of important political movements, one must always be open to the idea that there may be some measure of truth held by the other side that one is missing.  Again, this does not require agreement or acquiescence.  It only requires a certain humility, a recognition that none of us, as epistemically limited beings, has cornered the market on truth.

In acting nonviolently, one reveals the contrast between the normative uprightness of one’s actions and the crossing of normative limits that the adversary has engaged in.  The recent (and ongoing) campaign against the caging of children of families seeking asylum in the U.S.  illustrates this well.  The education of the public about the caging, the offer of legal support, the demonstrations, the illegal (!) placing vessels of water in the desert for refugees, and the general human fellow-feeling exhibited by those who resist such outrageous practices gives the lie to those who seek to defend them.  Such resistance can act as a form of moral shaming to those who are capable of being shamed.  And to those who are not, it can mobilize the public to isolate them morally.

In this way, a more visionary ethos replaces a reactive one.  Borrowing from the philosopher Nietzsche, a nonviolent movement is more active rather than reactive.  It seeks to embody in its actions a vision of how things can be rather than simply opposing the actions of the adversary.  Of course there is resistance and opposition.  But in this resistance and opposition there is an underlying sense of the dignity of all human beings, one that is expressed in the actions one takes even at moments of great conflict.

One might object here, and it would not be mistaken to say this, that often nonviolent resistance is more rather than less polarizing.  In fact, polarization is woven into the very dynamic of nonviolence.  As a nonviolent movement unfolds, the adversary, often frustrated by the way it is beginning to appear to outsiders and even to itself, can become more oppressive and even more violent.  This is illustrated in many places in the two classic examples of nonviolence, the Indian Independence Movement and the American Civil Rights Movement, from the beating of the marchers in Gandhi’s Salt March to the water cannons used on the protesters in Birmingham.

This is true.  However, the polarization that occurs in movements of nonviolence is not the same type of polarization we see currently in this time of political crisis.  We might put the difference this way.  In the current context, polarization is a result of the diminishing of the adversary by the opposition.  The adversary is seen as nothing other than an adversary, nothing more than, say, a racist or, conversely an elitist.  In the dynamic of nonviolence, polarization occurs either when the adversary is confronted with the image of the nonviolent resister as more noble than what one imagined or, alternatively, when one begins to see oneself as less noble than one imagined.  This latter polarization arises, not from a polarization between the two sides, but instead from a crisis on the side of the adversary itself.

Of course the dynamic I’m describing here rarely occurs in any pure form, and nowhere does it appear across an entire movement.  But in today’s context of reactive polarization, it is important to see the resources nonviolence provides for addressing it.

We have been concentrating here on the first of the two questions I want to ask, that of how we can confront our situation of political polarization without contributing to it.  For the last part of this discussion I would like to pull the lens back and ask a more purely philosophical question.  What does this type of moral vulnerability, the moral vulnerability attending to what Nagel calls circumstantial moral luck, tell us about who we are?  What lesson might it provide for our moral character?

To begin to address this, let’s recall Nagel’s definition of circumstantial moral luck.  “The things we are called upon to do,” he tells us, “the moral tests we face, are importantly determined by factors beyond our control. It may be true of someone that in a dangerous situation he would behave in a cowardly or heroic fashion, but if the situation never arises, he will never have the chance to distinguish or disgrace himself in this way, and his moral record will be different.”  Here Nagel speaks of cowardice and heroism in a speculative fashion, saying what a person would be like under conditions different from those she may inhabit.  I want to suggest a somewhat stronger idea, one that will make this part of Nagel’s claim look a little different.

Let me start by putting the idea baldly.  It seems to me that if there were a situation in which no heroism would be required, a situation so just and peaceful that heroism would be beside the point, there would simply be no heroes.  In a situation of pure justice and peace, a situation where heroism could not be expressed, nobody would be a hero, or, conversely, a coward.  And what goes for heroism or cowardice goes for other moral qualities as well:  kindness, generosity, patience, temperance, or whatever moral characteristics one wants to name.  That is to say, one’s moral character is not simply a matter of who one is, it is also a matter of the situation one finds oneself in.  Who I am morally is not only an internal matter; it is also an external one.

The quote that Nagel gives us might lead to a picture of our moral character that I think of as misleading.  I’m not saying that Nagel thinks of things this way, but rather that it is a tempting way to think of it.  His quote might lead us to believe that there is something heroic or cowardly in certain people, something that can only be expressed in situations where heroism and cowardice are offered real possibilities for expression.  That is exactly what I am denying.  There is no heroism or cowardice, or for that matter kindness or cruelty, generosity or avarice, waiting inside people that is expressed when situations arise that call upon them.  While it is true that one can be a hero only in situations where heroism is a possibility, it is not true that there is some heroic quality inside of one in situations where it is never called upon.  I cannot be a hero in any sense in a world in which heroism is not an option.  It makes no sense to speak of such a thing as a disposition to heroism that is a part of my moral character independent of the situations I find myself in.

To see this more clearly, let’s look at another example.  It’s the kind of example that only philosophers would love.  So let me ask, if not for love for my example, for patience.  As we say in the city of my birth, New York:  Trust Me.  It will all make sense in the end.

Suppose I’m the kind of person who is generous with my time.  If someone needs help with a task I am often willing to drop what I’m doing in order to assist them.  A friend calls and wants to unburden herself of her troubles and I’m there to listen.  Somebody I know is moving to another city and I offer to help load their truck.  I volunteer at the local school to tutor special needs kids during my free time.  Let’s also suppose that the place I live is one in which there is a need for people to donate time and not a place where there is a need for donations of money.  It is a wealthy area, one in which everyone has enough material resources.  For the sake of the example, let’s leave aside the fact that there are other places, outside the one I live in, that do need donations of money.  I’ll return to that in a moment.

Let’s also suppose one more thing.  If the situation were reversed—that is to say, if the place I lived required donations of money rather than time, I would not be willing to donate.  I am generous with my time but would not be generous with my money if that is what were required.

Under the conditions in which I live, I am generous, but under the reversed conditions I would not be.  So far, so good.  However, if we look more closely we can see what I’m trying to get at a little better.  On the negative side, I do not possess a moral characteristic, not-generous-with-money, that is not being expressed under the current conditions.  While it is true that if conditions were different—if money were needed rather than time—I would possess that quality.  But under the current conditions it makes no sense to speak of my possessing such a characteristic.

If we turn to the positive side, it might be thought that I possess the moral characteristic, not of generosity, but more specifically of generosity-with-time.  I don’t think this is right, however.  Under these conditions there is only the need for time.  Donating it is what makes one generous.  So it seems to me that the proper description of who I am under those conditions is not generous-with-time but simply generous.  That is what generosity consists in under those conditions:  a willingness to donate one’s time to others.

If this is right—that is to say, if moral qualities like heroism, cowardice, generosity, and avarice are matters not only of one’s personal makeup but also of the conditions under which one lives—then who one is as a moral character is not simply a matter of who one is isolated from the environment in which one lives.  Who I am morally is something that is given by the interaction between me and the conditions in which I live.

I want to be clear here, because it’s easy to misunderstand what I’m trying to get at.  I’m not trying to say that who I am is causally a matter of the interaction between me and the conditions in which I live.  That is also true, but it is a different point.  It is certainly the case that my environment helps to shape my moral character.  Being brought up in certain ways will influence the moral qualities that I come to develop.  I can be reinforced to be more courageous or kinder or more or less patient or even generally more decent to others.  All this is true, but I’m driving at something else.

What I’m getting at instead is the idea that at any given moment it is impossible to say who I am morally, what my moral character is, without reference to the situation in which I’m living.  To put it in a slogan that I hope is not too misleading:  who I am is inseparable from where other people are.

This does not mean—and here I hope to avoid another misunderstanding—that who I am is reducible to where other people are.  In order to have a particular moral characteristic, I need to be a certain way.  My environment—the conditions under which I live—does not determine who I am.  Rather, who I am is an interaction between me and the environment.

The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty once argued that a perception is neither an internal affair nor an external one, but instead an interaction between my body and the world, one in which the contribution that each makes cannot be separated out into distinct parts.  A perception, in his view, is a relationship with two poles rather than a contribution of two separate entities.  I am arguing for something very similar with our moral character.  Who we are morally is an interaction between us and our environment, an interaction in which to be, for instance, generous is to be a certain way under certain conditions.

Now the situations as I have described them here, particularly the situation about generosity, is pretty far-fetched.  It is hard to imagine a situation in which only time and not money were required for generosity.  I offered the example just to be able to see clearly what I’m trying to describe.  And when I did so I left the need for money to the side for a moment.  But let’s bring that and other needs back in.  In most situations, generosity is a matter of different kinds of donations.  One might in fact be generous with time but not with money under the conditions in which we live.  That is because our situation is more valenced with regard to its needs.  And not only that.  There are many moral qualities that our situation calls out for.  Or, to put the point another way, there are many different moral characteristics that might arise under the conditions in which we live.

Nobody, of course, can embody all the moral characteristics that can be called for in a situation of any complexity.  Aristotle seemed to think that one could embody all the virtues; in fact, he thought they reinforced one another.  While there is something to this idea—disciplining oneself in one area of one’s life can help one with discipline generally—there are, I think, so many moral characteristics that one might develop it seems impossible to cultivate all of them in a single life.  Moreover, as many philosophers have pointed out, there is always the possibility of conflict between moral characteristics, for example between patience and courage or righteous indignation.

In fact, it is difficult—perhaps impossible—to embody any particular moral characteristic to its fullest extent.  To be generous with one’s time, one’s money, one’s patience, one’s household items, one’s online accounts, etc. etc., and all these to the degree to which they are sought in our society, is beyond the ability of most if not all of us.

Because of this, it is perhaps a good thing to have a certain division of labor both across and within moral characteristics.  While basic decency might be required of all of us, it is best that some of us are more generous while others more heroic, and some more generous with time while others more generous with money.  In this way, we all have leave to be ourselves while the moral requirements of a society can be more or less met.

Of course, that would be the ideal.  Reality falls far short of that, even in the best of times.  And we are not, as our current crises show, in the best of times.  So, returning to where we began, what does it mean for us that we are facing the future confronted by a series of crises?  What does it mean for who we are?  Here I want to conclude on a note that might be close to home for many of us, a note that I need to remind myself of every once in a while.

As we have seen, Nagel insists that, “The things we are called upon to do, the moral tests we face, are importantly determined by factors beyond our control.”  I have extended that idea, arguing that who we are morally is also importantly determined by factors beyond our control.  It is determined not only by who we are but also by where we are, with whom, and how.  And where we are now is in a situation of multiple crises.  Our situation moving forward is a moral test, a test not only of what we are called upon to do but, more deeply of who we are.  We can be courageous or committed in our situation in a way that we might not be in others.  But, by the same token, we can be cowardly or morally callous in ways that we might not be in other situations as well.

When there are police attacking people of darker skin with impunity, a climate that threatens large-scale collapse, a dehumanizing treatment of immigrants, a creeping authoritarianism across the globe, and even—to refer to Covid in passing—a refusal of many to consider even minimal inconveniences (like wearing a mask) to protect the health of others, the question of what we must do is inseparable from the question of who we are.  It is not enough to be as we might be in other, more pacific situations.  Because more is called for, who we are in this situation is different from who we would be in those other situations.  It is not, of course, that everyone must do everything.  That, like embodying all moral characteristics, is impossible.  There needs to be what might be called a “division of critical labor” as there is a division of labor among moral characteristics.  None of us can even address, much less solve, all the dimensions of crisis we face.

Nevertheless, for each of us, the question of who we are is at stake.  We did not ask for this stake, and yet we face it.  This is our moral vulnerability.  And by “our” moral vulnerability, I mean the moral vulnerability of each of us.  The question of who am I stands before each of us in a more urgent way than it has for some time.  We may avoid the question, but that will not make it go away.  It is woven into the situation in which we find ourselves.

Everyone, I believe, wants to think of herself or himself as a morally decent human being.  To think of ourselves as at least morally okay is among our deepest desires.  Almost all of us would go to great lengths, either through action or alternatively through self-deception, to think of ourselves as morally decent, as something other than morally lacking.  And yet, through no creation of our own—perhaps only through a minor contribution—we find ourselves faced with a world in which the question of our moral character is at stake.  And in this situation of moral vulnerability, it is only through what we do and how we conduct ourselves, to the extent to which we rise to the demands of our current crises, that the answer to the question of who we are will be revealed to us.